Eaton: Two truths: When advocating abolition and holding perpetrators accountable collide

One protester’s experience on I-35W.

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Emily Eaton

Six days after the police killing of George Floyd, peaceful protesters gathered on the I-35W bridge. While kneeling for a moment of silence, a semitruck barreled down the southbound lane, interrupting and traumatizing the crowd of roughly 6,000 people.

On Oct. 22, Bogdan Vechirko, the driver of the semitruck, was charged with a felony count of threats of violence as well as a gross misdemeanor count of criminal vehicular operation. I sat down with Tess Mueske, a recent graduate, to catch a glimpse of what that day on the bridge meant to protesters and how she feels about the charges Vechirko faces.

So, can you talk to me about your personal motivations for attending protests this summer? How did you find yourself on 35W when all of this went down?

I’ve been going to protests for a really long time. I think the value for me is in showing up physically, as a white person especially. That [protest] I thought was important to go to because it was such a grand gesture, and we were blocking such an important interstate.

In 2016, when Black Lives Matter was first forming, I was an employee at the Mall of America. They had been blocking 94, and then they were occupying the train station below, I think. I remember not being super on board with the movement because … they were blocking life.

I think over the last four years, I’ve really been radicalized, and I’m now very much on board with blocking roads, especially … during a global pandemic [in] which people have been fearing for their lives in a way that they haven’t before. A lot of people woke up through that.

Obviously you were on 35W when the truck driver drove through the crowd. … What was that experience like? What was going through your mind during that time?

We’d been doing a moment of silence or prayer, and they’d asked everybody to sit down, I think. Suddenly the truck started coming towards us. … [It] would have hit us. I think he was honking his horn. The crowd obviously ran out of the way. It was like when you’re at a concert, … and everyone pushes forward, and there’s that moment of panic, and you’re like, “I can’t move my body or breathe.” I was pushed up against a cement median — I have a scar on my arm from it. I remember just, like, clawing at the ankles of the person standing on the median being like “Please, pull me up, I will get trampled by the crowd”.

I think the fear that I felt in that moment was unparalleled to anything I’ve ever felt. I think of it as a terror attack. People started yelling that [the truck] was going to blow up, so we had to get off the bridge. Police came on … and formed a massive barricade so we couldn’t go anywhere … and then came down the exit ramp and pepper sprayed and tear gassed us from the back.

Did being there change your perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement or your understanding of public opinion towards it?

I was already on board with Black Lives Matter, but that is where I realized that we aren’t just fighting the police. People of color, specifically Black folx and Indigenous folx, have been experiencing this kind of brutality literally since the United States … was formed. I’d never been involved in something that was that traumatic because of my presence somewhere.

The whole system is flawed. … And we like to look at places such as the Middle East as these violent terror states, and we live in one. That’s a really controversial opinion, but I think that the police let in the semitruck driver.

So basically, what you’re saying is that this was the first time that you had been put in danger purely for existing in a space, more or less?

Yeah, and I already understood that that violence is the lived experience of some people and it’s not mine, but that was, like, … I think of it as being a terrorist attack.

The driver of the semitruck is now facing a felony count of threats of violence and a gross misdemeanor count of criminal vehicular operation. What was your reaction to that — how does it make you feel?

My initial reaction was incredible relief. I felt a little bit vindictive almost. Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to process, I struggle with it in the sense that if I do say that I’m an abolitionist, that includes prisons. I’m very happy that he’s been charged, and I want him to rot in jail for the rest of his life. But, if I say that I want to abolish prisons, how can those two truths exist at the same time?