How protests change public space

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in new restrictions and worries that may diminish the popular potential of public space. The surge of protests and demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd despite these challenges suggests the continued importance of public space. While many protestors are willing to put their health on the line in order to fight injustice in person, many others are unable to do so. In this way, it has almost become necessary to use alternative methods in order to both adhere to public health precautions and uphold democratic values during this unprecedented time. As previously mentioned, this has taken shape through the appropriation and manipulation of public space in the creation of murals and works of art, but also graffiti, vandalism, posting signs, and other forms of protest that are visible in public spaces. These forms of expression become a part of the physical environment, at least for a while. Rallies and marches transform spaces when they are on-going and perhaps for a certain period of time afterward, but art, graffiti, and vandalism transform spaces indefinitely as long as they are present. None of this is to understate the importance of in-person protests. At the same time, visibly marking popular expression onto the built environment of public spaces is a noteworthy way that people struggle to influence collective action, especially given social distancing directives and the decrease in overall usage of public space.

The public artwork and messaging along the storefronts of University Avenue have not only served as a form of civic protest, but has effectively become part of what might be called George Floyd’s memorial landscape. Memorialization scholars Owen Dwyer and Derek Alderman contend that memorials may be selective about what they portray, yet this is part of a strategy to consider the past in the struggle to create a future that does not allow history to repeat itself. The spontaneous and widespread appearance of art pieces calling for dignity and justice and calling out anti-Black violence is part of an effort to center the harms and wrongdoings BIPOC people experience during this moment of social uprising.

While governments often memorialize civil rights figures from the 20th century in some way (e.g. Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, which wraps around the Capitol Building in St. Paul), they have not yet recognized the thousands of Black Americans that the police have murdered, largely because the government is either directly or indirectly responsible for their deaths in some way (e.g. policies enacted under the Reagan administration and Clinton administration). Instead, grassroots efforts by businesses, arts organizations, schools, and community members in the Twin Cities (and elsewhere) have created works of art, murals, and other forms of remembrance in order to memorialize George Floyd and occasionally other victims of police brutality. Not only his name, but his face, appears on sidewalks and storefronts on University Avenue. His image appears on posters, murals, as well as a standardized print that has been replicated in several instances. Some of the messages are large, colorful, and elaborate, while others simply say “RIP George Floyd” in red font on a sheet of letter-sized paper. Various acts of vandalism and graffiti also constitute Floyd’s memorial landscape, including burned buildings and broken glass at bus shelters. Both of these images are a result of the rioting and public outrage in the Twin Cities during the days after Floyd’s death, but they still remain weeks later. They remind us of tensions that are still bubbling beneath the surface. They are more raw, and perhaps more honest, expressions of discontent, democracy, and anger. 

We consider this a form of “grassroots memorialization” that shows who and what people want to recognize and memorialize, without any say from governments or larger corporate entities. Compared with more controlled, deliberate, and costly installations of official memorials, grassroots memorialization is nimble and responsive, making it an effective way to voice the claims and aims of popular movements and spread a counter-narrative. While these forms of popular memorialization may not appear as permanent as a statue or monument, they are perhaps more visible and democratic. Local residents choose who to memorialize, where, and how. These types of memorials are often raw, angry, and uncensored, require less capital.

In our study, the George Floyd memorial landscape has largely emerged on plywood boards that were originally installed in order to protect property during the riots. This may signal a move toward a more privatized, securitized, and controlled version of public space. However, the messaging of the murals, artwork, graffiti, and the like hints toward social revolution, justice, equality, and reparations, among other things, which seemingly contradicts the temporary nature of the plywood itself. It is important to note that many of these businesses are also Black, POC, or community-owned and often also put signs up announcing this. We cannot speak for any business owners, but it appears that some storefronts even tried to take advantage of the situation by creating new signage in a style similar to many of the murals. At first glance, these signs look like part of the rest of the streetscape along University Avenue, however, the messaging itself may have nothing to do with George Floyd or Black Lives Matter and is just an advertisement. It’s crucial to protect and funnel capital into these communities, yet the grassroots memorialization does not sidestep ongoing tension between capitalism and justice. The struggle in and over public space continues even in this seemingly grassroots appropriation of space.