After days of protesting in Uptown, Lavish Mack was enjoying a rare moment of relaxation Sunday night.
He and fellow protesters were playing the game Red Light, Green Light on W. Lake Street, and Mack was lightheartedly arguing after they told him, "You're out."
Then he heard an engine revving loudly. A Jeep Cherokee came hurtling toward them at high speed, smashing into a barricade the group had erected for safety.
Mack heard people screaming: "Car! Run! Get up!" In an instant, his new friend, Deona M. Knajdek, lay bleeding on the sidewalk.
By the end of the night, the crowd would learn she had died, marchers would turn the driver over to police, and they would face off against officers in riot gear in an episode that shocked protesters and gave them renewed determination to keep pressing for racial justice in policing.
Knajdek, Mack and other protesters had been gathering at W. Lake Street and Girard Avenue in Minneapolis ever since a federal task force shot and killed Winston Smith in a nearby parking garage on June 3. No video footage or detailed information justifying what happened has been released.
Sunday, if not for Knajdek's car providing an extra barrier for protesters who were standing a little farther east on Lake Street, Mack believes the toll would have been far worse.
"I don't want to say it makes me scared, but it could have been me," he later reflected. "No exaggeration, it could have been 20 people if it were not for Deona's car. It just makes you think — I don't know. I haven't been able to process it."
'He killed her'
It had been 10 days since the killing of Smith, a 32-year-old Black man.
Protesters gathered Sunday afternoon on the fifth floor of the parking garage where sheriff's deputies in a U.S. Marshals Service-led task force tried to arrest Smith on a Ramsey County warrant on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a gun. He had just left Stella's Fish Cafe across the street, where he was on a date.
Authorities said they killed Smith after he shot from his car and that they recovered a weapon. Attorneys for a woman in the passenger's seat said she saw no gun. Protesters had been convening day after day — sometimes shutting down busy intersections — to honor Smith's memory and demand more evidence, skeptical of police narratives.
They marched through the streets and occupied the area for the rest of Sunday, blocking off Lake Street so that cars would bypass the area. Activists knew the risks of being hit by vehicles while demonstrating, especially since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, expanded the racial justice movement in Minneapolis and around the world.
More than 100 times since then, motorists have struck protesters around the country — from Denver to Seattle to New York, according to published reports. And many still remembered the truck driver who came close to hitting hundreds of protesters marching on a shut-down Interstate 35W bridge days after Floyd's murder.
As the day came to an end, the several dozen people who remained decided to take a break. They played volleyball, then the children's running game Red Light, Green Light.
"We weren't even thinking about the movement," Mack said. "We were there existing in pure bliss, like kindergartners. … We were taking a moment [with our] guard down."
Knajdek had positioned her car, along with another vehicle, at the intersection to form a protective barrier alongside construction materials and other items, and was sitting on the sidewalk on the southeast corner of Lake and Girard.
Witnesses saw the Jeep burst through the barricade shortly before midnight, shoving one of the vehicles into Knajdek. Mack and others reported seeing the driver — later identified as Nicholas D. Kraus — step out of his smoking, totaled vehicle, bleeding and disoriented, and try to get away.
Protester Tony Clark held the man in a headlock as both lay on the ground.
"Hold him! Hold him!" a voice could be heard shouting on Mack's Instagram livestream. "Don't let go!"
Video footage online did not show the actual incident, but showed a panicked, screaming crowd trying to make sense of the aftermath. "He came through 100 miles an hour and he just killed her!" Mack called out, taking in the scene as the group's medics tried to save Knajdek.
Clark pulled Kraus off the ground, still in a headlock, and slowly walked him backward across Lake Street.
"You going down, boy!" someone yelled at the driver. "You going down! … It's over!"
"I didn't mean to," Kraus said quietly.
Clark set Kraus down on the sidewalk of Girard Avenue. As one protester attempted to tie the driver's legs with a rope until police arrived, Clark assured the outraged onlookers, "I got him, I got him."
A cacophony of sirens sounded in the distance.
"Get up there — go, go, go, go ... go! She's dead," Mack told police as they arrived. He pointed out the driver of the car, "He just … killed her. He killed her."
Mack demanded an ambulance as protesters tried to alert police to Knajdek's condition.
"It's on its way," a police officer said, according to video on social media, using an expletive as he told protesters the ambulance would be there faster if they weren't in the street. "Get out of here."
'I feel numb'
Kenneth Lax had heard the roar of an engine heading their way as he rested in his SUV alongside the parking garage — a place where he often sat to watch over the crowd.
He had seen white men in recent days driving by as they revved their pickup truck engines and hurled racial slurs to intimidate protesters, and said that some people in the movement had received threats over social media to give up the roadway.
Lax hurried to Lake Street and came upon people trying to save Knajdek.
"I just couldn't look," he said.
He went over to the driver as Clark held him down. After police pulled up, Clark handed the suspect to Lax, who helped march him over to officers near the doorway to the Walkway, an apartment building on the corner. A witness' Facebook video showed Kraus repeatedly saying, "I'll kill myself."
"You're going to face justice," Lax recalled telling the driver.
Minneapolis police suggested that Kraus, who is white, was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but his official motive was unknown. He was booked in the Hennepin County jail on suspicion of criminal vehicular homicide. Some witnesses say he was going so fast the crash could not have been an accident.
Matrim Charlebois had been sitting in a wheelchair about 6 feet from Knajdek, and said the driver stumbled out of the car, grinning. Charlebois added that they saw protesters shove the driver around when putting him in a headlock, but Charlebois and others disputed the Minneapolis Police Department's statement that protestors pulled the man from his car and struck him. And Charlebois maintained that police handled the matter poorly, pushing protesters down the street and macing a friend.
Meanwhile, a group of young women who had been playing Red Light, Green Light reeled.
"All of a sudden a car comes by and I hear 'boom' and then everyone starts running," said Daemeah Karbeah, 19, who had been sitting beside the victim minutes before the driver blasted through. "Then I saw her laying down right there and it was just really traumatizing. … I didn't understand what was going on. I still can barely understand what was going on right now. I feel numb."
At the corner Monday evening, people who had survived the chaos of the night before summoned the courage to return — to share their side of the story, to seek solace in their community, to show they would not be cowed, to join others in demanding justice for Smith and now Knajdek.
Smith's sister, Victoria Lindgren, said protesters would take more precautions, but they were willing to take the risk of being there.
"I'm going to keep doing," she said, "exactly what I've been doing."
Staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210