By Carol Masters, Becketwood Member
On MPR recently, a newscast about Derek Chauvin’s upcoming trial quoted a prospective juror as saying George Floyd Square was “holy ground.” That echoed what I’d been thinking lately about sacred spaces.
I name two sacred spaces, one in the past and one very much present in our minds and hearts. Each of these physical places is associated with protest-- protest in the sense of the James Joyce quotation, “that is God... a shout in the street,” a cry against oppression, or injustice.
Minnesota Women’s Peace Camp 1983-84
I believe some characteristics of sacred space are
- A coming together -- a congregation of people in a particular place
- A connection with a higher power/divine (expressed through prayer, ritual, song, offering)
- A moral imperative to be people united in purpose
- A value for community, integrity and justice
- Care for one another
- MN Women’s Peace Camp 1983-1984.
The Minnesota Women’s Peace Camp was an offshoot of a tradition that began at Greenham Common, in Great Britain. Greenham Common was a series of protest camps established to protest nuclear weapons being placed at Royal Air Force station Greenham Common in Berkshire, England. In September 1981 a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived at Greenham to protest against the decision of the British government to allow U.S. cruise missiles to be stored there. (Cruise missiles are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision.) Sperry Univac was the company building and shipping cruise missiles to England.
The camps became well-known when on 1 April 1983, about 70,000 protesters formed a 14-mile human chain from Greenham to Aldermaston and an ordnance factory at Burghfield. The media attention surrounding the camp inspired people across Europe and in the United States to create other peace camps.
In October of that year, Lesbian and straight women began a peace camp at Sperry Univac’s headquarters on Shepherd Road in Highland, a few miles from Becketwood. The women claimed this spot, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, because Marv Davidov and the Honeywell Project had already “taken care of”--were protesting at--Honeywell, another local manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction.
The women had the foresight, or some special knowledge or intuition in 1983, to secure permission to be on the land from Women of All Red Nations (WARN). The spot was already sacred--Bdote Minisota: “The confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is one of the most powerfully historic places in the Twin Cities. To the Mdewakanton Dakota it has deep historic and spiritual meaning. They called the joining of the two rivers Bdote Minisota. For some, it was their place of origin, their Garden of Eden” (National Park Service, www.nps.gov).
My experience at the Peace Camp was brief, a few months of regular visits and actions. I picked up a flier about the camp at a Mother’s Day march for peace, and I intended to visit. Months went by before I finally made up my mind and was baking a loaf of bread to take along (a hostess gift?) when I caught a news report on December 9, 1983 that Sperry had bulldozed the camp. I went the next day stood around a campfire as women talked about the issue, and about rebuilding the camp. A few were leaving for Greenham Common the next day to join the mass protest.
Police were called. I stayed in place, experienced my first arrest--and the rest is history. (In brief, I continued to protest nuclear weapons and war, joined Women against Military Madness, became assistant director of the MN Coalition for Peace and Justice, served on some boards and served time in jails.)
During the next few months--as well as gatherings, arrests, trespass or other actions of commitment to ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction)--Peace Camp women, from differing religious traditions, engaged in reverent expressions of ritual, song, sage smudging, and facing and honoring the four directions.
- George Floyd Square
Much of the following comes from an interview that Pastor Jia Starr Brown did with George Floyd Memorial caretaker Jeanelle Austin, a woman who grew up two blocks from 38th and Chicago and has worked nationally in the field of racial justice. Austin has theological training and has a Masters in Divinity in Christian Ethics. At the time of the George Floyd murder she was working in Austin, Texas with the Racial Justice Leadership Institute.
Her family asked her to come home and after considerable deliberation and preparation, which included gathering protest supplies, she did. She understood her call to be moving in response to “what’s happening in the world today” and what has been happening for centuries. At George Floyd Square, she learned that 1. the community had already deemed the space a sacred space where people could come to grieve, to process loss, and to care for one another. 2. Mutual Aid was an idea that was embodied in offerings and sharing.
Over the last eight months, Austin has been head of a team of caretakers for the offerings that people from the neighborhood, from all over the Cities and beyond, have brought to the site. She taught that the offerings must be treated with respect and tenderness, preserved for the community.
Asked what made this moment (of tragedy) different, she first cited her neighborhood--it was a “hits close to home moment” of “concern for my people,” who have been brutalized in many ways and not listened to in their demands for justice. Also, this time, the reaction to brutalization spread around the world.
The Memorial over time became a place where neighbors gathered to pray and to strategize, to engage with city leaders, and develop a list of 24 demands for justice. Sadly, it has also become an emblem for increased violence in South Minneapolis.
Austin associates justice with faith, has learned, or re-learned, that God is a God of the oppressed, God cares about the suffering: “we are called to experience justice in the land of the living.”
Today, prayers, remembrance and calls for justice continue daily in virtual space. A zoom Prayer Tent, healingourcity.org, hosted by Don and Sondra Samuels, sponsors an early morning meditation. After a brief reflection, those gathered are invited to contemplate an image of the Square for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time recorded that George Floyd’s neck was pinned under the officer’s knee: “We have all been involuntarily called to witness the injustices of the system of racial inequity and oppression. Now we are called to voluntarily be in prayer and action for the healing of our city.”