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Plywood Boards Bearing Art From Last Summer's Protests Represent Trauma And Strength

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The murder trial against the former police officer accused of killing George Floyd has physically transformed downtown Minneapolis. Fences, razor wire, military and National Guard protect the building where jury selection is underway. For one activist, the trial is dredging up the pain of what Floyd's death meant to her and to her city. NPR's Leila Fadel reports that this activist has made it her mission to preserve the history she is living.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Leesa Kelly unlocks a warehouse in northeast Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

FADEL: Inside are nearly 800 plywood boards. Business owners put them up to protect their buildings in the midst of mass protests following the killing of George Floyd last summer. Thousands of people took to the streets to express pain and anger at police brutality and systemic racism. Buildings burned. Police used force - rubber bullets, tear gas. And the plywood boards became pieces of art.

LEESA KELLY: There was a lot of complex emotions at play within people's bodies. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there's this blank canvas all around the city. And no one kind of had ownership of it. No one knew what to do with it. And so people just started painting.

FADEL: Every wall in this storage space is covered with carefully organized piles she's collected from across the city. There are paintings and messages.

KELLY: Please don't hurt us. Don't let them change the narrative. Justice for Floyd now.

FADEL: Kelly founded Memorialize the Movement to preserve this recorded history.

KELLY: If you look around this room, it tells you a really full and complete story of what happened to George Floyd and what happened to our city in the months following his death. You know, 50 years from now, when people are wondering what happened with the Minneapolis uprisings of 2020, they can literally come back to these boards and learn the entire history just from what's painted here.

FADEL: As she walks through on this day, she points to a poem she loves on one board.

KELLY: It's really powerful and sometimes hard to read. A lot of times I try not to spend a lot of time reading these because I just kind of get emotional, and it all comes back. And there's a lot of trauma associated with it all.

FADEL: On the first day of pretrial motions last week, Kelly went out to protest with other organizers and took three of the boards with her. They included a haunting black-and-white portrait of George Floyd's face. She stood them outside the building where the trial is being held for local officials, the police and for Chauvin to see.

KELLY: I felt really strongly that we needed to have a portrait of George's face at the start of the trial. You know, he may be gone, but we're still here, and we're still hurting. We still feel this trauma.

FADEL: From there, she and others marched. As they did, a truck plowed into their demonstration, a deliberate tactic that's been repeatedly used to target civil rights protesters.

KELLY: It really put things in perspective for me. You've seen videos of, you know, white supremacists and racists using their truck to plow through a protest and try and run people over and hurt them, but you never think that it will happen to you.

FADEL: It was a reminder of something she feels every day.

KELLY: This country is not a safe place for Black and brown people. It's not a place where we feel good walking down the street by ourselves.

FADEL: She says the start of this trial is frightening and important. The city's $27 million settlement with the Floyd family was a start to the change she wants to see. Next, Chauvin, she says, needs to be convicted. But she's worried about the day the verdict comes down.

KELLY: And it will be really bad if he's not convicted because so many people need this. So many people want to see this change, and they want to see that precedent set. And on the opposite end of that, so many people want to see him walk free. And right now everyone's feeling so strongly about their side, you know? And so I'm scared. I don't know what will happen.

FADEL: These boards, she says, tell an unfinished story.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "SKY COULD UNDRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.