What We Know About the Killing of Winston Smith in Minneapolis

·8 min read
Police Shooting Minneapolis - Credit: Christian Monterrosa/AP
Police Shooting Minneapolis - Credit: Christian Monterrosa/AP

A year after the murder of George Floyd, unrest is again roiling the streets of Minneapolis.

The killing of Winston Smith, a 32-year-old black man, on June 3rd by local officers under federal command has triggered a wave of new protests in the city’s Uptown district. A 31-year-old woman who joined in those protests has also been killed — after a white motorist slammed into her car at high speed. That driver has been charged with murder. Meantime, police have been clashing with protesters, seeking to clear an intersection where activists had set up a memorial to Smith and painted: “STOP THE COVER UP!” At the mayor’s request, Minnesota National Guard troops have been placed on standby.

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Here’s what you need to know.

Who Was Winston Smith?
Winston Boogie Smith Jr. was a father of three, remembered by his family as a charismatic, larger-than-life personality and comedian. He was a rapper and a prolific social media creator who went by the handle Wince Me Boi, often filming direct-to-camera riffs from inside his car. He talked often of self-improvement. “It’s easy, in front of this camera, to make everything seem like it’s good. It’s not,” he said in a February Instagram video. “But I’m whoopin’ my own ass. I’m fighting off them demons….. And I’m at least trying to make a good impression for someone everyday. Fight with me, y’all.”

Some of Smith’s content was goofy and light-hearted. In May, he filmed a comedic short showing off his hot new ride, “the attention getter,” to a friend. (It was an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.) Other videos were far more serious and political. In the lead-up to the Derek Chauvin verdict this spring, Smith used his platform to preach militancy for black activists. In one video, Smith explicitly rejected the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. “Ain’t nobody finna be begging for no justice,” he said from his car on April 13th. “We about to take our shit back. Get ready for war, man. This shit is real.”

Why Was Smith Wanted by Law Enforcement?
Smith had a felony criminal record and had reportedly skipped an important court date. Smith’s serious legal troubles started several years back, when he pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery in a 2017 case involving an ex-girlfriend. According to news reports, he received a suspended sentence, and on probation he was prohibited from having a firearm. In 2019 he was charged for having a gun under his car seat; he reportedly reached a plea deal last November and was facing a four-year prison term. In a video from February, Smith railed against the sentence. “The situation was, it was just a gun somewhere around me. And they want me to do four years because of that,” he said. “I didn’t have the gun. I didn’t shoot nobody. I didn’t kill nobody.” Smith reportedly missed a sentencing court date in May, which led to the warrant for his arrest.

Who Shot Smith?
Smith died in an operation directed by the U.S. Marshals on June 3rd. The shooting took place on the top level of a parking ramp in the Uptown neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis, where Smith and a companion had eaten at a seafood restaurant.

The U.S. Marshals are a branch of the Justice Department that describes itself as the “federal government’s primary agency for fugitive investigations.” Despite this federal status, however, the marshals often track down local subjects by working with local officers who are deputized by the federal government. A recent investigation by the Marshall Project with USAToday characterizes these task forces as “acting like local police — only with more violence and less accountability.”

In this case, the North Star Fugitive Task Force — comprised of agents from six different law enforcement agencies, including deputies from local sheriff’s offices as well as agents from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, ICE, and the Marshals Service itself — “were alerted” to Smith’s whereabouts. According to a press release from the state of Minnesota, “They made contact with him [Smith] in an attempt to take him into custody.” As the state describes the shooting, deputies from two local sheriffs offices “discharged their weapons, striking the man. He was pronounced deceased at the scene.”

Was the Shooting Justified?
This is very much in dispute. According to the state, there was a gun battle: “Evidence at the scene indicates that the man [Smith] fired his weapon from inside the vehicle.” Investigators say they recovered “a handgun as well as spent cartridge cases from inside the driver’s compartment.”

But Smith’s companion, who was also in the car when the deputies opened fire, insists Smith was not brandishing a weapon. Her lawyer told reporters: “She never saw a gun on Winston Smith, and she never saw a gun inside the vehicle at any time.”

The woman has chosen to remain anonymous. The state describes her as “a 27-year-old female passenger in the vehicle” and reported she had received medical treatment for “glass injuries sustained during the incident.”

Is There Video of the Shooting?
No. The U.S. Marshals service does not allow task-force members to wear body cameras. There is no known footage of the incident. A photo taken in the aftermath of the shooting shows at least half a dozen black SUVs, pickups, and cars boxing in the vehicle Smith was driving.

Have the Deputies who Shot Winston Smith Been Identified?
No. The deputies were working undercover, according to the state, and their names cannot be made public under Minnesota law.

Is this Kind of Action Typical of the U.S. Marshals?
The U.S. Marshals operate under looser rules of engagement than local police, which allow them to shoot into cars, for example. And it’s hard to hold task-force members to account. Federally deputized officers cannot be brought to justice locally, and not one has ever faced federal charges after a shooting. Over the five-year period from 2015 to 2020, the Marshall Project investigation found, operations led by the Marshals shot 177 people and killed 124.

Last September an operation by the U.S. Marshals in Washington state killed Michael Reinoehl in a hail of nearly 40 bullets. Reinoehl, who identified as part of antifa, was wanted for the shooting death of a right-wing agitator on the streets of Portland. The investigation into the killing of Reinoehl similarly alleged that Reinoehl had fired a gun and that a shell casing from his weapon was found at the scene. (No bullet was ever recovered.) Subsequent reporting revealed a chaotic shootout by law enforcement that began with a deputy firing a rifle at Reinoehl through the windshield of the deputy’s own SUV.

What Has the Reaction Been to Smith’s Killing?
Police-accountability activists have held protests to draw attention to the killing, demanding transparency and carrying signs that read “Justice for Winston Smith.” Activists have also attempted to occupy an intersection near where Smith was shot, painting graffiti on the sidewalk that reads: “No Justice, No Street!” Some on the left have claimed that Smith was killed for his political beliefs, with a group of Twitter activist changing their display names to “Winston Smith Was Assassinated.”

Is this Where a Protester Was Killed?
Yes. A 31-year-old activist named Deona Knajdek, who was also known as Deona Marie, was killed on the night of June 13th. Knajdeck — a mother of two — had reportedly parked her car to help block the intersection and protect the protesters decrying the killing of Smith. Knajdek was killed and two other protesters were injured when a 35-year-old white man driving a Jeep accelerated into the intersection and slammed Knajdek’s car at high speed, pushing it into the crowd where Knajdek was standing. According to authorities, she suffered “severe trauma to her head.” (Graphic footage of the aftermath of the crash can be seen here.)

Has the Driver Been Charged?
Nicholas Kraus, 35, has been charged with second-degree intentional murder and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. County Attorney Mike Freeman described Kraus as committing an “extreme and violent intentional act.” The criminal complaint describes Kraus as intoxicated, and alleges, “The defendant admitted that he floored the accelerator.”

What is the Government of Minneapolis Doing?
Mayor Jacob Frey has insisted that the intersection must be kept clear, and has sent in cops to do that job. “This is a safety concern,” Frey said, pivoting quickly to economic concerns: “We can’t have a major commercial corridor like this shut down.” Frey has also sent a letter to the governor requesting the the Minnesota National Guard be placed on standby “to assist in ensuring calm and order throughout the city.” As of Wednesday afternoon, 100 National Guard troops had been activated and were ready to deploy.

This is a developing story and will be updated as events warrant.

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