RUSH CITY, Minn. – Hours after his niece Deona Marie Knajdek was killed, Jonathan Carter went on his routine bicycle ride to work through Uptown. He mustered the strength to go to the scene of where her life was taken.
The Air Force Lt. Col. and professor of aerospace studies at the University of Minnesota acknowledged that he likely stood out among the Black Lives Matter protesters. But then he recognized someone in the crowd.
"Here was my older sister, calmly, yet passionately, telling the world who Deona was, what Deona stood for and how Deona should be remembered," he said.
Carter and other loved ones of Knajdek's delivered heartfelt eulogies at her funeral service in Rush City on Monday afternoon, one week after she was fatally run down while protesting the death of Winston Boogie Smith Jr. The packed chapel filled with grief and moments of levity over stories of Knajdek and her sarcastic sense of humor that helped carry her through a struggle with addiction.
But her family takes solace in knowing the 31-year-old died sober, days away from her 32nd birthday and anniversary of recovering from drugs and alcohol. Sobriety gave Knajdek the ability to selflessly lend her life to others. On June 13, she was decrying Smith's killing by law enforcement when Nicholas Kraus accelerated and rammed into her vehicle adorned with a lime green Black Lives Matter bumper sticker, striking and killing her. Kraus has since been charged with second-degree murder.
'Far from lost'
"I'm sure that many of you question why Deona was there that night," Carter said. "I share these words from the Dalai Lama: 'People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road, doesn't mean they've gotten lost.' Deona was far from lost that night.
"If all of us could find a similar dedication to supporting others like Deona had, our impact would be far greater than our expectations."
Over the past year, Knajdek's social media became a documentation of her recovery and commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. As she celebrated her sobriety milestones, she demanded justice for George Floyd and Daunte Wright, along with the three young children shot recently in Minneapolis, two of whom died. She kept speaking up online and showing up in the streets while working as a program manager for the Cottages Group, a Twin Cities-based home health care provider for vulnerable adults.
Knajdek was among protesters who have gathered at W. Lake Street and S. Girard Avenue, the intersection near where members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force shot and killed Smith on June 3 while attempting to arrest him in a parking ramp. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Smith fired a gun from his vehicle. An unidentified woman who was in the car with Smith said she never saw him with a weapon.
Knajdek, who protested in Uptown every day since the shooting of Smith, formed bonds with Black activists who attended the visitation in Rush City on Sunday evening to comfort her mother, Deb Kenney, before returning to the intersection, now known as the Wince-Marie Peace Garden. There, in an empty green lot, demonstrators are honoring Knajdek and Smith by planting flowers and harvesting food for the community.
"Drink water, love hard, fight racism," Knajdek wrote this spring in a flood of BLM posts on Facebook.
She leaves behind two young daughters, Jaidyn and Adalynn Diem, who at the funeral shared their favorite memories of their mother and her ability to rise up from her darkest times.
"She's an awesome mom and daughter. The day she died was the hardest day of my life. She's still an awesome person no matter what," said 11-year-old Adalynn. "I'm losing my mom, but I'm also losing my pathmaker and supporter."
'She held me up'
Kenney described her daughter as her "best friend" as she held back tears. "She was my fighter, my creator — she was very creative — she held me up when she didn't know she was holding me up. We talked every day, texted every day. She gave me something I never thought I would have and that was unconditional love."
Knajdek's boyfriend, Dustin Kohanek, thanked the crowd for their love and support, and made a promise to Knajdek's daughters that "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right here." He had his sister, Aly Patrin, read the eulogy he wrote for his partner of nearly three years.
"She was brave, courageous and strong," Patrin read on behalf of her brother. "She was argumentative, exasperating and totally adorable."
The father of Knajdek's children and her longtime friend, Jamie Diem, said he's not sure how to be both a mom and dad now that Knajdek is gone.
"It's going to be difficult, but I'm always going to be here no matter what. And I get the privilege of seeing your mom every day through you because, unfortunately, Jaidyn got your sass," Diem joked to the congregation to the chapel bursting in laughter.
Brother Garrett Knajdek said he will ensure his sister did not die in vain. "I will try to continue her fight for these girls and the rest of her family and prove to her that she was one of the greatest superheroes I'll ever know."
Carter told his niece's daughters to walk a path that would make their mother, a woman of "courage and conviction," proud, and that they don't have to walk it alone.
"Go and live your life with a goal to be more selfless and caring than she was. If you accomplish that, you will find the enlightened path."