Pinning down George Floyd: punitive mapping and its

by Maren Feller

Detail from “Crime Location Map. Minneapolis Police Department Crime Map,” Minneapolis. City of Lakes. Crime Maps & Dashboards [Minneapolis Police Department], https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?
. Screenshot Maren Feller, 07/2023. [Click here to see screenshot full size in new window].

The murder of George Floyd cannot be found on the Crime Location Map of the Minneapolis Police Department. At least it’s not marked on the map as a crime. When one zooms in on the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis (-93.262 44.934 degrees) and selects the year “2020,” what is shown is not what one might expect. [1] [open notes in new window] In the Open Street Map version, one can see the symbol of a tombstone or a monument with the inscription “George Floyd Memorial Garden.” [2]

Close-up of Open Street Map/Police Incidents 2020 (ibid.). Screenshot Maren Feller, 07/2023. Click here to see full size.

On the Imagery Map, one can recognize the small garden and the figure of a blue angel that is painted on the ground.[3] The site of the memorial is marked, but not the murder.

No standard pictogram in any of these maps indicates that it was right here, at this location, where George Floyd was pinned to the ground and murdered by four police officers of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct on May 25, 2020. Four convicted felons—yet their act of murder isn’t shown on a map that designates fourteen other “police incidents” occurring near this very same intersection in 2020.[4] I find this omission striking since the alleged purpose of such a crime map is to visualize police action and crime statistics. As for the raw data: Four police officers committed a murder, were dismissed from service, tried, and sentenced to prison terms. If the police now consider the deeds of former colleagues as beyond the law and take their side, that means that the police force here publicly describes itself as a criminal institution.

In fact, the Crime Location Map itself is not as powerful as it would like to appear. Denial manifests itself in the sudden accumulation of symbols that try to blur the questions that arise from the void. The police have no language for what happened. All they have are the symbols of the activists. In this case, the Fist Sculpture, installed by activists on the intersection, is marked on the map as a column, and the white angel, painted on the pavement at the place where George Floyd was killed, is marked as a gravestone. At this place, both the monument and the tombstone are signs for murder. They proffer the words that the police cannot speak. Thus, the power of the activists has already invaded and modified the police map.

If we intend to hold on to mapping as a tool, could we imagine other types of maps, more hybrid maps, that are not about visually dominating an area, but about different concepts of world-building and potentially sharing space? Just as maps generate discrimination and containment, can they also reveal another way of living together? Activists in George Floyd Square (GFS)—as the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue has been called since its occupation in the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s murder—rely on such practices that employ mapping as a tool for imagining a different form of community. This essay argues that these cartographic counter-imaginings function as “maps of the commons,” characterized by mobilizing and representing togetherness. In this essay, I will examine how these cartographic representations can map a mobility of sharing without connoting ownership or determining value based on economic and racial hierarchies.

Crime Location Map and pictograms

Pictograms are abstract graphic representations of key information intended for a general public. They are conventionally understood in neutral terms but have, in fact, an ambivalent function that often remains overlooked. A closer analysis of the Crime Location Map can help flesh out the ramifications of this ambivalence, offering a first glimpse of how maps operate as decisive media objects at this intersection in Minneapolis. While different genres of maps are charged with depicting specific topics or terrains, such as thematic maps depicting the crime rate or population density or topographic maps (geographical maps) helping navigate a terrain accurately, they share a trait common to all maps: They are diagrams, graphically representing some aspect of spatial relations. In this sense, the map of police work is both representative and prognostic. It represents the power of the state and the police as its executive organ, and it predicts future crime based on past events.

The Crime Location Map is provided by the City of Minneapolis on their official website under “Police Public Safety: Crime Maps & Dashboards,” while the information offered by the map is derived from the Police Information Management System. It visualizes acts that were reported and are defined as crimes by the courts. To use the map, one first has to agree to the terms and conditions. In the description of these terms, one can find a reference to something called “Proactive police work,” meaning “Business Checks, Community Engagement Meetings, Directed Patrols, Foot Beats, and Walk Through a Building.”[5] This list indicates control mechanisms that the police implement by their mere presence. The terms and conditions furthermore state that the map cannot be used for “navigational, tracking, legal, engineering, surveying, or any other purpose requiring exacting measurement of distance or direction or precision in the depiction of geographic features,” but “for reference purposes only.”[6] This Crime Location Map offers different filters to sort data by location and date range, to click on a pictogram on the map to view more details about an incident, or to search for a specific address. One pictogram can also represent multiple incidents. By clicking on the pictogram, a window opens with details about the reported crimes, so the pictograms work like stacked index cards through which one can browse. All these operations function within standard visualization practices of infographics diagrams and their correlations. That is, the pictograms on the Crime Location Map include stylized cars, houses, masks, and bags with dollar signs on them, with backdrops in various colors to further simplify the distinction between them: “Motor Vehicle Theft,” “Burglary,” “Robbery,” “Aggravated Assault”. These illustrations already convey meaning at an allegedly universal level.

Pictograms are characterized by their strong simplification of subject matter in a way most people would understand as “common” knowledge. In design, the meaning of a pictogram should be obvious at a glance. An object, an event, but also people, are reduced to an irreducible core that promotes clear dichotomies: Women in dresses with long hair, for example, and men in pants with short hair. The attributions are made by depicting prevailing and easily identifiable images within society that guarantee easier access to certain topics (offering warnings about danger, for example). Interestingly, the popularization of knowledge is not only determined by stereotypes but can also be utilized in an emancipatory way, as illustrated through the example of the introduction of the isotype in the context of workers’ education in Vienna in 1920. The Viennese economist and philosopher Otto Neurath developed a modern pictorial language aimed at the democratization of knowledge as the small symbolic images could be easily understood by the working class, among whom not all could read.[7] In this sense, although pictograms often perpetuate discrimination through reinforcing stereotypes, they can also be an important communication tool given the fact that they provide simplified access via “common” knowledge. Pictograms are often used in the context of indicating directions and societal rules (recycling signs, warning labels), marking a certain place (recycling bin, container with hazardous materials) in statistics or cartography, but also within social movements to communicate and express a point of view. During this process, a condensation and typification of content is necessary, which could be problematic but not always is. In this way, the column pictogram that marks the Fist Sculpture, a symbol of emancipatory resistance, stands out on the Crime Location Map in contrast to the pictogram of the white fist on a red background, which is listed as an “Aggravated Assault” in the map’s inscription.[8] The column pictogram of the “Raised Fist Sculpture” demonstrates that resistance has already found its way into the map.

Detail from Open Street Map version/Police Incidents 2020, in “Crime Location Map. Minneapolis Police Department Crime Map,” Minneapolis. City of Lakes. Crime Maps & Dashboards, [Minneapolis Police Department], https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html ?id=576634548ffc4304bf9df0fb2b802f8d, screenshot Maren Feller, 07/2023.

On maps, pictograms often indicate the function of specific locations and architectural structures. Since maps always represent spatial connections, pictograms can also be used as guiding a practice and as a means of control. There is a historical lineage to these practices that is vital to contextualize in order to recognize the explicit and implicit forms of violence that can be enacted by mapping. While imperialist forms of cartography can be traced back to colonization voyages by European countries in the 15th century, allowing for territories to be conquered, measured, and “brought back” from these missions, later cartographic developments made use of other insidious forms of power and control.[9] By the 18th century, with the rise of industrialization in Europe and the United States, statistics aided the administration of the state, meaning that standardization processes regarding the control mechanisms of space and people occurred externally and internally during this time.

As an effect of the rise of modern bureaucratization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, maps began to assume a new function in the U.S. police force. The use of crime maps and statistics in the U.S. was pioneered by August Vollmer in the Berkeley Police Department, which then became a blueprint for U.S. police departments up to this day. It was part of a strategic shift from what could be described as brute physical force to the brute force of cartography.[10] What this means is that the brute force of the police does not begin with the ‘pulling out of the car’ or the ‘pinning to the ground,’ but with the cartographic rendering of space as maps that are drawing bodies together.

The police reforms that Vollmer advanced included the centralization of the police force and practices modeled on the military, such as ways of organizing mobility and data processing. [11]

“A crucial part of this intelligence strategy that Vollmer also innovated was spatial analysis, which is today known as ‘pin mapping’ or ‘crime mapping’: maps of the city with pins marking where crimes had been occurring to track criminals’ movements, predict future criminal activity, and better distribute his new mounted police units.”[12]

Maps are often seen as civilizing, mediating, and ordering impulses rather than as brute physical interventions or even physical violence, but they have already migrated into the bodies of the people walking through this area or living here. Michel Foucault’s understanding of the institutionalization of power aims precisely at this internalization of discipline in everyday actions.[13] The high use of statistics and maps underpins this process, as it is the basis of modern police work, but also an effect of it. Statistical methods and the modern police force are mutually dependent.[14] Together, police and statistics are methods of biopower intended to surveil the population within the territory controlled by the state: “So what police thus embraces is basically an immense domain that we could say goes from living to more than just living.”[15] In short, a jurisdiction over life. The point is to control and regulate life and thus to decide which parts of the population are kept alive, promoted, protected, and which parts are not. It’s a common practice of police departments in the U.S. to use heat maps, for example, to mark certain zones as dangerous based on past crime patterns.[16]

Wendy Chun describes how discrimination is visualized and reproduced in the correlation of collected and stapled data, techniques that emerged from biometric eugenics in the late 19th century.[17] She explores how forms of correlation lead to an automatic attribution of characteristics:

“Correlations […] do not simply predict certain actions; they also form them. Correlations that map people into categories based on their being ‘like’ one another amplify the effects of historical inequalities.”[18]

As statistics, graphs, maps, AI, and other forms of big data can only ever “learn” based on information and data provided, “they are amplifying and automating – rather than acknowledging and repairing – the mistakes of a discriminatory past.”[19] This leads to a stigmatization of certain neighborhoods divided along racialized and class-based lines because of centuries of segregation and discrimination, which is thereby further reproduced.[20]

While different punitive police maps may focus on making specific data publicly available, such as the Registered Sex Offenders map from the city of Minneapolis that offers residents a means of checking whether there might be someone with a file and photo to click on within walking distance of their intersection, what they all are supposed to show, at the very least, is a clear picture of the city streets.[21] The modern police force works with the public by making data openly available and therefore activating the residents of a neighborhood to join in on the surveillance and control of joint areas. Of interest to us in this context is not primarily whether it is morally reprehensible or necessary to publish the photos and addresses of sex offenders. At this point, it is much more telling that this official map of Minneapolis has a glitch where the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue should be. The streets seem to be just hanging in the air. There is a hole in this map. What happens, then, if the infrastructure on a punitive map begins to break down? Because of its erasure, the intersection becomes even more visible. There is no apparent reason why this map, which has nothing to do with the murder of George Floyd, exhibits this anomaly.

Detail from “Registered Sex Offenders in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” City-Data.com, https://www.city-data.com/so/so-Minneapolis-Minnesota.html. Screenshot Maren Feller, 03/2023.

But this fact can be used to illustrate interactions between the map and the terrain. Omissions of entire areas on maps are read only in terms of a temporary status in cartography, as the “white spots” are to be filled in and worked out in the future, apparently from both sides. This would mean, in this case, the city of Minneapolis on one side and the protesters, those who occupied the intersection after the murder of George Floyd and declared it an “autonomous zone,” on the other. The slogan “No Justice—No Streets” seems to become literal here.[22]

The prognostic operation of maps is evident in this case and is an invitation for activists. The proclamation of autonomy by a state, a city, or a zone involves the assertion of its borders. A territory which cannot define its own borders cannot claim sovereignty. Maps are used to demonstrate and maintain that control over the territory by demarcating borders. In this logic, the loss of control over an area—by means of maps—also means a loss of autonomy and sovereignty over this area, which raises questions about its very legitimacy. A small but significant glitch in the map can serve as an indication that the infrastructure claimed as sovereign by a demarcation of clear borders is not as clear-cut as it might have seemed. The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue was renamed and became GFS. This is more than an occupation of an intersection and a gas station in the aftermath of the protests. It became a utopian model of a community in the making that, while drawing on concepts of demarcation and mapping, appropriates them and rethinks them as designs for future use, now built on the premise of sharing.