‘Guerrilla gardens’ take root across Twin Cities

They span 14 miles starting in south Minneapolis, through Uptown and into a residential neighborhood

They span 14 miles starting in south Minneapolis, through Uptown and into a residential neighborhood in the north-metro suburb of Brooklyn Center.

George Floyd Square, Daunte Drive and Winston Way.

Initially, activists and protesters claimed these plots of land as areas of protest — the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue where a Minneapolis police officer murdered Floyd last year; the corner where a Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in April; the parking garage where U.S. marshals shot Winston “Boogie” Smith Jr. in early June and near where a speeding, unlicensed driver killed protester Deona Marie Knajdek 10 days later.

But as the protests and attention faded, these spaces were transformed once more: Demonstrators began digging in the dirt, planting flowers and vegetables in another form of protest known as “guerrilla gardening.”

“People need a place to heal. We got 400 years of PTSD,” said Jay Webb, who has been tending the gardens every day at George Floyd Square since it was established in the wake of the unrest that followed Floyd’s murder. “This is just a seed, a tree for everyone to root in and rest in. The prayer is these other trees sprout up around the nation and around the globe. … It’s just a seed of hope.”

Guerrilla gardening is an ancient practice, according to Richard Rey­nolds, author of “On Guerrilla Gardening.” It stretched from the Neolithic period to flash points at People’s Park near the University of California-Berkeley in the late 1960s and New York City in the early 1970s, when artist Liz Christy coined the term. What started as scattering seeds with a group of activists called “Green Guerillas” evolved into the city’s first community garden in a neglected Manhattan lot that’s still thriving nearly 50 years later. The nonprofit Green Guerillas comprises more than 600 community gardens today.

“It’s a protest because it’s gardening in a space where you don’t have permission. Any guerrilla gardening is a political act,” Reynolds said in a phone interview from his home in the town of Totnes, England. “We like to gather in beautiful places even if we’re remembering terrible things.”

In the Twin Cities, people have been planting as a form of protest since at least 2006.

Across the street from where Jamar Clark was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in November 2015, the Karamu Community Garden established seven years ago has taken on memorial elements for Clark. A Black Lives Matter flag waves under a pergola and his name is engraved on a bench next to rose bushes and raised vegetable beds.

In 2016, community members erected a memorial near the north entrance of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop that July. Mourners gathered at a makeshift memorial on Larpenteur Avenue that today consists of a few art pieces and dozens of plastic flowers.

On the fifth anniversary July 6, the Philando Castile Peace Garden committee will break ground on the garden with an expected completion date of Aug. 26, the opening of the State Fair, said committee co-chair and former Falcon Heights Mayor Sue Gehrz. She said the garden’s fund-raising goal of $500,000 is more than halfway reached and more features gradually will be added.

“We want to make sure the tragedy of that location is not just swept under the rug,” she said. “And to create a space that invites people to come and sit and think and be stimulated and inspired by some of the art that people have spontaneously donated to the garden.”

Other memorial gardens throughout the Twin Cities for victims of police violence also have evolved organically.

Last fall, a greenhouse was erected at George Floyd Square to store plants through the winter. Now in its second summer, the greenhouse is expanding and equipped with solar panels. Dozens of raised beds full of tomatoes complement rows of kohlrabi, kale and fennel lining the sidewalks. At the center of the intersection, the sculpture of a raised fist is surrounded by planted flowers, forming a makeshift roundabout.

During a recent visit to the Floyd memorial, a couple from Decatur, Ga., said they appreciated the fresh vegetables from the gardens in what is otherwise a food desert. Mary Kimberly, who stopped by the memorial while on a bird-watching road trip with her husband, Gavin MacDonald, said the garden was sobering and surprising.

“I am incredibly moved by it,” Kimberly said.

****

Demonstrators in Uptown this summer have adopted the guerrilla gardening seen at George Floyd Square, giving activists a place to grieve. They say the mission of the peace garden, which honors both Smith and Knajdek, is to provide a place of healing while harvesting foods for the community.

Courtney Armborst said the sound from the crash that killed Knajdek will never escape her memory, no matter how many strawberry patches she plants. A speeding, drunken driver — later identified as Nicholas D. Kraus — crashed into a car that protesters were using as a barricade, killing Knajdek. Kraus has been charged with intentional second-degree murder, and reportedly told authorities he had accelerated toward the protesters before the crash.

Armborst was among a group of protesters arrested while celebrating Knajdek’s 32nd birthday at the garden three days after she was killed. Upon Armborst’s release from jail, she went straight to the garden and put her hands in the dirt.

“I came out here and I saw everybody out here loving each other and the vision coming together,” she said, “and it’s like all your worries just get washed away and it transforms into something so beautiful.”

Lavish Mack — who, like Armborst, was arrested and went straight to the peace garden upon release — described guerrilla gardening as a “nonviolent revolutionary act” and a way to “be our best version of ourselves” when responding to traumatic events.

But these gardens have spawned conflict, too.

Chicago-based Northpond Partners, which owns the Seven Points property — formerly Calhoun Square — in Uptown, released a statement of support for the garden last week. But another statement Wednesday set conditions for the garden, saying people are allowed there only between dawn and dusk, though the curfew hasn’t been enforced.

That morning, crews escorted by Minneapolis police placed concrete barricades around the garden and installed more fencing on the lot perimeter with a sign that read, in part: “Trespassing beyond the garden, further property damage, or violence will not be tolerated and could result in removal of this area.” Protesters quickly removed the sign, replacing it with “YOU CAN’T CAGE THE REVOLUTION.”

Spokeswoman Mary Brennan Coursey said in an e-mail that Northpond is collaborating with Uptown activists “to create a permanent tribute in conjunction with the redevelopment” of the vacant 1-acre lot Northpond purchased in 2019. Knajdek’s mother, Deb Kenney, said she’s been in contact with the owner every day about the tribute. “I’m thankful for what Seven Points is doing.”

In Brooklyn Center, five donated sunflower plants recently were planted along the city sidewalk at the Wright memorial. Volunteers take shifts tending three raised garden beds every morning, watering the cucumbers, sweeping cigarette butts from the curb and removing collected rainwater from candles.

Like the other gardens, everything is donated and done without the city’s approval. But volunteer caretaker Joy García said — quoting Minneapolis activist Jeanelle Austin — that “a city employee killed a man on city time. So it’s their responsibility to provide restorative justice.”

Meanwhile, in south Minneapolis, the city is trying to reopen George Floyd Square amid pleas from merchants and residents worried about safety as crime rises in the area. But demonstrators remain, creating makeshift barricades out of more flower beds to slow traffic.

“What we did was we beautified this ugliest situation in the world,” Webb said. “We have to preserve it.”

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751

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