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What we know about the police killing of Winston Smith and the death of protester Deona Knajdek

Protesters took to the streets following another police killing of a Black man in Minneapolis. On Sunday night, one protester was killed.

Vigil for Deona M. Knajdek
Nae Totushek lights candles for Deona Knajdek, a protester killed by a motorist in Minneapolis.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune/Getty Images

For two weeks, Minneapolis protesters have demanded answers following the police killing of Winston Boogie Smith, a 32-year-old Black man, by law enforcement. And on Sunday, one of those protesters was killed in the city’s Uptown area when a man drove his SUV into a crowd of demonstrators; at least two others were injured.

The protester who was killed was identified by the Star Tribune as Deona Knajdek, a 31-year-old mother of two. The Star Tribune reports that in the days just before her death, Knajdek posted Facebook messages in support of protests against Smith’s killing; he was shot by law enforcement officers on June 3 in a parking lot adjacent to where Knajdek was killed.

Her death has put an even more intense spotlight on the movement to end police violence in the Minneapolis area — the cause she was advocating for at the moment of her death — and on law enforcement’s ability to keep residents like Knajdek safe.

While details have yet to emerge about the driver’s motives — no charges have been filed yet — Minneapolis-based reporter Tony Webster tweeted on Monday that the suspect has numerous DWI convictions and was driving after his license had been canceled as a “danger to public safety.” Police also said they believed alcohol and/or drugs may have been a factor.

Protesters have been regularly gathering in Uptown since June 3, when Smith was killed during an attempted arrest by a group of law enforcement organizations led by US marshals. Smith posted on Snapchat about a lunch date he was on just before his death. He was cornered by undercover law enforcement officers in unmarked cars when he and the woman he was with returned to his vehicle, which was atop a parking ramp nearby a popular area for dining, shopping, and nightlife near downtown Minneapolis.

In a statement released following Smith’s shooting, the US marshals claimed he “failed to comply and produced a handgun, resulting in task force members firing upon the subject.” The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said in a statement that Smith shot at officers first, and that a gun and spent cartridges were found inside his car. But the woman he was with — she was injured by breaking glass — contradicted the official version of events, saying through her attorney last week that she “never saw a gun on Winston Smith, and she never saw a gun inside the vehicle at any time.”

While the Minneapolis Police Department wasn’t involved in Smith’s killing, his death and the death of Knajdek come at a particularly fraught time for Minneapolis’s relationship with law enforcement. Memories of George Floyd’s murder remain fresh, as do questions of what it means that his killer will go to prison; in a few months, residents will get to vote on whether to dissolve and rethink their police department; and police officials, as well as some politicians, are arguing that more police are necessary to combat rising violent crime numbers.

Smith’s killing has again revealed a deep-seated mistrust of police

A near-total lack of transparency from law enforcement agencies involved in the shooting that killed Smith has fueled the protests.

While Minneapolis cops are required to wear body cams, US marshals don’t wear them, and according to MinnPost, marshals “prohibit local cops on their task force from wearing them.” According to the Minnesota BCA, the two cops confirmed to have shot Smith were a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy and a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy; neither had on a body camera. And the names of the officers involved in Smith’s killing haven’t been released.

While video taken by bystanders has been key to understanding what happened in other instances where law enforcement officers have killed Black men, Smith’s shooting took place in a parking ramp largely hidden from public view, and no video has surfaced. So for now, it’s law enforcement’s word against the word of an eyewitness — and unfortunately, recent developments in Minneapolis have given people good reason to look upon statements from law enforcement with skepticism.

Consider, for instance, the statement initially released by the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of then-police officer Derek Chauvin.

“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” it was titled, with the subsequent text making it sound as though Floyd died of natural causes while police tried to arrest him.

As video taken by eyewitnesses and police body cams quickly revealed, Chauvin actually murdered Floyd, by pinning him by the neck with his knee for nearly 10 minutes. But in Smith’s case, no video has surfaced to clear up the discrepancy between what law enforcement is saying and what the woman who was with Smith at the time says.

As USA Today detailed, the lack of body cam footage of Smith’s killing has become a major point of contention for protesters, who are demanding local law enforcement agencies stop working with federal agencies that don’t require them:

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network, called it “unacceptable” that the U.S. Marshals still do not require police body camera use. She called for the city to stop allowing its officers to participate in federal task forces that do not require body camera use, especially U.S. Marshals task forces.

“We don’t believe the lies,” she said. “We don’t believe the false narratives of law enforcement. We don’t believe the false narratives that were carried forward by our local media. And we’re not going to be complicit in a cover-up of the murder of a father, a comedian, a hip-hop artist, a son, a brother and a friend.”

Angela Rose Myers, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said police have a history of “covering up their crimes and using the BCA to do it.”

“Just because a video didn’t go viral of Winston Smith’s murder, doesn’t mean his life didn’t matter,” she added.

In general, the research on just how effective body cameras are is mixed. But this is one case where having some footage would be useful. Legislation that would mandate body cameras for all federal officers has passed the House of Representatives, but is stalled in the Senate, where attempts to find a bipartisan consensus on police reform are ongoing.

But beyond the desire for policy changes is the raw sadness and anger many people feel about another life being taken at the hands of law enforcement officers.

Smith, a father of three, was a musician who went by the name Wince Me Boi and appeared in a number of comedy videos, including one posted on Facebook just days before his death.

According to Minneapolis’s KARE 11, at the time of his death, Smith was wanted on a warrant for missing a May sentencing hearing following a November 2020 guilty plea for possessing a handgun, in violation of the terms of a previous plea deal connected with a conviction for first-degree aggravated robbery.

Social media posts published by Smith after his November 2020 plea deal indicate he was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that he was about to spend four years in prison.

From KARE:

In a video posted to Smith’s Instagram account in February, he discusses his upcoming prison term.

“I’m like, four years? I would rather die. My mind is not right. I’m like, I’m ready to die, for my freedom. Because I feel like they’re not treating me fair. I feel like the situation is that it was a gun somewhere around me. And they want me to do four years because of that. I didn’t have the gun. I didn’t shoot nobody. I didn’t kill nobody,” Smith said.

But Smith seemed to have more on his mind than just his personal legal plight. In other social media videos, he urged Black Lives Matter protesters to get more confrontational with police, saying things like, “get ready for war.”

Of course, that Smith said incendiary things in videos does not mean officers were justified in shooting him. And so far, the only evidence they’ve presented that killing him was necessary were press statements that are hard to accept at face value, given the misleading nature of past statements.

Minneapolis is wrestling with big questions about policing

The broader context for Winston Smith’s shooting is a recent string of Minneapolis-area police killings of Black men, such as Jamar Clark and Philando Castile — and, more recently, Floyd, Dolal Idd, and Daunte Wright.

In each of those cases, videos at least shed some light on what happened, and the cases of Castile, Floyd, and Wright led to criminal charges against the officers involved. (While Chauvin was convicted of murder for killing Floyd, the officer who shot and killed Castile was acquitted of manslaughter, and the officer who killed Wright is facing second-degree manslaughter charges.) In Smith’s case, people are still left guessing.

Monday evening saw demonstrators take to the streets in the Uptown area to both protest Smith’s death and recognize Knajdek’s life.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, said resources from law enforcement jurisdictions beyond Minneapolis will be used to try and maintain peace in Uptown. While some Minneapolis activists have called for fewer police, Frey has advocated for bringing on new officers, arguing that doing so will help reduce violent crime in the city. As MPR News notes, there have been more than 30 homicides this year in Minneapolis, and Frey — as well as some residents — believes more police will curtail the number of killings.

Whether that is the case, and whether more police will mean no more deaths like Knajdek’s, remains to be seen. It’s also a matter of fierce debate and is shaping the city’s mayoral race, with some candidates advocating for a sweeping rethinking of policing and others calling for more limited changes. Voters will get a say on what they want public safety to look like beyond the mayor’s race in a ballot initiative as well — if it succeeds, the Minneapolis Police Department will be taken apart and replaced by a department likely to include traditional police working alongside public health officials capable of responding to emergencies.

In the next few months, voters will need to answer these questions. In the short term, however, more police are coming to the site of Smith’s death. And, for many protesters, more police at this point may be viewed as more of a provocation than a solution.