On the Ground at the Elijah McClain Protests

On the Ground at the Elijah McClain Protests

CultureJuly 27, 2020 By Rachel Chesbrough

As the Jeep came barreling toward the crowd, most people ran, some attempted to throw bikes and helmets to slow it further, and many flung their bodies over highway barriers to escape the vehicle. One woman, not realizing the other side of the highway barrier was a straight 15-20 ft drop, broke her leg. Many others were bloodied and bruised in the chaos. One armed protestor shot four times at the Jeep’s wheels in defense of the crowd, one round of which accidentally hit another protestor in the leg. Everyone is expected to recover.

Despite several mainstream local news outlets emphasizing the destruction of police property at the anti-police brutality protest in Aurora on Saturday, for those who were there, that was barely even a footnote. Most weren’t even present at the Aurora Police Department (APD) headquarters at the end of the night; organizers had given the directive an hour prior, to disperse carefully and head home. What all were present for, was the Jeep that ploughed into the crowd of peaceful protesters as they marched on I-225. Two women were seriously injured as a result, and many more would have been injured or killed, were it not for the defensive actions of another motorist.  

(All photographs by Rachel Roller @rollinwiththehomies)

Obstructing roadways is a famously effective method of nonviolent demonstration. While many affected drivers are unsympathetic, the aim is to bring awareness, empower the people, and mimic a fraction of the helplessness and frustration associated with the cause. In Aurora on Saturday, most of the vehicle occupants leaned out of their vehicles with fists raised, shouting support and honking horns jovially. Protesters headed north on I-225, taking up both lanes. While the southbound lane was clogged with vehicles, northbound was largely clear because of an onramp closure. As a result, 30 minutes into the march, an unidentified white man in his late 20s or early 30s was able to gain perilous speed in his Jeep, as it raced toward the crowd of people.

Sebastian Sassi happened to be trailing the protest slowly in his white Ford F-150 and saw the turquoise Jeep accelerating in his rearview. As the Jeep closed in, Sassi deftly maneuvered his truck into its path, absorbing the blow meant for protesters. Speaking with The Rooster about the incident, Sassi explains, “I was only maybe 50 yards behind the protest. That guy was going 60 miles an hour. So if I hadn't hit him, even if he had chosen at the exact spot that I was just to break, he still would’ve hit the crowd. There’s no doubt in my mind that what I did was preventive. I just wish I had seen him sooner and I could have slowed him down even more.” If he hadn’t? “It would have been worse than Charleston,” Sassi says, referring to the North Carolinian white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one and injuring 28.

He notes that a common question he’s getting is if he was a part of the protest or not. “It’s not relevant, whether or not I was a protester, it doesn’t make me any less or more justified in preventing someone from ploughing headlong into a crowd. Whether I just happened to be on the I-225 or whether I was in charge of a protest. It doesn’t matter. The point is, what that guy did was insane. It was wrong, and he was going to kill people.”

Protesters and media alike have been heralding Sassi as a hero, a moniker that doesn’t sit well with him. “One,” he begins, “I did what any reasonable person would do, and I would do it again. Two, while we’re talking about me, a suburban well-to-do white dude, we’re not talking about Elijah McClain and his family. And that really bothers me, because it’s not about me. It’s about, why do we have so many angry white people that feel like it’s okay to get on the internet and write things like ‘a real hero would drive into the crowd.’ That’s insane. You don’t get to murder people because they’re inconveniencing you or because they’re asking for social justice. I find that really troubling.”

On why someone would attempt something so violent Sassi muses, “I think there’s this sense of paranoia around the erosion of white privilege and they see an end to white hegemony as somehow a threat to them, and they’re angry. And that’s what makes people do things like this. And I want to push back on that. So I’m using whatever attention I can get to say, let’s talk about Elijah McClain and why those Aurora police officers haven’t been fired and arrested yet, and let’s figure out why there are so many angry white people that feel like they have the right and maybe even the obligation, to drive headlong into a crowd of protesters.”

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same APD that has not fired nor arrested any of the cops involved in Elijah McClain’s death, did not arrest the driver of the turquoise Jeep on Saturday. Despite the hit and run of Sassi’s vehicle, and the attempted vehicular assault of the crowd, APD did not handcuff, detain, or arrest the driver. Civilian video shows cops catching up with the occupants of the Jeep, talking casually, with one passenger giving the camera a thumbs-up. For anti-police brutality activists, this is another striking example in a long line of injustices from the APD, one of our country’s deadliest police forces. Where Elijah McClain was killed while walking home from the store, a white man who committed a hit and run as he tried to maim a crowd containing children, vets, mothers, and fathers, gets a ride home from an officer.

Though Sassi balks at being called a hero, it’s indisputable that his actions gave protesters the critical seconds needed to dive out of the way of the Jeep. As soon as the Jeep was gone, though screams still echoed, comradery ensued. It was the sort of organized calamity protestors have come to expect from their group. Medics sprang into action, water was passed out, sanitizing wipes were offered up for wounds, and those who had trouble walking were carried away by friends and strangers. Denver PSL got on their bullhorns and calmly told people how to exit the road. Director Tay Anderson herded people through a barrier door.

Shortly after the crowd made their way off the highway, warnings were shouted about the threat of armed Proud Boys (a far-right neo-fascist organization) nearby in a dark blue pickup truck. Panicked, some began to run again, but quickly calmed as seasoned protesters urged them not to run for everyone’s safety. Joel Ibrahim of Denver PSL gave an update to the frazzled crowd over the bullhorn, explaining injuries sustained and providing a bolstering message, “The greatest weapon we have is our unity. And when I said we would not be deterred by the bluster of fascists, I meant it. This is scary work. This is what it looks like to organize against racism, in the most racist country in the world.” 

Once back at the municipal center, the crowd was urged to get home safely. A small group of around 100 stayed to cause damage to APD property, all of which can be repaired – unlike the lost life of Elijah McClain, and countless others.