Frankie Powell still remembers how George Floyd would stop by the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center to joke and catch up with old friends.
He cannot bring himself to watch too closely the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing Floyd.
"It's very painful — very, very, very painful," said Powell, an advocate at the center in downtown Minneapolis. "He was like part of our family here, you know?" Watching Floyd's death "play out all over again, it does something to your spirit and your soul."
The trial has prompted reflection among some staff and clients at the Harbor Light Center, Minnesota's largest homeless shelter, where Floyd worked as a security guard from 2017 to 2018 after arriving from Houston at the bus stop around the corner. Even after he left the job, Floyd was known to regularly visit old colleagues who still recall his warmth and humor. Some of his closest friends in Minneapolis at the time of his death last May worked at the shelter on Currie Avenue.
Security guard Sylvia Jackson said "it's just too much" for her and that the videos of that evening should be enough to put Chauvin away. She was one of Floyd's last friends to see him alive before Chauvin and other officers apprehended him outside Cup Foods in south Minneapolis on May 25.
She recalled that Floyd had crashed at her house, where friends had come together during the pandemic, the evening of May 24 and had been in his usual happy mood. As Jackson was leaving early the next morning for her shift at the Harbor Light Center, she talked with Floyd about having a barbecue when she returned from work that afternoon.
Floyd was supposed to pick up a barbecue grill and lighter fluid in her Mercedes-Benz, Jackson said, but when she got home he was not there. She went out for the supplies herself. Jackson called Floyd and he told her he was on his way.
He never showed up. She called him again. No answer. She texted him. No answer. The next morning, a friend woke her up and said, "There's a video of Floyd getting killed."
Months after a bystander's video showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, police body camera footage depicted the moments leading up to the encounter, when police approached Floyd sitting in Jackson's blue Mercedes, drew a gun and handcuffed him on suspicion that he passed a fake $20 bill.
"This man was a father, a best friend. Everybody loved him. ... I don't understand why [Chauvin] decided to do this to him," Jackson said.
At the Harbor Light Center, "I've been seeing and hearing a lot of people talking about it," she said. People can't "help but to talk about it because of what happened and the way it happened."
Powell, too, has heard many discussions about the trial.
"I think a lot of people are on edge because they really don't want to see officer Chauvin get off for murder, and lots of people distrust the system because we have seen so many people get killed and police officers get off," he said.
Powell remembers the last conversation they had, about six months before Floyd died.
"He said, 'Frankie, I'm going through some trouble right now but I'm going to be all right,' " Powell recalled. "He asked me, 'Would you pray for me?' And I told him, 'I got you.' "
Today, he said, "My heart is heavy right now until we get justice."
Maurice Melancon, a client of the Harbor Light Center, remembered seeing Floyd around when he stayed at the shelter off and on in 2017, but didn't realize that he was the man filmed under Chauvin's knee until seeing a news report that Floyd used to work at the Salvation Army center. He learned of Floyd's death while in prison for burglary. His fellow inmates discussed it at length.
"People were amazed how long [Chauvin] sat on that man's neck and just for people to tell you what you're doing is wrong, why didn't it click in his mind at some point to stop what he was doing?" said Melancon as he smoked a cigarette on a park bench outside the Harbor Light Center.
He believed that if he or any of the other prisoners had been recorded kneeling on Floyd's neck, they would receive no mercy from the criminal justice system: "You'd be dead meat."
Melancon said he was released from prison as opening statements in the trial began last month and is now back at the shelter. When he runs errands downtown, he is heartened by the young people he sees demanding justice outside the courthouse. As a 43-year-old man of Black, Indigenous and white heritage, Melancon remembers being told that justice and equality would take time, and sees that the newer generation is not willing to wait.
"They're not backing down," he said. "They're ready."
In recent weeks, security guard Aubrey Rhodes tried to catch up on the trial when he got home from work. He could not bring himself to watch some of the graphic videos shown in court.
"It's been hard for me, just ups and downs," he said. "I've been trying to take it one day at a time, just trying to get through with this. It's just been wearing and tearing down on me."
Rhodes moved to Minneapolis from Houston in 2016 and encouraged Floyd to follow him about seven months later, greeting him at the bus stop and helping him land a job at the shelter. They remained close during Floyd's years in Minnesota. He said Floyd invited him to the barbecue at Jackson's house the afternoon he died, but Rhodes declined because he was working a double shift.
Recently, Rhodes brought several of his and Floyd's friends visiting from Texas to George Floyd Square.
"I just want justice," said Rhodes. "I know we're going to get justice."
Wallace White had followed the trial in the mornings at the south Minneapolis office of the anti-violence group MAD DADS before he would arrive at the Harbor Light Center as part of a patrol of outreach workers to ward off crime on the block. The area in front of the shelter was a top destination for police calls during Floyd's employment there, though White said Currie Avenue has quieted down since his team started working there last year.
"The thing that stuck with me was that his defense attorney was actually trying to make it seem like George was the problem, that he did it. ... That angered me," said White.
He got to know Floyd in 2017 when they both attended Turning Point, an addiction treatment center in north Minneapolis. He still thinks about the last time he saw him: Floyd visited the Harbor Light Center on May 24, and White talked to him about coming to his office the following day to sign the paperwork for a new job as an outreach worker at MAD DADS.
Floyd never showed up. On May 26, White received a call about Floyd's death.
"What if he was white, would they have did that?" he asked.
Larry Harris doesn't think so. An outreach worker who patrols the area with White, Harris also objects to how the defense is highlighting the drugs in Floyd's system. He sees plenty of people on this block use drugs, too, to numb themselves from the stresses of poverty.
"What does that have to do," Harris asked, "with you putting your knee on that man's neck?"
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210