In the Wake of Multiple Pandemics
Community engagement lessons from George Floyd Square
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the United States’ enduring racial disparities, which are fueled by decades of unequal treatment, unequal opportunity, and structural barriers. Black people have become infected with COVID-19 at three times the rate of White people, and they are twice as likely to die from the virus, according to a 2020 National Urban League report. The same is true for Latinx people and Native Americans. We still see disparate distribution patterns in vaccinations, with communities of color and those from low-income communities less likely to be vaccinated.
We can also see the economic impacts of racism in the pandemic’s hugely uneven effects on the finances and prospects of people of color. COVID-19 has exacerbated racial disparities in joblessness throughout the US economy, disproportionately affecting people of color even as these same folks are more likely to be classified as essential workers. Because of lower rates of home ownership among Black and Latinx people and the historical patterns of eviction that most frequently affect low-income renters and renters of color, the end of the federal eviction moratorium in July 2021 meant that Black and Latinx people face housing insecurity at much greater rates than White people. And in March 2021, the Feeding America network reported that meal distribution to the public increased 44 percent over the previous year.
In addition, the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25, 2020, propelled awareness of the impacts of state violence on Black people. Moreover, less reliable medical coverage and access, the everyday fear of police violence, and the agonizing burden and grief of losing loved ones are reminders that minoritized communities will have a harder time rebounding economically and psychologically from the pandemic and the structural injustices of racism. Accordingly, this sociopolitical moment has created a critical opportunity for higher education to consider how to reveal, respond to, and repair the disparate impacts of COVID-19, structural racism, and economic inequality and to rethink how colleges and universities engage with their communities.
In Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, she uses the multiple definitions of wake to analyze black survivance:
Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory. . . . But wakes are also . . . the disturbance . . . in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow . . . and . . . wake means being awake and, also, consciousness.
Sharpe’s invocation of the wake serves not only as tribute and celebration but also as disturbance and awakening. Her words remind us of the process, grief, and remembering that are all part of the wake—the wake as consciousness. These elements all feel present at the intersection where George Floyd was killed.
I live three blocks from the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, where Floyd died. Like most of the world, I found out about his death the next morning as news channels broadcast the video of Minneapolis police officers facilitating his restraint and death. At that point in the pandemic, people in Minnesota were sheltering in place under Governor Tim Walz’s orders. For much of the month that followed Floyd’s death, we in Minneapolis endured police, military, and media helicopters flying overhead. Sirens, smoke, and cries for justice dominated our senses for weeks.
Two years have passed since Floyd was killed, but the site where he died, just three blocks from my home and five miles from my office at the University of Minnesota, continues to be contested space—an ongoing site of protest—but also a sacred location. It’s become a memorial to a man unjustly killed and also a place to advocate for a more just community and city.
I’ve been trying to think of another space where someone has been killed and the site of their death remains memorialized. The only one that I can find is the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The profundity of turning these two sites of violence into sacred spaces honoring two men—one who led protests and was killed and one whose killing bore protests—stays with me as I move through the intersection.
The intersection at 38th and Chicago, which the community renamed George Floyd Square, is a powerful place, one filled with reverence but also much of the tension that was felt—and released, at least for a moment—on April 20, 2021, as Derek Chauvin, the officer who physically restrained Floyd with his knee on Floyd’s neck, was found guilty of Floyd’s murder. The tension resumed less than two months later as city officials (and some community members) insisted it was time to “reopen the intersection.” On Thursday, June 3, 2021, city crews arrived at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue at 4:30 a.m. to remove the barricades and clear the street to allow traffic. They gave no notice to caretakers—the community members active in the protest and maintaining the memorial. In an effort to stop the crews, caretakers put their bodies in front of tow trucks and bulldozers undoing elements of the memorial. They put their personal property in the street to re-create the just-removed barricades and reasserted the square as a space to preserve and protect. Using the refrain “no justice, no street,” they reminded city leaders that the occupation of the intersection was an ongoing protest. They continue to see the square as sacred ground, as a site for protest, and as a space to create and sustain Black joy.
George Floyd Square remained completely blocked to vehicle traffic for a full year after Floyd’s death. It is now open to traffic, but cars rarely drive through the intersection. The reopening removed the barriers, but five sculptures of fists (one at each of the four entry points to 38th and Chicago and one in the center that serves as a monument to Floyd) remain to mark the square. Organizers hold daily meetings at the Peoples’ Way, a former Speedway gas station that is now serving as a community hub. People still come.
The square has also become a space for cultural celebrations. It has been an ice-skating rink in the colder months and a roller rink when the weather is warmer. It has become an art gallery, a gathering place, and a meditation site. It has been a COVID-19 testing location and a vaccination spot. It is a food pantry, a lending library, and host to a mobile medical clinic. It is a classroom where people come to learn about the community and social movements. In short, George Floyd Square is a community organizing training ground.
The community also aims for the square to be an autonomous zone. During the fifteen months when the intersection was fully barricaded, police had limited presence. Even today, the police department, the square’s caretakers, and many residents are hesitant to have police near the site where George Floyd died and is now memorialized. Of course, this is complicated and contested.
Some neighbors are concerned about the increase in crime that has occurred near the intersection in the years since Floyd’s death. The seriousness of these concerns was the city’s primary motivation to “end the protest” and reopen the square to vehicle traffic. Many of us who live near the intersection requested that the city delay the opening until the trials of former officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng (scheduled for June 2022) concluded. But, like many viewpoints in the community, this was not a universally held opinion. Some neighbors and city administrators were frustrated with the continued traffic disruption and limited access to businesses in the square. They were also worried that emergency services would be unable to respond to requests for help.
The Minneapolis city government is now leading listening sessions about the remaking and reimagining of George Floyd Square, and the organizers holding the intersection as a site of protest are working to push city leadership to consider what the intersection has been, is now, and should be in the future. Seeing a space of so much disruption, violence, and pain transformed into a place of healing—where community is deeply felt and practiced—is strange yet inspiring.
Jeanelle Austin, the square’s lead caretaker, underscores the idea of building stronger communities by nurturing relationships between neighbors. What would it mean to develop partnerships with neighbors living in and directly affected by the engagement activities of higher education institutions rather than to connect to community primarily through nonprofit organizations? And what does it mean to move this work to spaces of mutual aid and community building where needs and work shift from day to day, where it is flexible and thus becomes unpredictable, particularly when we consider community engagement placements in higher education that are so typically guided by consistent plans and activity? How is higher education community engagement transformed when we see ourselves and the institutions we work with as neighbors? How do our decisions shift, and how does our work change when we position it with a desire to be good neighbors who build good relationships with the people in our communities?
Many of us are grappling with the experiences of our communities as sites of violence and trauma that have reverberating effects, especially when seeking to address them in the context of COVID-19 and the expanding economic inequalities and disparate health impacts we continue to navigate. What can these intersections (both the physical location of 38th and Chicago and the intersection of the pandemics of racism, economic inequality, and COVID 19) teach those of us in higher education about the possibility to create community and engage differently?
Acknowledging multiple pandemics drives attention to those who are hypermarginalized in our society and requires higher education institutions to focus on people and communities of color. It means naming the disproportionate impacts of these multiple pandemics on minoritized communities and centering our efforts on transforming the material conditions that sustain these inequalities. To accomplish this, the community engagement work of colleges and universities should be revealing. It should illuminate the systemic injustices that reify and deepen the marginalization already experienced. Moreover, it should focus on the policies, practices, conditions, and experiences that shape the everyday realities of the poor and people of color.
Shifting higher education community engagement practice in the wake of pandemics and in ways reflected in the efforts at George Floyd Square means building and maintaining relationships with movements and organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the communities where people active in these movements and organizations live and work. And George Floyd Square suggests that those organizations don’t always need to be formally recognized nonprofit organizations but must have passionate and committed leaders who understand the unique and diverse needs of the community.
Our community engagement work needs to better match the priorities of the community members we purport to serve. To do that, we need to hear what those community members are seeking in order to move closer to their own liberation. Too often, higher education actions in community are coordinated with longstanding nonprofit organizations whose staff live far outside the community, leading to limited trust from community members in the organization and its initiatives. This is an all-too-familiar experience of marginalized communities, where work is done for or to them instead of done with or by them.
Higher education’s community engagement should be responsive. At George Floyd Square, caretakers regularly engage visitors, seeking to understand what brings them to the memorial, and organizers connect with residents to learn what resources would facilitate the improvements they seek for themselves and their community. Answers to these questions drive the resources, varying from firewood and food to diapers and building supplies, collected for distribution at the square. Daily meetings at the Peoples’ Way allow community members to share their needs—or the needs of their neighbors—and their hopes for the community.
These needs and hopes inform the twenty-four demands—such as establishing funds for health services for area residents—that George Floyd Square caretakers have assembled and named “Justice Resolution 001.” These collected and collective understandings not only drive the work of the day but also facilitate calls to council leaders, treatment centers, medical facilities, and other resources that can provide remediation for the concerns brought to the attention of organizers. This is the kind of responsive community engagement toward which higher education institutions should strive.
Higher education community engagement work should also seek to repair. The past year and a half has revealed much about the costs of oppression in our society. In a June 2020 New Yorker article, civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson pointed to society’s inability to understand present-day issues surrounding racial injustice “without understanding the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals.” His insight points to the losses, the struggle, and the precarity faced by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
By shaping our community engagement work as reparative, I am hopeful that we in higher education can challenge the skepticism that sees community engagement as extractive through the possibility of community. As college and university educators, we can demonstrate our care by prioritizing the work that the community names as necessary and by sustaining our efforts in community until we meet the emancipatory aims identified by community members. We should frame those concerns named by the residents that we attempt to address through community engagement as policy failures, rather than as individual deficits, and work toward system-level responses that may generate needed change.
For example, in Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Properties in America’s Black Cities (2020), Andre Perry examines how the racial wealth gap and practices that undervalue homes owned by people of color contribute to the discrepancy between Black and White wealth in the United States. This view reframes the problem from a concern that Black people can’t get loans to the systemic issue that banks too frequently refuse to loan money to Black people. And in a 2006 article in Educational Researcher, Gloria Ladson-Billings famously reframed the meaning of success and the discrepancy between persistence and school readiness for White students and students of color as an education debt rather than an achievement gap. Redefining the issues brings attention to structural injustices that can shift how higher education institutions approach community concerns.
This is an all-too-familar experience of marginalized communities, where work is done for or to them instead of with or by them.
The work to honor Floyd’s life while advancing calls for police reform, affordable housing, and investment in business opportunities for people of color feels reparative. The work to remake and reimagine the community requires hands-on effort and active participation at George Floyd Square. People are sweeping the streets and sidewalks; other people are collecting money to support the ongoing effort to care for the memorial. Works of art, offerings to honor Floyd, letters to the Floyd family, and donated items for mutual aid need to be cataloged and organized. People are distributing items to community members in need, providing information about the justice demands for a thriving 38th Street corridor, and giving visitors directions to the various installations in the square. People are painting new art, covering graffiti, and beautifying the square.
All of these activities are about honoring the hopes for justice that bring people to George Floyd Square—inspiring the possibilities for greater justice and bringing us closer to realizing it.
Following Floyd’s death in May 2020, many higher education leaders affirmed their commitments to racial justice and racial equity through much publicized statements. Community engagement, as an institutional strategy for teaching, learning, research, and impact, is poised as an intervention through which higher education can make that commitment to racial justice and equity tangible. I am hopeful that the commitments many higher education leaders made in the wake of Floyd’s death will result in actions of accountability for the ways institutions contributed to the ongoing harms of structural racism. I am conscious of being in the wake of multiple pandemics and want to use the consciousness this moment has awakened to do the wake work and, as Sharpe encourages, “imagine otherwise from what we know now.”
That work is ongoing.
That work is urgent.
That work is necessary.
That work is ours.
Lead photo: A crowd gathers at George Floyd Square in April 2021 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)