The Culture of Vehicular Attacks: On the Murder of Deona Marie Erickson

On June 13, a driver attacked a demonstration in Minneapolis, killing Deona Marie Erickson. This is the result of years of right-wing efforts to normalize—and even legalize—vehicular attacks. This article was first published by Crimethinc.

Submitted by R Totale on June 16, 2021

On June 13, a driver attacked a demonstration in Minneapolis, killing Deona Marie Erickson. This is the result of years of right-wing efforts to normalize—and even legalize—vehicular attacks. Now the corporate media has ceased to prioritize covering them, paving the way for more killings. In dialogue with our comrades at It’s Going Down and on the ground in Minneapolis, we have prepared the following reflections on the implications of this.

Shortly before midnight on June 13, while demonstrators gathered at Lake Street and Girard Avenue to protest the murder of Winston Smith by sheriff’s deputies and US Marshals, a man named Nicholas Kraus drove his SUV into the crowd at high speed, killing Deona Marie Erickson. One Black anti-fascist militant who was on the ground at the time of the attack reports that it was clear to those present that it was an intentional attack: “You heard his engine from three blocks away.”

According to Unicorn Riot,

“Deona Erickson’s car was parked on the side of the street in a way that would protect the people who were gathering. She was sitting down on the sidewalk about 15 feet from her car moments before the perpetrator smashed directly against her car at a very high speed. Witnesses say she was then hit by her car and sent flying. Street medics on the scene resuscitated her but she later died at the hospital.”

Deona Marie Erickson had two daughters. She worked as a program manager at a center for disabled adults. Today would have been her 32nd birthday. She gave her life to protect those who protest police murder.

Demonstrators detained the driver, Nicholas Kraus. Eyewitnesses dispute police allegations that he was “pulled from his car”; reportedly, police did not respond until after the attack, sending riot police to threaten the crowd before an ambulance could arrive. Under the circumstances, the demonstrators’ response was measured, to say the least.

The Culture of Vehicular Attacks

Let’s put this attack in context.

Fox News and the Daily Caller circulated a video encouraging their viewers to carry out vehicular attacks against protesters months ahead of the fascist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville at which a self-identified neo-Nazi did exactly that, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 people. Afterwards, leaked chats showed other neo-Nazis also planning to use vehicles to attack protesters.

In summer 2020, vehicular attacks surged in response to protests against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. Over a dozen people were killed in these and other attacks on the movement.

Today, legislators around the United States are taking steps to criminalize protest activity, introducing a wide range of anti-protest bills. Foremost among them, Oklahoma and Florida lawmakers have passed laws guaranteeing civil and criminal immunity to drivers who hit demonstrators with vehicles, effectively granting vigilantes the right to crash cars into demonstrators. At the same time, Florida has introduced penalties of up to 15 years imprisonment for blocking traffic.

The message is clear enough. In short, lawmakers and police seek to crack down on pedestrians acting collectively to oppose state violence, while extending additional privileges to drivers who act individually to support state violence via their own attacks. The official institutions of the state have failed to leverage enough violence to suppress movements against police violence and white supremacy, so they are deputizing others to do so—a longstanding counterinsurgency strategy reflective of the colonial heritage of the United States.

On a fundamental level, the form of subjectivity that these lawmakers are promoting is what we might call a motorist subjectivity: consumerist, individualized, invested in the smooth functioning of the existing order, and regarding all other possibilities as threats. Structurally speaking, for the motorist, all other human beings—traffic as well as pedestrians—are obstacles, and the only imaginable journeys are dictated by the routes established by the state and the economy. The motorist wants to see the laws enforced on others, on the premise that it will reduce the ways that others might inconvenience him, but he doesn’t want the laws enforced on himself. Conceiving of our society as an entirely mapped world—the way that Google Maps does—in which all means of locomotion, all forms of agency, are individualized according to financial means, the motorist cannot imagine why people would assemble, off road or not, to challenge law enforcement itself.

As shocking as vehicular attacks are when they occur, they are an extension of the society in which they take place. They are anti-social, but they express and intensify the anti-social premises of our day-to-day relations with each other. Motorist versus pedestrian is a classic class opposition in a society in which transportation and mobility are fundamentally racialized. People who were raised on advertisements depicting jeeps off-roading across the suspiciously vacant landscape of the frontier only to find themselves sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway for an hour every day look around for someone to blame, and—as if by design—blame those with even less power than themselves. Road rage.

Right-wing online chatter in Minneapolis ahead of the attack that took Deona Marie Erickson’s life.

In this context, the chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” asserts another form of life, another way of relating to each other and conceiving of what our lives could be. Rather than framing vehicular attacks as aberrations from an otherwise peaceful social order—to be addressed, for example, by more policing—we have to understand them as one of the ugliest manifestations of a social structure that is fundamentally racist and anti-human, which can only be addressed via new forms of togetherness.

Honoring those whose lives have been taken by police and pro-police vigilantes is a first step towards this, and it is important that people have been doing this through shared presence in particular physical spaces. The internet—the information superhighway—tends to reinforce the motorist mentality of abstract competition and hostility. One of the most basic steps we can take towards creating a new social fabric on egalitarian terms is to encounter each other in person in ways that affirm the specificity of place.

This gives us more perspective on the ongoing efforts of city officials to evict the autonomous zone at the site where George Floyd was murdered, in order to open it up for “the free passage of traffic.” Rhetoric about “culture wars” is usually used to evoke a conflict between those on the fringe of the left and right, but here, we see centrist officials forcibly imposing a particular model for what our lives, relationships, and forms of grieving should be, even as they purport to be neutral.

Far-Right Murderers and Centrist Beneficiaries

Nicholas Kraus, a man with a history of domestic violence and abuse, is representative of the sort of dysfunctional, alienated men that far-right provocateurs aim to weaponize to carry out stochastic attacks on social movements.

This is effectively a watered-down version of the same strategy that ISIS has used in the Mideast in territories it does not control: taking advantage of the desperation, prejudice, and mental health issues of an entitled but disenfranchised population, the far right aims to disrupt popular mobilizations through consistent but deniable terror attacks. Their goal is to raise the risks of public organizing to such an extent that it becomes hard for movements to maintain momentum, in order to support state repression while opening up space for fascist groups to recruit and mobilize. In Turkey, this approach helped the despotic government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to crush what had been powerful social movements. The ultimate beneficiaries of this are not just far-right politicians, but also centrist capitalists who do not wish to see fundamental changes that could threaten their power.

Vigilante attacks are also advantageous for the city officials who would like to present themselves as “neutral” while suppressing the protest movements against the murders that the police they oversee regularly carry out. Vigilante attacks enable these officials to change the subject from the violence of the institutions they represent back to the question of how to “maintain order.”

If the goal of those who seek to encourage vigilante attacks is to discourage movements based in direct action, this dovetails with the goals of city officials who seek to use the Non-Profit Industrial Complex to buy off a layer of activists to oppose and undermine effective strategies from within the movement. In that regard, one of the most important ways to prevent the attackers from achieving their goals is to preserve the horizontal, grassroots structure of movements against police, while continuing to emphasize systemic forms of white supremacist violence alongside vigilante attacks.

“Some of these people with the megaphones, I guess their role is to get people riled up and get them in a space and march them around and educate them and tell them what their next big plans are and who they’re backing politics-wise and things like that.

“I like community, organic—no microphones, no megaphones, like right now. It’s about fifty people—but fifty people got Lake and Hennepin shut down right now, you know what I’m saying? We’re moving and grooving right now. As opposed to two or three hundred people holding signs, marching around, and then feeling accomplished, patting themselves on the back and then leaving—ain’t shit get shut down really. Police don’t even monitor the marches no more. No change will come from that.”

-Anonymous Black anti-fascist militant in Minneapolis, evening of June 15, 2021

But Who’s Paying Attention?

“You protested because it was trendy and ‘everyone was doing it.’ I protest because people are out here dying!”

-Deona Marie Erickson, June 10

In 2021, many liberals and progressives have left the streets, relying on the Biden administration to roll back the policies of the Trump administration. Consequently, the murder of Deona Marie Erickson has attracted considerably less attention than it might have just last year. This withdrawal from social struggles creates the conditions for more attacks like this to take place.

This reminds us of the situation before the murder of Heather Heyer made world news, when the far right carried out a series of murders around the United States without drawing the attention of corporate media. Corporate media outlets were only forced to cover the events in Charlottesville because it was not possible to sweep under the rug the fact that a thousand fascists had gathered in one place and killed a white woman. Because the events took news editors—though not anti-fascists—by surprise, they were not prepared to spin the story according to the preferences of their corporate backers; so for a week, fairly honest coverage of the threat represented by the far right suddenly appeared in a variety of news outlets. Subsequently, although this coverage was tempered by efforts to demonize anti-fascists, centrist media outlets continued to report on far-right attacks in order to associate them with the agenda of Donald Trump’s administration.

But now that centrists can’t leverage Deona Marie’s death against Trump, they are prepared to treat it as simply another sad facet of American life, to sweep it under the rug once more.

This coincides with widespread emotional numbness arising from several years of constant tragedies. The COVID-19 pandemic has already accustomed many people to thinking of human life as expendable. Last weekend saw multiple mass shootings across several states. Poverty has reached the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. These are the forces that drive desperate people to adopt far-right politics wherever there are no models for a collective pursuit of liberation, creating a feedback loop that will generate more and more tragedies.

“We keep us safe.” “We protect us.” These slogans spread far and wide in the course of the movements that burst onto the world stage in Ferguson, Missouri because it has become eminently apparent that no one else is going to protect us. Deona Marie died doing her best to keep her companions safe—to open up a space in which people can come to know each other on different terms, as part of a community premised on shared consideration for all human beings, not individualized capitalist competition. We should do the same, so that everyone like her, and like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Winston Smith—might live. We should do the same, because the alternative means isolation, means eventually being treated as expendable ourselves.

“If the fascists would have run over Deona Marie and we would have not been holding space, not erected the barricades that the city just tried to tear down, then Deona Marie’s voice would be in vain. We’ve got to be out here. That fascist wins—that fascist who drove his car right here, he wins. ‘Oh, I got them off the street. They’re gone now. My fellow white supremacists can enjoy Lake Street now, because I got them fuckers off the street,’ you know what I’m saying?

“We’re out here stronger now. We have to be.”

-Anonymous Black anti-fascist militant in Minneapolis, June 15, 2021