I Was a Volunteer Driver During the Minneapolis Protests, Here’s What I Saw

St. Paul’s Midway on fire. Photo courtesy of Mia Jackman.

**Dear reader, pseudonyms were used in this article to protect the identity of protestors. Thank you.**

On Saturday night, the NAACP requests volunteers on the North side to provide rides & to guard Black-owned businesses from white supremacists. Still aching from Thursday’s march, I volunteer with a friend. We are stationed outside of Shiloh International on Broadway.

My friend sees a video of the MPD firing rubber bullets at folks on their porch. We put on our helmets. We watch for cars with out of state plates or no plates at all. Volunteers in tan and yellow shirts pepper the street. 

A friend and I catch up between activity on the street, due to COVID-19 we haven’t seen each other in person in months. A few cars drive by a few too many times. The sun sets and gunshots start in the distance. MPD zooms by, but they leave us alone. 

We decide to head home and my phone rings. Someone contacts me asking if I can bring some medics to a shelter for the evening. I look at my friend, silently asking if it’s OK. She shrugs. As we make our way to the medics, we sneak through orange cones and road blocks on side streets due to highway closures. Teen boys, men, neighbors sit on their blocks with bats and guns. I wave. One of them pokes fun at me, “If you can’t make it through there, someone should take your license away!” I made it. We drop the out-of-town medics off at their shelter, a church. 

My friend and I struggle to find a way across the river back to St. Paul–taking stoplights as suggestions. I drive the wrong way down a one-way, hoping it will lead us… somewhere. We eventually route ourselves through Northeast, to Dinkytown, and finally across a bridge towards home. A Latino boy practices his kickflips on the right side of the empty street. 

On Snelling, two humvees guard the firestation. National Guard members lean against the vehicles with their rifles in hand. They make eye contact with me as I drive by. It is nearly 1AM. My partner meets me at the car, so we can drive to the parking lot. On our way, I drive by the humvees again so he can see the dystopian sight. 

On Sunday, my sister and I decide to go out and offer rides again. 

An organizer tells me to drive towards US Bank Stadium, where protesters are heading after an oil tanker barreled onto a highway full of human beings. As streams of people walk by, cars honk, fists are raised, but everyone is okay. We head to the University of Minnesota, where we hear there are stranded protesters. We get stuck on a bridge over interstate-35, where protesters are starting to return. There aren’t many of them but they are taunting the police and national guard, filming the overreaction to protesters, laughing. I convince my sister we should park and head down the ramp. More people stream down, stopping at the traffic lights, after a while we retreat back. People chatter in groups, stunned by the extreme police presence. There are hundreds of officers, guards, metro mobility busses, humvees, squad SUVs. 

A young Black man walks down and flicks the guard off with both hands. He is the only one there. I bound through the tall grass on the side of the ramp and put my body between him and the guard members. He looks at me and carries on. When he leaves, I take a seat on the pavement where three others join me. Again, I retreat to change my clothes–long-sleeved shirt and pants to avoid tear gas irritating my skin. I promise my sister I’ll leave the highway by 7:50pm, ten minutes before curfew and I keep my word. The small crowd on the ramp backs up further at 8pm. More people line the bridge, the fence along the highway, and all levels of the nearby parking ramp. 

We notice a white man in bright yellow shorts on a bike on the highway alone. Suddenly, he lays flat, and then he’s running and they’re firing rubber bullets at him. The crowd moves towards the scene unfolding and yells variants of, “Stop! He’s one fucking person!”  

My sister shouts, “Come on, Mia!” and we are running through traffic. Two young women with dead phones ask us if we have a charger. We tell them to get in and I say, “I might have to drive but I promise I will get you to your friend when you figure out where she is.” 

A loud crack fills the air–the sound of a “less-lethal” weapon being fired. I roll up the windows and speed off, and hope to find a safer space to regroup. The women talk on the phone behind me, trying to locate their friend. We see the protester who got hit on the highway walking barefoot with his bike and I pull over. 

“Hey, man. Was that you out there? What do you need?” My voice shakes and I am still crying.

“I need to get home.” His voice is flat, distant.

I tell him to get in and the women in the back offer to walk the rest of the way. I scold them, “No,” and tell them to scoot over. I have three seats. We continue to make our way towards their friends who are waiting at a restaurant, drop them off and confirm they make it inside.

“Where do you live?” I ask the stranger in the back seat. 

When we get to his nearby apartment, he gets out to talk to the security guard on her smoke break. I can’t hear their conversation, but I see him turn and show her the wound on his calf and the marking paint on his pants. They cross the street to the entrance of the building and their conversation grows louder and it becomes clear that she isn’t going to let him in without an ID or his key. 

She looks into the car at me and tells me to call 911 or take him to the precinct. 

“I’m not taking him to no cops,” I reply. 

“It’s not at the precinct, it’s on the highway,” my sister adds. 

“I know who he is, but I can’t let him in,” the security guard says. 

“Ma’am, he was just on the highway, he got shot,” I plead.

Eventually she says she is going to call 911 and he says, “If you call 911, I’m going to riot.” 

I plead with her not to call. My sister begs me to leave and I cry, “I am not leaving him here,” and then through the window I say, “You can get back in the car.”

“Do you have a safe place I can stay?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll find you one. You can get back in the car, let’s go.” 

We take off and head for his ex-boyfriend’s house. On the way, we see two young Black men walking. We ask them if they’re good and they say they have an hour-and-a-half walk to their car. I tell them to get in and let them know we have to drop this other guy off first. 

When we get to the ex’s house, I ask him to come back out and let us know he’s made it inside. We write my number on his arm in case he needs anything. The drive to the young men’s car goes smoothly. We make them take my number as well.  

As we hit the road again, we hear there are protesters trapped and surrounded at Bobby & Steve’s. We drive in that direction.

On 1st, we are met with a wall of officers and National Guards. There’s a cement barrier in the middle of the road. My sister says, “Oh, fuck. Mia, don’t say anything,” and then to an officer, “Where can we go?”

The officer replies, “I don’t know, turn around.” 

Another officer taunts, “it’s past your curfew!” We turn around in front of them awkwardly and speed off. Soon, we hear that the police are making arrests at the tow shop, so we head to the North Side to join the effort to protect buildings again. 

The night starts quiet–sitting, chatting with my sister, six of my friends are also stationed around. 

Later, I get a call about a young guy who had walked from the march at the capitol to over North. I leave my sister behind to pick the guy up across the street. He was trying to make it to North Memorial Hospital. I gave him a ride, chauffeur style, as my passenger seat was covered in supplies discarded. I ask if he minds me running useless red lights, he says no. 

I let him out at the emergency room where his friend works and can take him further. I notice another man sitting outside. He’s older, Black, hair loc’d, he looks tired. 

“You good?” I ask. 

“I’m just waiting on a cab.” 

“You want a ride?” 

“You’re a blessing,” he tells me. On the ride to Brooklyn Center, he says he waited for the first cab for an hour before they finally cancelled the date. Another cab was on the way. 

“I hope they’re not too mad,” he says. 

On the way back to the North Side, my friend tells me she has to leave soon. 

“Wait for me to get back for my sister,” I text back. 

When they leave, it will be just my sister and I in the back alley. She tells me, “We need someone with a gun back here.” I ask my friend to find someone as she checks out up front. In the lot, five white men, with us, rush towards a car with protective gear. They received reports of a fire nearby. 

A friend comes back with her, assault rifle held loosely in his hands. Moments after we settle back in, gunfire starts. My friend tells my sister and I to get down, he scans the street for movement. 

Gunfire gets closer, louder. My sister clutches my wrist. We squat at a shrub-spotted median in an alley parking lot. I look around and there’s nowhere to find more cover. 

A silver pick up truck turns into the lot and speeds past us. They come to a stop about a yard away. The bed cover peeks open and I see a flash of white skin, t-shirts. As soon as I see it, it’s gone. The truck takes off. My friend tells us to get up and run to the door. Others from surrounding check points are doing the same. I see a group of armed volunteers head towards the shots. 

We seek shelter in a back room filled to the brim with donations. Volunteers crouch, I try to get my sister to join us, but she’s shaking, crying, and she can’t. 

Someone shouts, “we need guns back here,” after hearing pounding on the windows. 

The man who was on the other side of the lot kneels and talks on the phone, “I seen that silver truck earlier and I knew something wasn’t right. Damn it.” I walk over, meet him towards the ground, and tell him what I saw in the truck bed, so the person on the other end of the call won’t be surprised by them. He replies, “Mhm, I seen that too! Fuck.” 

Another pair of volunteers help a young, armed man in. Tears streak his face. 

A woman talks on the phone and then yells, “Ay! Shonda got shot at!” She looks towards an armed volunteer, “It was a red truck with about four white guys in white masks.” 

My sister is live on Facebook, quietly recounting what just happened. My cousin comments that she can hear shots in the background. An organizer lets us know the MPD set up a perimeter and pushed the shooters further out. 

When it settles down, my heavily armed friend arranges an MPD escort to the bridge to St. Paul. We take the same route as the night before. My sister and I make it to the Wabash bridge that runs over highway 94. We see sirens and inhale sharply. 

Cops are talking to vehicles and letting them through. A MnDOT worker waits near their truck with bright orange signs. When it’s our turn, the officer says “I’m sorry we’re closing the bridge. They’re shutting down all the roads.” The MnDoT truck pulls up to my left, positioning itself across the bridge. 

I say, “please we need to get home. Please.” He waves us through, tells us to sneak between the truck, signs, and patrol car. He tells us we’re the last car through. We drive 50 mph on University Ave. We don’t sleep until we are so exhausted it is involuntary.

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Mia Jackman
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