Sound Systems at the George Floyd Protests in Minneapolis During the Summer of 2020
Rice University (US)
People raise their voices together and musical chants weave through the protest. Sometimes everyone sings in unison with the lead sound system. Other times megaphones and handheld drums dispersed in the crowd concentrate smaller groups, shifting between tunes. Thousands march, soaked in amplified sound and the sounds of their own voices and the sounds of instruments carried and played by their friends, soaked in sounds that bounce off downtown high-rises lining the route. Marshals bring the march to a brief standstill so that speakers might more directly minister to attendees. Tension builds as their testimonies condemn the masses, including those in attendance, for their complicity and tacit support of a violent and corrupt law enforcement agency. “I don’t give a fuck if you’re at this protest right now!” And then tension releases, erupts, as people are invited to scream at the top of their lungs the name of any victim of police brutality. “Folks we have got to change the energy in the atmosphere!”
As the march returns to its origin point, the lead pickup truck pulls off to the side and several protesters follow. The flourish of post-disco horns leak from the speakers in its bed, “and the sun begins to fade”, while Whitney Houston serenades a small group of dancing protesters. People slowly disperse, wander off to another action or to their rides. The nearby Metrotransit rail, running on a reduced schedule due to transportation restrictions following the onset of COVID-19 in Minneapolis in mid-March, will be obstructed for a little while yet as this critical mass dissipates.
When George Floyd was murdered on 25th May, COVID-19 cases were on the rise in the US. Minnesota’s Governor Walz has warned that if bars and nightlife providers fail to lower their risk of transmission, they will face another statewide closure. Many of these establishments are only able to offer outdoor service at a limited capacity; they usher patrons through on a schedule to insure adequate turnover and to stay in business. The contradiction is obvious to many: the partitioned space and time in commercial and public service settings sits in stark contrast to the mass protest movement where bodies mix, sing and remain together for many hours. Is it uncanny that city health officials have been unable to identify a surge in cases after three months of protests?
Although cacophonous, disruptive and by definition oppositional, the protests aren’t free-for-alls. They feature preplanned speaker lineups representing different facets of the protest coalitions building up to the charisma of the event’s headliners; marshals to guide the march and provide a barrier between it and any police or military presence; medics with basic first aid supplies and know-how, and water; and tail and lead vehicles to carry protesters who have difficulty marching. Programs focus attention on a series of interconnected platforms that revolve predominantly around the formal and fiscal critique of the Minneapolis Police Department and its supporting institutions. They also call for the return of community safety programs to the control and oversight of their various communities. Organizers clean microphones with disinfectant wipes before offering them to speakers, and they have a bottle of hand sanitizer ready when speakers are through. Others circulating through the crowd approach people without face coverings and offer clean, disposable masks. Protesters greet each other by bumping elbows and gossiping about police who don’t cover their faces when making arrests.
More than fifteen organizations collaborate to schedule and organize protests. They balance responsibilities and tasks for any given event so that each protest is the materialization of a slightly different assembly of the coalition. They make sure each action will have the resources it needs from its supporting cast, and momentum is maintained in the insistent repetitions of their message: “No justice, no peace! Prosecute the police!”
While decentralized musical protests scatter themselves across the city in confrontations with an institutional web of police authority, the site of George Floyd’s murder has become a memorial to the cause and its martyr. Standing strong behind cement barricades, parked cars, medic tents and visible community security personnel, this place will persist. For many days after the initial uprising, music of many kinds fills the memorial square. A pair of DJs mix long, joyous sets of vinyl, willfully sharing a few dub, reggae, late disco and early hip-hop corners of their collections. A parcel truck parked not far away has its lift gate open to display impressive homespun cabinets and speakers, and a gang of friends pump contemporary club and leftfield pop from the bed of the truck, bobbing just behind the sound. Teenagers dance to Somali pop. Children squat on a curb playing a motley assortment of percussion and a melodica. Visitors and wanderers carrying personal speakers in their bags or on their bikes further decorate the musical chaos.
By 2:00 AM, this variety has given way to a hip-hop party on a roof of one of the buildings in the square (that also serves as a watch post for the security teams). Lean, shirtless torsos topped by faces covered with bandanas and masks raise fists and blow clouds of purple smoke at the sky, at the sound of distant helicopters. Word arrives that torrential rain is only a few minutes away, and the late night crowd springs into action. People work together to pull and hang tarps over the offerings of flowers, paintings, messages and other gifts that clutter the focal points of the memorial. Others rush to secure tents that are already blowing around, to protect the rooftop sound system, to cover trash bins. The storm hits and several bare feet join the raindrops in a dance on the asphalt. The storm passes and people tuck away tarps for next time. A chant begins and grows and blossoms: “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Military choppers hover above buildings shuttered with broad sheets of plywood. And spray paint is everywhere: colorful peace signs, “Justice 4 George”, the names of others murdered by police, inspirational claims to life, statements of independence and defiance of authority. The thrum of the choppers and this urgent street art set the tone for one of the first renegade parties in Minneapolis since commercial shutdowns in mid-March. A community is dancing together on Lake Street 10 blocks from the scorched windowpanes and shattered glass of what was, only a few days before, the MPD 3rd Precinct headquarters. A toddler and a dog ramble about, grilled cheeses are grilled and intermittent passersby arrested by the vibe join in the bouncing, twirling, mixing bodies. Dance floor acquaintances greet each other with surprise. No one thought they would be dancing for many months, but the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent police response to protests have hampered the ability of City Hall to persuade citizens that they should maintain solitude for the sake of society. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Minneapolis Pride cancelled their official parade this summer, so they encourage people who feel isolated to purchase merchandise at their online store. But it has become increasingly difficult for some to connect this branded corporatist parade to a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in NYC. Activists critical of the corporatism have been rumbling for years about taking back Pride, and the cancellation of the official event provided an opportunity to pull new people into the protest movement.
So without police, corporate floats, nonprofit organizations or permits, a black trans pride parade stomps through downtown from the MPD 1st Precinct to Loring Park. Music and chants pump from a truck-loaded sound system contributed by one of the prominent underground techno crews (who also throw an annual Pride afterparty). Smaller speakers, megaphones and musical instruments punctuate the throngs of people demonstrating resistance to heternormativity, racism and capitalism, demonstrating support for queer minorities. The crowd is many thousands strong, large enough that different chants float up and down the column: “Black lives, they matter here! Trans lives, they matter here! Native lives, they matter here! Queer lives, they matter here! Latinx lives, they matter here!” The fingers of sign language translators whir: “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Fuck 12!”
At the destination, whooping masses spill from the column into Loring Park and are welcomed by a new sound system already assembled and waiting at the foot of a grassy incline. The rest of the program features speakers and then DJs and will run into the early evening. The underground has set up off to the side to play a bit of Midwest house on something of a second stage if you’d rather just dance; some trickle over, but most bear witness to the program on the main stage. “Sequeerity” dispels a couple of small commotions, and the event comes to a safe, warm conclusion under the early wisps of a purple-orange sunset.
As funding and ideological support for the Minneapolis Police Department continue to crumble, and as community-led safety initiatives collect momentum and affirmation, these musical protests across Minneapolis have barely slowed. Every week there are new instances of American police brutality that demand attention and invite resistance, that connect themselves systemically to the murder of George Floyd. Every week the protests grip an amorphous system of oppression more tightly. And every week, the rhythms of the movement find their beat in a chant whose repetition is building a different type of power: “Say his name! George Floyd!”
Tommy Symmes is a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, TX. His dissertation focuses on dance music and dance music events in Minneapolis, MN, and he is broadly interested in critique of ideology and contemporary aesthetics of resistance.