This story was originally published on April 7, 2021.
While there are countless activists and allies fighting for justice, police accountability and prosecution of police guilty of misconduct in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Jeanelle Austin, Marcia Howard, and Madi Ramirez-Tentinger have emerged as among the most dedicated. They have all been active since the beginning organizing what has become known as George Floyd Square (GFS).
Austin, who grew up in the area around GFS, has encountered a variety of experiences while serving as what she called “lead caretaker” of the memorial at GFS. She is the founder of Racial Agency Initiative LLC and has experience working on racial healing and reconciliation.
There was a time in 2020 when the offerings at GFS Memorial were being improperly removed and Austin intervened. “I would’ve brought the caretakers to do it properly. We wanted to compost the flowers. You know, everything in the memorial mattered, and how we recycled things and disposed of things mattered.
“They literally just took piles of offering and flowers and threw them in city garbage cans,” said Austin, who with Ramirez-Tentinger spent that afternoon retrieving flowers and gifts from heaps of city trash in order to preserve and honor the offerings.
She was also instrumental in helping establish and maintain what has come to be known as the
“Say Their Names Memorial.”
“My eldest niece [and I], we were standing [at the Say Their Names Memorial] together and I noticed that there was this crowd of mostly White folks,” said Austin. “And they wouldn’t actually go and engage the space. So I grabbed my niece, hooked arm and arm and said, ‘Walk with me.’ We started walking and I said, ‘We are going to say the names on every tombstone that we see, because this is called the Say Their Names Memorial.’
“And so I walked with her up and down every aisle, and we named every name that is in this cemetery installation. And when we finished, we looked up and this whole crowd had followed.”
Austin is recognized by her peers for her meticulous attention to detail and her breadth of radical creativity. She is gifted with the ability to imagine a future that is different than our present and past.
“Jeanelle’s methodical,” said Marcia Howard. “ The care and attention that she puts into something as simple as preserving a flower or a scrap of paper is the same attentiveness that she would put into literally creating the George Floyd Global Memorial… It is incredible to watch. A universe will spring from her head on a Tuesday. That has been incredible to be adjacent to,” said Howard.
Howard resides in the Powderhorn neighborhood, is a retired Marine, and was a school teacher up until the death of George Floyd last year. “38th and Chicago has become her classroom,” said Austin of Howard. “I am a resident and volunteer and protestor,” explained Howard.
She is responsible for watching the streets, helping maintain a safe environment in GFS where community can thrive, and organizing a watch over the barricades that surround the area. Even in a casual setting Howard is vigilant, using her belt equipped with body cam and other gadgets to capture pictures of noteworthy activity.
Howard admits she’s gone through quite a transformation over the last year: “I was still wearing A-line skirts and kitten heels,” she said. Howard represents the difference between living in a community and actually being part of community, something that the three women seek to educate people about at GFS.
“I bought a house when I was 24 years old,” said Howard. “Growing up in poverty, I was incredibly house-proud, and I luxuriated in my bourgeois-ness.”
She admits that her perspective and ideas about where she lives were different then than they are now. “Whenever I would go for a run, I would just run south from 38th all the way to Minnehaha Creek, where the houses got bigger and the tax brackets got larger. And occasionally I would look north to 37th and Columbus, and I would see apartments,” said the activist. “And to my shame I would be like, ‘No, I’m not gonna run that way.’
“It was only after the death of George Floyd and the installation of this art project [Say Their Names] that I even realized that there was a pond here. And now I have come here every single day of the last 10 months to investigate the ways that I too have committed these sins.
“The National Guard came up my street and the MPD created a phalanx across 38th Street and shot rubber bullets into a crowd laying down flowers and saying the name of George Floyd,” Howard said of the events occurring near her home in the wake of the police killing of Floyd. “They crossed that street and four of them were in the yard of one of my students’ home, who lived five houses down from me. That Monday I was supposed to return to online teaching and the world, my world, was aflame.”
She has lost six of her students to violence in her neighborhood, and Howard admits that righteous indignation has become her driving force. “I’m angry because I’m 47 and I have to stand on a street corner and say my life matters, and have people argue with me.
“I’m angry because my mother had to go to a segregated school until the ninth grade. My dad couldn’t vote when he turned 18, and it’s 2021 and I’m still fighting the fight that my grandmother fought,” said Howard.
Madi Ramirez-Tentinger, who states a preference for the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” is the only member of the trio that is not African American. Some, upon meeting the activist, make the assumption that they are White, but Ramirez-Tentinger is of Mexican descent.
Ramirez-Tentinger is upbeat, a little quirky, and a stand-up comedian who is recognized for an uncanny ability to connect with anyone and everyone, including strangers. That likely explains why neither Austin nor Howard were surprised when Ramirez-Tentinger arrived at the memorial with a handful of homemade caramels for everyone.
Also living within walking distance of the Say Their Names Memorial, it was Ramirez-Tentinger’s curiosity and vulnerability that led them to this particular space. “The first time I came here was for a community meeting.
“I remember I was asking in the [George Floyd] Square, if anybody knew where the community meeting was happening. Everybody that I asked was like, ‘I wanna go!’ We just walked around for a long time and then eventually found a bunch of people sitting in a circle,” laughed Ramirez-Tentinger.
From that point on, Ramirez-Tentinger’s ability to connect and build relationships with people from all backgrounds has not only been inspiring to GFS but also vital to the genuine community-building and restoration that has taken place.
“I had suspicions about her for the same reasons that now I admire [they],” said Howard. “Madi has an uncanny ability to befriend, and I mean authentically, any and all; to welcome any and all; to talk to any and all; to be accepted by any and all.
“Madi will walk in spaces, see people and have compassion on them,” added Austin. “Even if they don’t want compassion to be directed their way, which makes Madi an awesome community organizer.”
Working to connect bridges between different cultures has been their strong suit. But if you ask Ramirez-Tentinger about their role they will tell you, “In terms of being in this space, I try to follow these two honestly. Because Black liberation means everybody is liberated.”
Building a beloved community
Together these women have worked in many capacities, from landscaping and cleaning the memorial to educating community members about what ally-ship really means. Perhaps most notably, they have also worked to provide a voice for community members who have demanded change.
As part of their effort to build and include the community in the work of GFS they have on many occasions canvassed the neighborhood, walking up and down blocks, visiting businesses, checking every nook and cranny asking, “What does racial justice mean to you?”
“[Community members] that want to call the City to demand justice, they just don’t believe that their voice will be heard, and they’d be willing to hand us their voices, to do the call out for them,” explained Howard.
Ramirez-Tentinger recalled an initial meeting with the City that happened not long after George Floyd’s murder.
“Public Works had told us that they were going to have multiple meetings about what the future memorial would look like. And in that meeting, which was like a three-hour meeting, it ended up that the truth of the matter was that the only power we had, according to the City, was deciding where people could park and where the offerings would be.”
Activism begins with showing up
As members of the BIPOC community, these women personally bear the weight of racial injustice. Austin, Howard and Ramirez-Tentinger can be relied on to show up.
Austin posed the question, “Isn’t that how you build community? You keep showing up for each other.”
As the trial of Derek Chauvin continues and with the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death quickly approaching, the women said they know and feel that this fight is far from over.
“We chose to protest by building gardens,” said Austin, “encouraging people to express themselves through art, encouraging people to stand up and sit on a barricade for their community, encouraging people to advocate for justice for their neighbors, even the neighbors that get on their nerves.
“I think what makes this protest so powerful and so long-lasting and sustaining is, frankly, the City didn’t know what to do with us. We were creating life in our community. We were birthing life into our community.”
“People are never going to stop coming here,” Ramirez-Tentinger said. “It’s a space of Black pain and Black mourning as well as a place of community. But this place is first and foremost a space of protest against a system that allowed the city to kill a man and so many Black and Brown people before George Floyd.”
This story was updated to consistently use Madi Ramirez-Tentinger’s stated preferred pronoun.