Driver hits Uptown protesters, killing one and injuring others

Driver hits Uptown protesters, killing one and injuring others
·8 min read

A woman who died after a driver slammed into a parked car used to block streets for protesters in Uptown late Sunday was remembered by family as a person committed to social justice and "constantly sacrificing herself" for others.

The driver who crashed into the parked car killed 31-year-old Deona M. Knajdek, of Minneapolis, and injured at least two others who had gathered at W. Lake Street and S. Girard Avenue, near where Winston Boogie Smith Jr. was fatally shot by law enforcement on June 3 during an attempt by a U.S. Marshals Service task force to arrest him in a parking ramp.

Knajdek died after being taken by ambulance to HCMC, police said. A second protester also struck and taken by ambulance to HCMC. Two more people from the incident later sought medical attention at nearby hospitals, said police spokesman John Elder.

The driver was hospitalized forf injuries after some of the protesters "began to strike" him, Elder said, an account he said came from 911 callers. But witnesses at the scene disputed that account. They also disputed a department news release that stated protesters pulled the suspect from the vehicle. Bystander video after the crash shows one of people on scene restraining the man on the sidewalk before walking him over to police. Conditions of the injured protesters and the driver were not immediately known.

Police have yet to say whether the driver targeted the protesters, however, "the use of drugs or alcohol ... may be a contributing factor in this crash," Elder said.

The identity of the driver is being withheld by police. The names of the injured also have yet to be released.

Activist Donald Hooker Jr. spent time alongside Knajdek at the protest, saw the crash unfold and documented on video the chaos that erupted immediately afterward.

"He was going real fast, and he sped up the closer he got to the barricades," Hooker said. "He got out of the car, and he tried to run. ... This was an attack. It was on purpose."

Hooker said others there "apprehended him safely" and handed him over to police. He challenged the police account that protesters struck the man in any way.

He went on to criticize the approach police took in responding to the scene. "They kept shouting they were going mace us as if we were the enemies. ... We were the victims."

Garrett Knajdek said his sister, who was to have celebrated her 32nd birthday on Wednesday, "was using her car as a street blockade, and another vehicle struck her vehicle and her vehicle struck her."

She was a mother to daughters ages 11 and 13, was active about many issues surrounding justice. "She's constantly sacrificing herself for everyone around her," he said, "no matter the cost, obviously."

Deona Knajdek's Facebook page, where she went by "Deona Marie," as recently as Sunday showed videos of a peaceful scene at the intersection, where people sat and chatted. An additional post read: "If we don't get it, shut it down!!!"

Knajdek's parents traveled from Rush City to see the site where their daughter was killed Monday. Later, they joined a group of relatives whose loved ones died in police encounters to speak inside the Minnesota State Capitol.

Her mother Debbie Kenney wore a black T-shirt Knajdek had asked her to make to be worn while protesting on the streets. It read: "I Will Never Understand But I Stand."

"She wanted something to matter and she wanted Black lives to matter and for this all to stop," Kenney said. "There is no need. This is why they were coming together last night was to be peaceful and to use words to make an impact on people around them."

"My daughter's life being lost last night should empower us all to move forward to do a better cause. We will scream her name for the rest of my days. We will continue to pound the ground and make a fight for my daughter and for everyone else that she impacted and why she was doing that impact."

Kenney described her daughter as someone who found a cause in activism after struggling "for many months and years." In addition to a Wednesday birthday that was to be celebrated, Knajdek's mother added that she was also nearing her a one-year sobriety milestone.

Kenney made a plea that the family did "not want anyone to lash out in an angry way to the gentleman who used his vehicle to take my daughter's life."

"That family will be suffering on their own as well as he will," she said. "He will be living with that nightmare — and it is a nightmare — for the rest of his life."

Kenney said that as of late Monday afternoon police have yet to contact her about her daughter's death, but she learned a few details from witnesses she met at the intersection, including, "Not only that [the driver] did not slow down, but he was accelerating. They could hear the acceleration a block away."

Garrett Knajdek also called for calm in the streets from anyone upset about the death of his sister, who also at times had the last name Erickson.

"She wouldn't want people rioting in the streets and causing chaos," he said. "She doesn't want a mess. She always wanted to make sure people were heard peacefully."

Deona Knajdek worked as a program manager for The Cottages Group, a Twin Cities-based home health care provider for vulnerable adults. Referring to her as Deona Erickson, the company said in a statement, "She was one of the most selfless people we have had the pleasure of knowing, she earned the respect and trust of those she served because of her true compassion for her work. She will be deeply missed by those she served and served with."

Well after daybreak Monday, the scene was largely quiet. A streetlight pole, torn from its base, laid alongside the sidewalk, dangling wires still connected to the shattered base. Nearby, jagged pieces of a car's front end, including an entire headlight, we're piled along a fence.

Video posted on social media from the scene overnight showed a man being hustled down the sidewalk by one man as another yelled, "You're going to jail! You're going to jail!"

The man was walked over to police by one protester as others raised their arms and chanted, "Hands up!"

"I didn't mean to," the man can be heard saying on one of the postings. Another showed the distraught crowd directing police to the scene as others tended to the gravely injured Knajdek.

Barely 12 hours after the mayhem, Mayor Jacob Frey said late Monday morning that police are being reinforced with "some substantial resources that are coming in from a number of different jurisdictional partners," including the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and federal agencies.

City officials announced last month that they were seeking help as they try to temper a wave of violence that included a mass shooting downtown and the shootings of three young children, two of whom died, in the span of just a couple weeks. "It's too early to tell how many of those assisting officers will be focused on Uptown vs. other areas of the city," Frey said.

Councilmember Lisa Bender, whose ward includes Uptown, said in e-mail to the community Monday morning, "Any death in our city is a tragedy, and as we wait for more information, I hope we can all come together to support the victim's family and friends who have suffered this sudden loss of life."

Bender said that based on what police have so far disclosed, "it does not seem possible at this time to say if the crash was accidental or intentional. MPD is investigating. ... This stretch of road, like many in our community, is one of the highest crash corridors."

The deadly crash comes a little over a year after Bogdan Vechirko drove a semitrailer truck onto the Interstate 35W bridge during a massive protest following the killing of George Floyd. Hundreds of protesters scrambled for cover, and no one was injured in the May 31 incident. Vechirko, 35, of Otsego was charged five months later with threats of violence, a felony, and criminal vehicular operation, a gross misdemeanor. His case is pending.

Smith, a 32-year-old father of three, was killed after task force members surrounded him on the top floor of the parking garage at Seven Points, the shopping mall formerly known as Calhoun Square. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said he fired a gun from his vehicle as the task force tried to arrest him on a warrant from Ramsey County for being a felon in possession of a gun.

An unidentified woman who was with Smith at the time said she never saw him with a weapon, her attorneys said last week. Authorities have said that no body or dash camera or surveillance footage is available in the case.

Star Tribune staff writers John Reinan, Stephen Montemayor, Liz Navratil and Kim Hyatt contributed to this report. paul.walsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482

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