As city workers began removing concrete barriers at George Floyd Square at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, a group of about 30 Black men stood by the entrances to the memorial.
The men were from Agape Movement, a group of mostly ex-gang members trying to create better options for young Black men so they don't get sucked into the gang lifestyle.
It was a counterintuitive scene: As some activists protested the city's phased reopening of the intersection, it was a group of ex-gangsters working with the city to preserve the peace as municipal workers removed barriers.
For Marquis Bowie, who helped co-found Agape Movement, Thursday's reopening was about creating neighborhood-based economic opportunity. Protesters occupying the square at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, he said, were outsiders holding back a neighborhood that has suffered from a lack of investment and jobs for decades.
"This is people just trying to hijack everything that's going on," Bowie said, gesturing toward protesters gathered underneath the canopy of the former Speedway gas station across the street from where Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. "Most of the people that's over here are just hanging around just chilling, doing nothing. We don't want that. We want them to put some money into this stuff like they said they was going to do. They're not going to put [money] into a closed environment. Why would they?
"We want to take the scabs off so we can heal."
A glance at social media Thursday made clear the city's move was controversial, even with the mayor's pledge to keep much of the memorial intact and continue to treat the site of Floyd's murder with reverence.
But Agape Movement's involvement was long-planned and symbolic.
Agape Movement formed last year after Floyd's murder. It's an offshoot of a Minneapolis nonprofit started decades ago by longtime Minneapolis street outreach worker Steve Floyd. (Steve Floyd is not related to George Floyd.)
Members of Agape Movement had originally erected barricades around the square two days after George Floyd's murder, so they were the ones who helped take them down Thursday. Police were stationed nearby in case of violence, but they were not involved in removing the barricades.
Steve Floyd emphasized that Agape Movement did not work for Minneapolis police: "You don't get ex-gang members working for the police," he said.
The city had previously signed a $25,000 consultant contract with the organization to work with the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention. The organization focuses on young Black men in south Minneapolis who are "at risk of perpetrating or being a victim of violence," according to the contract.
The organization, which has handled security at George Floyd Square, also walks neighborhoods to deter crime.
A separate city contract with Agape Movement runs from June through fall. This contract has Agape providing a "number of community building, health and safety services associated with reopening of 38th and Chicago." The maximum cost of the contract is $359,000, most of which goes to pay hourly rates for Agape personnel.
The ex-gang members who make up most of Agape Movement are trained in "verbal judo" to de-escalate confrontations. They run youth basketball and baseball programs, and they have a mentoring program within the juvenile justice system. The organization is also involved with annual pilgrimage trips to Africa for young Black men.
"Our motto is to transform street energy into community energy," Steve Floyd said. "We believe the only way urban areas dealing with problems like violence can change is if gang members and drug dealers change."
Members of Agape Movement have been in talks with the city for months about the best time to reopen 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. The March shooting death of Imez Wright, who was providing security at George Floyd Square, underscored the importance of opening the intersection, where violence has risen in the past year. The organization controlled which day it would help city workers do that; members wanted it to be after the verdict in the Chauvin murder trial, as well as after the May 25 anniversary of George Floyd's death.
Steve Floyd said 90% of those living in the neighborhood wanted the intersection opened, but wanted it done safely.
Wednesday's funeral for Aniya Allen, the 6-year-old Minneapolis girl who died after being struck by a stray bullet, made it even more urgent, Steve Floyd said. Gun violence in the city is becoming far too frequent, he said, and the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue was one nexus.
"The city wanted the community to take the lead, and Agape did that," he said in an interview. "We need to start to talk about Black people telling Black people their lives matter. The shooting of babies, that was the last straw. After the funeral yesterday, we gotta take a stand against this."
Agape Movement members came to the site early Thursday anxious about violence. It was quiet until after sunrise, when people began waking up to the news that the barriers were being removed. Some showed up to protest, but there wasn't significant violence, members of Agape Movement said.
"I'm a little disappointed in how some people acted but excited about the square being open," said Alfonzo Williams, an ex-gang member in south Minneapolis who helped start Agape Movement. "I know that now we can start getting back to some new normalcy. Right now the community is at a standstill. People are pretty much in jail in their own community."
The intersection has been plagued by many problems in the past year, he said.
"I just feel like for it to be closed, it's not benefiting us any longer as the Black community," Williams said. "We've gotten most of the things we've asked for besides normalcy. We'll never get that."
The businesses near the memorial were primarily Black-owned, and shutting down the intersection oppressed those businesses, Agape members said. The blocked-off memorial served its purpose; it was time for a new chapter.
"We're standing our ground," Steve Floyd said. "We naturally reached the process of opening it up because of the verdict, because of the anniversary, because of laws being changed. ... But we want to put the neighbor back in the hood. We don't want hoods no more."