Above Photo: Evan Frost / MPR News
One person was killed and three injured Sunday night after the driver of an SUV drove into a crowd of protesters in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, near the site where Winston Smith was shot by sheriff’s deputies earlier this month.
A witness said the eastbound SUV was moving at a high rate of speed as it approached just before midnight, and that the driver appeared to accelerate as they got closer to demonstrators who had blocked off Lake Street near Girard Avenue.
The driver struck a vehicle parked across one of the traffic lanes on Lake Street, apparently positioned to protect the crowd. That second vehicle then hit people.
Police said early Monday that the investigation into the incident was still beginning, although they believe the driver may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Garrett Knajdek, who lives in Georgia, identified the woman who died as his sister, Deona Erickson. He said she would have been 32 on Wednesday.
He said Erickson, who also used the last name Knajdek, worked managing group homes and was a devoted caregiver, as well as a mother of two school-age girls, age 13 and 8.
“She demonstrated it last night. She does everything for everybody else that she possibly can,” he said Monday morning. He noted she apparently died when an oncoming driver hit her car, parked on Lake Street to block traffic from the people who had gathered near where Smith had died. “Everything has always been sacrifice for her, you know, what can she do to help someone else, no matter what situation she’s in.”
He said she grew up in the area of Rush City, Cambridge and Mora, and had joined him in Georgia at one point, but just recently moved back to live and work in Minneapolis.
Knajdek, who has worked as a volunteer firefighter and first responder, said he’d expressed his concern for his sister’s participation in street gatherings and demonstrations and told her he thought it could be dangerous.
“She was very passionate about people,” he said. “Sometimes the causes were not always agreed upon, but she always stood up for what she wanted, and would sacrifice anything if she believed in it.”
A 35-year-old St. Paul man was booked into the Hennepin County Jail early Monday on suspicion of criminal vehicular homicide, driving after a license was canceled and providing false information to police. The man, who hasn’t been formally charged, has multiple convictions for driving while impaired, according to online court records.
A rally took place earlier Sunday atop the parking ramp where Smith was shot and killed June 3 by members of a federal task force attempting to arrest him. That was followed by an evening march on Lake Street.
D.J. Hooker is an organizer with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and said people in the street had been playing volleyball and yard games when the crash happened later in the evening.
“A car came at us going like 70 or 80 miles an hour,” Hooker said in an interview. “There was one line of barriers and then a second barrier, and he sped up. He sped up. He went even faster as he approached us. You could hear it … start going even faster as he got close to us.”
Witnesses said the SUV hit the stationary vehicle hard enough to send it moving toward bystanders in the street.
“The car went through the air and it hit a young woman,” Hooker said.
The vehicles came to rest on Lake Street, including an SUV with serious front-end damage and another smaller vehicle with damage to the side.
Another witness, Brett Williams, said the woman struck by the car that had been hit was thrown into a stoplight standard beside the street.
Social media posts showed what appeared to be the driver of the SUV on the sidewalk being detained by bystanders, suffering some injuries, although it wasn’t immediately clear what happened to him.
“The dude could talk. The dude could walk. The dude got out the car and tried to f——— run and he tried to get away,” Hooker said.
Police said Erickson was taken to a nearby hospital and died there a short time later. Another injured protester also was taken to a hospital, as was the driver of the SUV, police said.
Police spokesperson John Elder said that Minneapolis police and the Minnesota State Patrol were both working on investigating the crash.
“Our preliminary investigation indicates that drug or alcohol use may be a factor in this case, and that would be on the part of the driver,” Elder said. The driver’s motive was not immediately known.
This is the second major incident in a little over a year involving street protests and speeding traffic. A fuel tanker truck drove through a crowd of demonstrators gathered on the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in May 2020, during protests following the death of George Floyd. No one was seriously injured in that incident.
“We’re always concerned about that. We try to work with organizers of protesters to provide a safe area for everybody, whether that be the protesters or the motoring public,” Elder said.
He said police had been monitoring the protest remotely, but didn’t know if any officers were present in the area or working on traffic control there at the time of the crash.
‘This is going to be the summer of Winston Smith’
Earlier Sunday, a crowd had gathered atop the parking ramp where Smith was fatally shot. The rally of several hundred people and subsequent march on Lake Street came a day after Smith’s friends and family gathered for his funeral.
At both events, there were calls for answers about what took place when a U.S. Marshals task force confronted Smith.
And there were calls for justice, as a lack of video footage of the shooting — and the statement of a witness who disputes the initial law enforcement account — have raised questions.