Taren Vang and Ong Yang of St. Paul donned blue surgical masks and knelt to place flowers at a corrugated-plastic headstone bearing the name of Vang’s former boyfriend, Travis Jordan, a suicidal man who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police in 2018 when he refused to drop the knife he was carrying.
“He was killed by two rookie cops,” said Vang of the incident, which didn’t result in criminal charges. “It was during a wellness check, and they came and killed him instead.”
Jordan’s headstone was one of 100 in “Say Their Names Cemetery,” an art installation on a grassy field at 37th Street and Park Avenue in south Minneapolis, just blocks from where George Floyd was killed while in police custody.
Each headstone — printed with a name, date and location of their death, and the words “Rest in power” — represents an African-American who has died at the hands of police.
The project was hatched in a matter of days by artists Anna Barber and Connor Wright, both 22 and recent graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.
They were quarantined at home in Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively, and kept seeing people share the same list of people killed by law enforcement.
They wanted to do more than reshare it. A cemetery, they thought, “would be a really impactful way to allow people to visualize and humanize these lists,” said Barber, and also serve as a community gathering space.
One problem: They’d never been to Minneapolis.
On Apple Maps they found the open park space on city-owned land. They posted to Instagram, asking for contacts in the Twin Cities, and quickly amassed 15 future friends. They finalized their project plan June 1, booked flights and an Airbnb and arrived June 3.
In one day, they raised $1,000 in donations and decided to pay the remaining expenses out of pocket (they declined to say how much).
The tombstones were printed with the help of the UPS Store at 2751 Hennepin Av. S., which insisted on staying open late for the artists. Community members covered the monuments with plastic bags to protect them from rain. A construction worker and his wife donated 300 metal stakes.
One night, Barber and Wright got an e-mail saying people were checking to make sure the cemetery was OK.
“I almost cried reading that e-mail,” said Wright. “To see how the community made it their own, and has done with it what they see fit, is absolutely so powerful.”
They plan to print 500 aerial photos of the cemetery and sell them for $1,000 each to raise money for the Anti-Racism Fund (antiracismfund.org). They are working on a website for the project; the e-mail account is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wright and Barber helped organize a vigil there last Sunday. As night fell, about 300 people streamed into the park. A Trader Joe’s employee handed out donated flowers. People sitting on the grass shouted George Floyd’s name.
Two friends, Analyah Schlaeger Dos Santos and Sophie Seibure, sat on a hill gripping a flag with a demented smiley face and red handprints on one side, and white text that read “This is our America” on the other.
“What you see around us, the shocking things, this is what America is, so we made a new flag,” said Schlaeger Dos Santos.
Minneapolis resident Arwo Warsame and her children, Aliya Habib, 4, and Amin Habib, 5, spread flowers at several of the gravestones. For her, the most moving part was “all the people uniting, joining from all races, and honoring [Floyd’s] life, and respecting and understanding the pain and our reality,” she said.
Wright and Barber were heading home this weekend, but the project will stay.
“We are not intent on deciding the fate of this,” said Wright, his black face mask slipping off his mouth. “We’re going to make sure we follow what the community wants.”