The intersection of E. 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis is a place that inspires reflection. It is, as one visitor to the site recently remarked, a bit like New York City's ground zero: a place where history left its footprint, where people and events came together in a way that changed everything. Just as in New York, some lasting memorial must rise to mark the spot.
But "lasting" does not necessarily mean permanent. As the angry crowds tearing at monuments around the country are demonstrating, history is not written in stone, no matter what the granite inscriptions say. A public memorial is a snapshot of public sentiment, and as the sentiment changes over time, so must the memorials. At this moment, the sentiment that demands attention is on display at 38th and Chicago.
Early on a warm morning last week, five women sat in a socially distanced semicircle, meditating. A man and a woman moved about the makeshift sidewalk galleries, sorting refuse from artifacts, gathering mementos into coherent piles. There were candles, cards, stones, flowers, pages torn from books, messages scrawled or painted, and lots of artwork. Pilgrims — the word is apt — had come to bear witness and leave behind a token of respect.
People all over the world know this intersection now. The pavement outside the Cup Foods store at 38th and Chicago is where George Floyd met his end at the hands of Minneapolis police. The manner of his death, even though it was similar to the deaths of so many before him, made Floyd a symbol of transformative power.
Now, a three-dimensional plywood fist, perhaps 10 or 12 feet tall, rises from the center of the intersection, surrounded by a raised bed of flowers. A little way to the south, a graffiti artist has inscribed the street with a verse from Genesis: "The Lord said, 'What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me.' "
And everywhere there are portraits of George Floyd: the large ones, like the black-and-white image of his face, just a few feet from where he lost his life; and the billboard-sized rendering around the corner, showing Floyd's head and shoulders against an enormous sunflower, imprinted with the names of some who had gone before him. And there are smaller ones, both originals and reproductions, done in a variety of styles. A skillful pen-and-ink sketch is reminiscent of caricaturist Kerry Waghorn. Another recalls Shepard Fairey's famous poster of Barack Obama. One painting portrays Floyd with a halo; another shows him amid a heartbreaking compilation of his last words.
This is what art is supposed to do: give expression to feelings that cannot be contained. The art at 38th and Chicago speaks insistently of pain, anger and hope. And as the new art rises up, other art is coming down. A commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is working on a policy to guide those who would take down existing monuments, like the statue of Christopher Columbus that was felled June 10 at the State Capitol. It may seem like locking the barn door after the horse has been pulled down, but this barn has plenty of other horses, and a policy is overdue. Meanwhile, public statuary — even some depicting a president as beloved as Abraham Lincoln — remains in peril around the country and abroad.
It probably feels cathartic to take part in the public toppling of a despised figure. Even when the motives are just, though, a better method is to build consensus in favor of a change. We hope Flanagan's commission produces a procedure that is accessible, responsive and open-minded. A process for challenging offensive art is of little use if nobody knows how to use it. And if the process opens up some space for statues of George Floyd, and for art that expresses all he represents, so much the better.