City crews on Thursday cleared away vehicle barriers and portable toilets to reopen portions of the sprawling memorial at the south Minneapolis intersection where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer more than a year ago. But as soon as workers finished, protesters began parking cars and piling pallets in the streets again.
At a news conference, Mayor Jacob Frey said the "phased reconnection" of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue with the rest of the city had been planned for months but isn't yet complete. He declined to say when he thought traffic would return.
"I acknowledge that it will be a bit touch and go and difficult over the next several days," Frey said.
Municipal workers began taking away the city barricades about 4:30 a.m., erecting bike lanes and street signs at 38th and Chicago — dubbed George Floyd Square — with community members involved in coordinating the removal of flowers, artwork, barriers and shacks, said city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie.
While the task was complete in less than four hours, protesters who have been occupying the intersection since Floyd's death weren't ready to yield. Using trash bins, discarded furniture and upended street signs, they again blocked the intersections where the city barriers had stood. About 150 people gathered at the former Speedway gas station and milled about the intersection for the first half of the day, erecting new art and discussing next steps.
By early evening the crowd remained steady and the mood was relaxed, with the four main access roads to the 38th and Chicago intersection blocked off again by cars.
Neighbors rode through on bikes or scooters. Some strolled through with kids and dogs, stopping to chat or take pictures.
A man with a truck and bullhorn led a brief chant of "No justice, no peace," and people took turns speaking.
McKenzie said the Agape Movement, a peacekeeping force whose staff includes ex-gang members from the neighborhood, took the lead role in the early morning operation. The city has contracted with the group to maintain a semblance of security in the area in lieu of police, who have largely avoided it for the past year.
At a news conference outside Worldwide Outreach for Christ at 38th and Chicago on Thursday, Steve Floyd of Agape said the city's alterations earlier that day were temporary, designed to grant buses and firetrucks access to the intersection by shrinking the garden around the fist sculpture, which will remain.
Also speaking was longtime community activist Al Flowers, who denounced the gun violence that has killed two Minneapolis children, Trinity Ottoson-Smith and Aniya Allen, and critically injured a third in recent weeks.
"Black lives have not really benefited from what's been happening," he said. "I'm saying as a South Side resident, it's time to open, it's time to open."
Another city official said "bumpouts" would replace the concrete barriers around the fist sculpture, just feet from where Floyd was killed and where Imez Wright was fatally shot at the intersection in March.
As city workers and heavy machinery moved around the intersection, tension was high. Community members who had tended to the site expressed a mixture of shock, sadness and anger.
At least two news media photographers ran into resistance — one assaulted and ordered to destroy footage — as they tried to work.
"We didn't know that today would be the day that the streets would be reopened ... or attempted to be reopened, I should say," said Jeanelle Austin, lead caretaker and founder of the George Floyd Global Memorial.
"We've been working hard for over a year, volunteering our time, our hours, our families have been sacrificing to fight for justice. ... Reopening the streets does not help our community to heal," she said. "Before asking me what's next, we have not had the time to process, and we need that."
Leon Lyons of the security company Truth2Enlightenment said he was skeptical the city's efforts would last.
"All they had to do was leave this memorial alone and leave the events that were playing here while we figure it out," he said. "But none of this is gonna be up by the end of the night. Anything that the city brings in here will not stay by the end of the night, I guarantee you."
City leaders have come under increasing pressure to reopen the intersection. George Floyd Square has become an internationally recognized memorial and protest site that hosts large public gatherings, but many residents, business owners and churchgoers say they feel besieged by gang intimidation and gunfire when the crowds leave.
"This can be a critical location of gathering not just for our city, but the entire world," the mayor said Thursday. "And through a phased reconnection, we can also find a way to provide the necessary social services and city services that have been missing at times over this past year. We can make sure that patrons are able to visit their local business and have full access."
Steve Floyd, senior adviser of Agape, said most of the residents and businesses that the nonprofit spoke with near the square said they would like to see the block open safely and peacefully.
He said Agape was "making the decisions" Thursday morning but coordinated plans with the mayor's office and police.
Activists have presented the city with a list of 24 demands in return for yielding the intersection, where some yard signs read "No Justice, No Street." The list includes support for Agape.
But the divisions over how to move forward were evident Thursday morning. Austin complained to Marquis Bowie, Agape co-founder, that the city hadn't delivered on mental health services and jobs for the 38th and Chicago community.
"We've been here since the day it happened," Bowie argued. "You guys didn't go to the table to talk. [The city] talked to us about it."
Police spokesman John Elder said officers were not involved in removing the barricades, and Agape is "managing conflict and de-escalating when necessary." Teddy Tschann, Gov. Tim Walz's spokesman, said the state was not involved either.
Metro Transit buses had a regular and vital presence at 38th and Chicago until Floyd's death. The blocking of the intersection erased a stop there for D Line rapid transit connecting Brooklyn Center and Bloomington, which remains under construction.
"We're just not going to predict when we are going to resume service" in the area, said agency spokeswoman Laura Baenen.
George Floyd Square became the primary gathering place for grief and remembrance almost immediately after the 46-year-old man's death under ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's knee.
Family, civic leaders, prominent civil rights activists and ordinary people visited the location throughout the past year to better understand the historically Black community and to honor the legacy of Floyd, whose killing by the white officer ignited civil unrest in the Twin Cities and across the country.
Chauvin was fired after Floyd's death, put on trial and convicted in April of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 25.
Three other fired officers, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, have been charged with aiding and abetting the killing.
Staff writers Briana Bierschbach, Libor Jany and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.