George Floyd Square's caretaker looks back on his murder three years later

On the third anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution honoring victims of police violence, and recognized Jeanelle Austin, the executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial, for her work to preserve the square and its spirit of remembrance and protest. 

Austin gave a moving speech about the community’s work at 38th and Chicago, how she looks back at Floyd’s murder, and the nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds he spent under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin

Austin, known as "Lee Caretaker of the Memorial" first began tending to the square in 2020 as her form of protest. As the memorial grew, so did her role and responsibility. 

She spoke to FOX 9 shortly after finishing her speech to the council. Below is a transcript from the interview: 

How does today hit you, considering the work that you do? What did you feel when you woke up today realizing what it was?

I went to bed after midnight and I was very aware that we had come to the anniversary of May 25. It is a trauma anniversary. And so there is grief. And I'm always very aware of the ways in which grief comes out sideways. So I started to reflect on the ways in which my grief may have been coming out sideways. Because it's heavy. A man was lynched in my neighborhood just three short blocks away from my family home. And we have been working for three long years, and we are continuing to work because we don't ever want that to happen again. Not here, not anywhere. Unfortunately, it has. But we don't get discouraged. Instead, we become resilient, and we keep fighting because we deserve to live.

And so I think May 25th is an important day of remembrance because I remember that the world rose up because of this date. I remember that people marched on all seven continents because of the date. I remember that children lifted their voices because of this date and that elders lifted their voices, that young people and everybody in between. 

People who would not have even normally spoken on behalf of Black Lives spoke up for the first time. There were people who truly did not understand what was happening and why it was happening. And they showed up at George Floyd Square with questions truly seeking to understand. I think today is an important day to remember because it's the day in which we as a world decided to pivot from the way in which we practice injustice against Black-bodied people. We haven't gotten to the full manifestation of that decision yet, but we are working to get there, and that is important.

If you try to look back on what's changed and what hasn't, it can be a really muddled picture. I’m wondering how you view that, in terms of the changes that have been made and changes that some people are still pushing for. How do you think things stand on, you know, three years later?

Well, I know that George Floyd Square still stands from fist to fist. And I know that the protest still stands, that neighbors still gather every morning and evening, 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. I know that organizations like Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence still protest, still take to the streets. 

I know that you have people like our neighbor, Commissioner Angela Conley, who is working to push budget line items to get equity and justice in the community. I know we've got neighbors and organizations like Pillsbury House and Theater or in Saint Paul, like Penumbra Theater, who are doing the work in the community to help bring equity through the arts. I know that there are places like Pimento Kitchen that are bringing equity through food. I know that there are corporations like Best Buy who are partnering with people to be boots on the ground to help figure out how do we make the changes in our own neighborhood and in the community. 

I know this because as we've been planning Rise and Remember, we have businesses, we have churches, we have individual people and benefactors. We have schools, we have children. We have our neighborhood coming together to say we are not done fighting because we do not yet live on the other side of justice. 

And so what I know is what I see, and I see people believing that it's possible for us to get it right. No, we may not have gotten it right quite yet. Yes, we have made some progress in some areas. Yes, we have taken two steps back in other areas. But the resolve of the people is unwavering. And that I know, I believe and I have faith in my neighbors. I believe and I have faith in the brothers in my community who continue to keep our community safe and I believe in the power of the people, because where there's people, there's power. We see that at George Floyd Square. What we used to sing in church growing up... We're not where we ought to be, but thank God we're not where we're used to be. That's what it is. 

As I listen to your talking, I realize that, as journalists, we tend to focus specifically on policy, on what's been passed and what hasn't. A lot of what you talked about was beyond that. And I think, you know, that's something that maybe we don't get enough attention to.

Right. Because actually, I don't believe that policy is what is going to get us to the other side of justice. That's why I intentionally did not focus on policy. I think the way in which policy works in our country is that it takes several months to craft extremely particular language. And while that language is being battled back and forth, somebody else is working on a workaround around that. 

So they don't necessarily have to bring equity and justice for the work that the people are doing there. I believe that what does work is when we move our neighbors to set the imagination of the way in which we want to live life and then expect our policymakers to catch up with us.

You're in the fight, you're in the trenches, you’re at George Floyd Square a lot. You're there. And a lot of our viewers aren't. What do you think they may not realize about what it's like day in and day out?

People are coming from all over the world to visit George Floyd Square. People make intentional stops in Minneapolis to visit George Floyd Square. I recently met a man from South Africa and I asked him, "Well, what brought you to Minneapolis?" He said "This memorial." People do this. People leave the airport during the layover and take an Uber to George Floyd Square with their suitcases because they want to lay eyes on the stand that the people have taken and what the people have built.

And not only that, but they also want to contribute to it. People are continuing to leave memorial offerings as their form of protest to contribute. That matters, that says that we locally have done something right. And I know that it's a challenge and I know that it's difficult, and I know that not everybody agrees. And I've sat down, and I've listened to neighbors, and we are continuing to do the work of listening to our neighbors to figure out how we do this remembrance. Well, how do we do this remembrance process, right? Because we do need to remember.

But I want to also challenge my neighbors to understand that what we may see as messy and disruptive because we are at ground zero and because it impacts us in a certain way that it doesn't impact anybody else across the world because it wasn't their backyard. 

I want us to understand that in that messiness, in the messiness of grief, in the messiness of a fight for liberation, in the messiness of aged offerings, we have created hope for an entire generation of people, and that matters. And that is something that we can hang our hat on and that is something that we can continue to work on. 

And I would invite you to continue to do what you do to move justice forward. And if you want to join us in George Floyd Square to serve, to volunteer, to help in any kind of way at the George Floyd Global Memorial. We are happy to welcome you and give you something to do because there's always work to do. And we see it as working side by side as neighbors.

I understand the tension. I understand the grief. I understand the trauma. But I deeply believe that by us conserving and preserving our narrative. We are fighting against the power of racism that likes to erase narrative and replace it with something that empowers white supremacy to continue to harm Black and brown bodies. So this work is necessary. Just trust me. We're going to get there together. It's a slow journey. It's a marathon, but we're going to get to the other side of justice together.