Graffiti has a legacy of community suffering and consciousness as far back as ancient Rome, with Latin inscriptions of poetry and political statements found in the ruins of Pompeii. Within the scope of American street art, it’s been consistently used as a response to social calamity. It’s use as a protest tool has become all the more prominent since the death of George Floyd. After the cold-blooded murder of this man committed by Minneapolis Police officers, we find ourselves in a time where knowledge needs to be spread, where voices need to be heard, and justice needs to be served. Murals and graffiti writing have played important role in expressing the voice of the people.
Being in the Twin Cities of Minnesota at the time of his death, I decided to participate in the protests. While marching and exploring the landscape, I got to see some of the art my hometown had to offer. My heart warmed to see all of the chants, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the face of George Floyd thrown up throughout the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the most of it being in South Minneapolis. It symbolized the solidarity of the civilian population. It showcased the common hunger for justice and the underlying morality of our society that cannot be broken. But above all, it served as a remembrance to George Floyd, and that the fight still isn’t over.
On May 25th, 2020, in South Minneapolis, Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd while three other officers watched. This undeniable murder of a black man by the police sparked protests not only in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but in major cities across the world, from Los Angeles to Bangkok, where people took to the streets with signs stating “I can’t breathe”, in response to not only to the murder of Floyd but murders, beatings, and kidnappings perpetrated by the police officers in their respective cities against people of color and certain political affiliations. Protests quickly turned into riots as the police officers who committed the crime were, initially, not criminally charged, and seemed to face no consequences. Additionally, police departments in nearly every city where peaceful protests occurred engaged in blatant police brutality against protesters, further spiraling the situation out of control. Stores were looted, a police precinct was burned to the ground in Minneapolis, and the police department showed no prejudice when unleashing tear gas and rubber bullets at those protesting, those covering the protests, and those who only walked outside to see what was going on in their neighborhood. Since George Floyd’s funeral and the prosecution of the officers involved in his death, the riots have ceased and the protests lessened, but the tension persists as the citizens of the United States begin to consider radical reforms to their police departments.
Since George Floyd’s funeral and the prosecution of the officers involved in his death, the riots have ceased and the protests lessened, but the tension persists as the citizens of the United States begin to consider radical reforms to their police departments.
I grew up in Woodbury, a suburb of St. Paul. It was a predominately white suburb, so growing up I hadn’t been exposed to the racial tension that has taken place in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. After high school I moved to St. Paul, and this was just before the Philando Castile murder, which took place not too far from where I lived. He worked at a Montessori just behind my house and the governor’s mansion was a block down as well. I was able to witness the protests after his death and, through this, became educated on the extent of systematic racism. As someone who had seen my hometown go through this once already, I was outraged when I heard of the tragedy of George Floyd’s death. My hometown, which I had looked back on fondly from New York as a progressive city on the whole, was in the spotlight for police brutality and racial injustice and had become ground zero for an international civil rights movement. After watching the video of George Floyd’s murder, I was further enraged at witnessing a man, who was handcuffed and laying on the street, not resisting arrest, begging for his life, being choked to death by a police officer who showed no concern or remorse. I had many friends who participated in the initial protests and witnessed the riots or had been shot at by police officers when they were only exercising their constitutional right to the freedom of assembly. I was in Minnesota visiting family while this was all taking place and my only view of this was from what I saw on social media. Then, by a sharp contrast, what was being shown on the mainstream media. There had been reports and rumors of people coming from out of town to instigate violence. Mainstream media stated that it was leftist groups coming in, while people I knew on the street were stating that it was white supremacist groups stirring up trouble in the neighborhood, driving around shouting racial slurs at people and letting off gunshots.
I felt like I had to see all this for myself to report on it as well as do my part for the cause, and so I participated in the 10k No Bail march, where thousands of people took to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against providing Derek Chauvin an opportunity to be bailed out of jail. Unfortunately, the march ended with a semi-truck attempting the run through the crowd that had formed on the 35W bridge, and the subsequent police dispersal of the crowd.
Witnessing the truck barrel through was absolutely horrifying. I hadn’t been able to see on the other side of the median, and I assumed there was a crowd of people on the northbound side of the highway, and therefore understood that I may have had just witnessed hundreds of people murdered. Panic ensued on the southbound side of the highway. Most of us, myself included, were fearful of further attacks on the march. There was hardly any room on the bridge; our only exit a slope that would only allow one or two people down at a time. There was no turning back or running ahead since everyone was running into a bottle neck, and jumping off the bridge would be an act of suicide. People were getting separated from their parties, friends, lovers, and children, and screams and wild speculations could be heard amongst the crowd, inciting a mass hysteria. Luckily, a few of us were able to maintain a calm atmosphere, ensuring no one would get trampled and we all got off the bridge safely. On the way back to meet up with my people I had been separated from, I heard the sounds of tear gas canisters popping off in the distance. From the view of the Stone Arch bridge in Northeast Minneapolis, I could see a swarm of squad cars on the bridge.
There was no turning back or running ahead since everyone was running into a bottle neck, and jumping off the bridge would be an act of suicide. People were getting separated from their parties, friends, lovers, and children, and screams and wild speculations could be heard amongst the crowd, inciting a mass hysteria.
Luckily, no protesters were harmed — and the driver got a serious ass whooping. Some say it was a mistake, but I have my own speculations. From what I had heard, the night ended with a police roundup of one hundred and fifty people in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis, close to the University of Minnesota shortly after curfew begun. My party and I managed to get home safely before curfew. On the way, we learned that no one was hurt, the driver had gotten a beating and the police were then swarming the area. Relieved, I recounted what I had seen that day, and what I had been hearing in the week preceding the event. What I saw, albeit limited to a singular experience, was no violent acts perpetrated by the protesters, but instead perpetrated by those wishing to disband the protests. The march, from the very beginning at our rally point of the US Bank Stadium, was intended to be peaceful. The organizers had stated before our march that the portrait painted by the mainstream media did not represent those seeking justice, that if anyone showed any inclination towards violent behavior, we were to ask them to leave. Our march began at the stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings on the edge of Downtown, and was led through the government center, through downtown east over the bridge to Northeast, through Dinkytown, and finally on the 35W bridge. At the beginning, it was a very serious, stoic demonstration. Hundreds, if not thousands were present at the stadium. We knelt and raised our fists in solidarity. A speech was made, and we commenced our march. The only opposition seemed to be two individuals carrying an American flag and a flag stating “Don’t Tread on Me”, but they received no backlash other than sidelong looks, as this was a peaceful protest. Our only actions consisted of marching, holding up signs, and repeating the chants, “Say His Name”, which was answered by, “George Floyd”; “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”; “I Can’t Breathe”; “Arrest All Four”; and “Black Lives Matter”.
As we went on, the atmosphere changed from a stoic, intense march to one of comradery and unity. As we made progress, we became louder, more confident in our chants while smiles and conversation began to develop in the crowd. We were not distracted from our original mission. On, the contrary our resolve was bolstered. It felt like we were all in this together, demanding justice as we know it from a corrupt, bureaucratic government that had thenceforth only served its own interests. I witnessed a common, shared morality, something good that is crucial to the human experience. It was something that I had not witnessed in the portrayals of the protests on both social and mainstream media. It persisted a peaceful protest, with people from every ethnicity represented working together to keep it that way. There was no divisive rhetoric; everyone, although serious and determined, was completely peaceful, and wanted to maintain this disposition. I was proud to have taken part in that march, and I’m proud of the people of the city of Minneapolis for organizing and executing such a monumental event. It was a beautiful example of the power we have as peace loving, righteous people; until a truck tried to run us over.
But I also thought about what else may have happened that I hadn’t witnessed. I saw by far the largest crowd the city had seen yet, and although it ended in terror it didn’t include the narrative of looting or burning down a police precinct. I decided to take a stroll through south Minneapolis, starting at the southern edge near Minnehaha Falls and ending in Uptown, the closest neighborhood to Downtown and historically the hottest neighborhood in Minneapolis. I was out to observe the damage done, the memorial of George Floyd, and to take the temperature of the neighborhood.
I saw by far the largest crowd the city had seen yet, and although it ended in terror it didn’t include the narrative of looting or burning down a police precinct.
I was able to observe many signs of the peaceful organization that I had witnessed first-hand at the march earlier that week. There was the memorial to George Floyd, remnants of food and supply banks that had been set up for the neighborhood once the riots had started, and the boards taking up most of the shop windows that had either been looted or were trying to prevent being looted. But I noticed one more thing that was a constant variable from one side of town to another. Murals and graffiti created in the wake of the catastrophe had taken up almost every single sheet of plywood that had been used to boarding up shop windows, and most available wall space on major streets, even seeping into the neighborhoods surrounding them. It ranged from simple tags to murals, protesting police brutality and remembering George Floyd, symbolizing the reckoning to come.
The heart of the artwork honoring George Floyd was on Hennepin Avenue. For those of you not familiar with the geography of Minneapolis, Hennepin Avenue is a major street in Uptown, the trendiest neighborhood in the city. I parked my car at a friend’s house a couple blocks away and together we walked from the start of Hennepin Avenue all the way down to where it ends at the highway, taking in all the art along the way and photographing some. We were even able to witness some artists working together as a team, or organized as a community event in order to achieve a lasting piece of artwork and bring people together in a positive way.
The Twin Cities has a venerated graffiti scene. Murals aren’t as common as writing; there are some, but as it’s a newer artform they’re seeping into the cities slowly but surely. Canvases encompassed not only building facades, but the wood used was not just the exterior walls of buildings, but the wood used to board up the windows along the street as well. the whole stretch down Hennepin had the appeal of an open-air gallery. Some of the best writers in the city showed up and out with masterpieces of refined wild style, exhibiting the name of George Floyd, with slogans like “say his name,” “I can’t breathe,”, Black Lives Matter, and the abbreviated BLM advocating for reform. Murals depicting Floyd were abundant, and one mural reminiscent of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” took up the entirety of a boarded-up movie theater. Aside from the politics and memorials, other murals were dedicated to more peaceful or community focused subject matter. Painted scenes of flowers, caricatures of the city, or generally positive slogans called for love and respect towards one another. I had seen many works in progress.
Painted scenes of flowers, caricatures of the city, or generally positive slogans called for love and respect towards one another.
This dedication from the community was astounding. There’s a certain stigma about Minnesota, at least in the Midwest, aptly titled “Minnesota Nice”, attesting to our people’s general passivity. It usually has a negative connotation, implying that Minnesotans avoid confrontation at all costs. But that passivity wasn’t apparent in what I saw during the protests, and it certainly wasn’t apparent in the artwork on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Messages demanded justice, and artwork adorning the streets has been created to stand in solidarity against a corrupt government and its enforcers. Recently, we’ve seen a movement to defund the MPD, showing a resolve that we can redefine law enforcement to create a system that exists without prejudice or violent interaction. It’s a truly groundbreaking moment in American history, where the public is fed up with an abusive system and can finally enact change. and, it’s also a beautiful reality where art can be used as the glue to hold the public together by mere means of being displayed on the streets.
Tyler Bruett is a writer and musician from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is now based in New York City. Fascinated with contemporary culture, he finds pride working with emerging artists, street artists, and musicians alike. He is passionate about using his experience to bridge the gap between artists and the city they inhabit.