Back on June 2, there was much for Miles Kipper to contemplate. Thoughts swirled as he stood with 7,000 other peaceful marchers, elevated on the Interstate 35 bridge spanning the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The rapidly evolving uncertainty and turmoil of change was spreading like wildfire through communities across the country and beyond—all ignited a few days earlier and few miles away, when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. He thought about the legacy of inequality in America that led to this moment, the awesome energy of thousands united for a shared cause, and the future of this emerging civil justice movement. He also considered the potential immediate threats of arrests, riots, and violent agitators. Layered on those thoughts, straddling fight or flight, between the thousands of fellow protestors, one horrific possibility never crossed his mind: a fuel tanker speeding into the crowd.
The marchers had been kneeling, observing a powerful moment of collective silence. That peace was suddenly broken by the chaos of screaming, people scattering, and a blaring truck horn. A semi-truck tanker appeared at the far end of the bridge, barreling into the crowd. The following chain of events—not to mention Kipper’s fast-acting response that impacted them—are nothing short of incredible. No fatalities resulted from the runaway truck that immediately echoed the haunting scene of the Reginald Denny attack immortalized by news helicopter footage from the 1992 L.A. riots. Kipper’s own reflection on the terrifying events in the days after, as the investigation into the driver unfolded, is equally selfless and expansive.
First off is the sheer physicality needed to make a stand against a mob to save a life. Kipper is a big guy, built like the rugby player he was until a shoulder injury sidelined him from competitive play. Though he won the USA Rugby DIII national championship in 2012 with the New Orleans RFC while working in Louisiana after college, he doesn’t wrap his identity up in sport success or business achievement. He sees himself as “a multi-racial American” with a “a long unofficial history of trying to bring people together.” Travel has stoked his draw to other people, communities and cultures, as has work in the music industry and staying active with long-distance skateboarding and off-roading. He’s apt to tell stories and bears a disarming smile and understanding eyes that convey an open-minded wisdom beneath that rugged exterior.
Kipper’s empathy also inspired heroic action that day, though he acknowledges that he had been perhaps too understanding in the past. He recalls accepting “purposeful and passive racial insults as part of the normal course of life,” challenged to find ways to effect change. The protests leading up to that day on the bridge, however, marked a turning point for Kipper, he says, “in the way I perceive myself and the power of my voice to make change and foster conversation.” The Minneapolis native, whose roots go back four generations, has since found hope and purpose among the ashes of his beloved city: hope in the form of neighbors he’s never spoken to suddenly waving at him while he’s walking his dogs; purpose in the diverse communities uniting to advocate for justice; faith in a city acknowledging its past with unflinching openness and digging in to make both radical and pragmatic change.
Name: Miles Kipper
Title: Director of Operations, Heroic Productions
Men’s Journal: You were present on the I-35 bridge when the tanker truck drove through a crowd of thousands participating in the peaceful march across the river. Can you walk us through that incident?
MILES KIPPER: The march had started at U.S. Bank Stadium downtown at 4 p.m. There were thousands of us, a line stretching through Minneapolis that lasted for more than 45 minutes. I have never seen so many people of mixed races out in solidarity, and there were times it brought tears to my eyes. I had never felt so supported by my hometown.
Fast forward about 90 minutes. We had made our way onto the I-35W freeway bridge. The estimates I have seen, post-action, say there were between 5,000-6,000 people in attendance. I will never forget this, as it happened during a moment of silence in which the entire crowd was kneeling: Here we all are, thousands with our heads down, and the silence is suddenly broken by a blaring horn and screaming breaks. We have all seen the videos of vehicles driving into crowds of demonstrators, and in my mind at that point, I was certain that this was an intentional act of aggression.
I looked up and quickly determined that he wasn’t headed directly for me or for my terrified girlfriend. I was on the east side of the bridge and the truck was on the west. At this point I had my camera in one hand and my skateboard in the other and was able to follow the truck with video as the driver stopped, started, stopped, and started one final time before being dragged from his vehicle. My initial thoughts were that I needed to document what was happening to use as evidence as it looked certain he would kill someone. As soon as the driver was dragged from the vehicle, you could hear him screaming and it became immediately apparent that I would be documenting a different kind of murder unless something was done.
A million things flashed through my mind quickly, but the one that stuck was the fact that standing by and watching a man be murdered was the exact thing that started the situation. I had visions of the poor driver during the Rodney King L.A. riots and knew right away that the entire message would be lost if the man was allowed to be harmed. I didn’t hesitate for more than a second before I threw myself into the scrum to try and defend the driver.
I joined a line of other Black men putting our bodies in the way of the rightfully angry mob trying to tear this [white] guy to pieces. I guarantee you that all of us there thought we were defending an attempted murderer, but did it anyway. I can’t say for sure how long we stood our ground but it felt like an eternity. At one point someone yelled that the tanker was leaking and was going to blow, which caused a number of the attackers to run. For a while, the driver sheltered directly under my legs and we fought for his life. Shortly after that, three police cars arrived, we delivered the man into their custody and were maced in response. I honestly don’t blame the police for that as it was a super confusing and tense situation and there was no real way to tell who was trying to help and who was trying to hurt. It was scary for all of us.
That day on the bridge, I believed with absolute certainty that that driver had intentionally driven into the crowd and was trying to kill us all. I made a Facebook live video speaking to those feelings that was viewed more than 10,000 times. In the wake of that incident, I was contacted by the owner of the gas station the driver had just left, a Black man, who swore to me that he had known the driver for years and that he was a good person. I did my own research, I watched every piece of video available, I scoured the DOT camera records from the time leading up to the incident, I spoke repeatedly with the owner of the gas station, I spoke with others who were on the bridge. At the end of it all, I changed my opinion, which in itself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I don’t believe that man tried to kill us, I think it was a horrible accident and if anyone is to blame it was the Minnesota DOT [there was an issue with the timing of the bridge closure in anticipation of the march]. Part of me wanted to believe that we had been horribly wronged and I was forced to let that go, which was for the best. The lesson I learned is the importance of perspective. You can see a thing with your own eyes and experience it first-hand, you can believe something with every fiber of your body, and you can still be 100 percent wrong. I posted an apology video on Facebook recanting my statements [that I had made] immediately after the incident.
I’ve read that you are a rugby player and that while protecting the truck driver from the crowd, that athletic memory kicked in. How so?
This is correct. I played rugby for 10 years until a shoulder injury got in the way. I spent years actively training to oppose an unruly mob trying to take something that I was not willing to give up. The incident on the bridge felt akin to an angry scrum, there could have been no better preparation. I know in my heart that any lock worth his stones, or really any respectable member of the forward pack would have been there at my side given the opportunity.
You clearly risked physical harm, possibly your life, by jumping into the crowd to protect that truck driver. Besides the physical, rugby-scrum muscle memory, what made you intervene so readily on behalf of the driver who at the time seemed intent on doing the peaceful protestors harm?
You know, my wonderful girlfriend asked me the same question, in a very different tone, immediately after the incident. What I told her then and what I know about myself now—have always known—is that I love everybody way too much to stand by and watch someone suffer. A hundred people can walk by and I will be that one guy who stops to help. I am the one who pulls over to help change a tire in the rain. I’m the one who will dig you out of the ditch. I’m the one you call when you need help. I have been raised to do the right thing as best I can. I have been surrounded by role models who have shown me the way. For better or for worse, there was no world in which I didn’t try to help that guy.
Have you drawn on your experience from rugby, skateboarding or other sports in other aspects of work and life?
I am a longboarder, a proud member of the International Distance Skateboard Association and pretty much our whole thing is being excellent to one another and helping each other out. Beyond that, as a lifelong athlete, I know for a fact that we can do way better as a team than as individuals, and I’ve built most of my life around that philosophy. I build strong teams and surround myself with people who inspire me on to bigger things. I could make a million different metaphors to sum it all up, but the gist of it is that the harder you work for something the better it feels when you get there, and that there is always a way to share the load.
How has work changed?
The changes I have seen in my work are more related to the changes I am experiencing personally based on the impact of George Floyd’s death and the surrounding events. I work in the live event industry and have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—my company lost virtually all our upcoming business and it has been a wild ride to change directions and come back from the brink of disaster. I have been struggling with a sense of powerlessness through this whole ordeal by not being a vital worker and by my relative inability to contribute in a professional capacity. The murder and the civil unrest that followed are showing me that my experiences in cross-cultural communication and mediation are more important than I ever thought and I have been working to give back in other ways.
You’ve mentioned other ways (besides being involved in the protests and marches) that you’ve been motivated to give back?
I spent a few weeks helping out at a food kitchen my friends set up in the wake of the unrest, put in an application to be on the alumni board for my university (Minnesota State University, Mankato), will soon start volunteering for a Minnesota nonprofit called the Ujamaa Place, have been raising money for suicide awareness, joined Global Minnesota, started a new podcast aimed at telling stories about amazing people, and, I think most importantly, have made myself available for conversations.
When I say ‘available for conversations’ I mean I have made myself publicly and privately available as a safe person to ask questions to and explore racial issues with. I am by no means an expert on these subjects, but I have been doing everything I can to further educate myself and to have frank and real conversations related to my experiences as a Black man in America. I don’t offend easily and realize that starting the often awkward and uncomfortable conversation can be the hardest part. So far, I have spoken with people from all over the country about what’s going on and have been blown away. I find that people are generally pretty cool when you give them the chance.
How has the community changed?
This will sound a little odd, but one thing I noticed right away is that when I walk my dogs, my white neighbors have started waving to me and saying hello. This actually brought me to tears a few mornings during the worst of the unrest as it’s such a simple, small thing that I never realized I was missing. I feel like people are seeing me for the first time, and I feel the community coming out to speak for and support social change and justice in a way I never thought to see. The marches and demonstrations happening in Minnesota right now are bringing in the most diverse crowds I have ever seen for anything in this town and it’s the most amazing feeling.
What’s the greatest challenge going forward?
One of the biggest challenges we face as a society is that we all live in cultural silos. There are parts of our country, both in the cities and the rural areas, where there is little to no diversity. It’s very possible, I would even say more than likely, that most Americans grow up without getting the opportunity to actually become friends with or even have regular conversations with someone who is a different color or comes from a totally different culture. In my eyes, this is what’s causing the vast majority of our problems. If your only exposure to—insert cultural group here—in America is what you see in the movies and through modern media, it’s not surprising that your views may be jaded as there is so much sensationalism out there right now. More often than not, we are all after pretty much the same things: a dry and warm place to stay at night and a sustainable way to take care of our families.
Are there any signs of hope that you see?
There are so many silver linings right now if you choose to look for them. We have a platform to foster real changes for the first time in a generation and a populous that is receptive enough to listen. There are wonderful grassroots organizations being created all over the country in the wake of these tragedies, monuments to the country’s legacy of oppression are coming down, and people everywhere are waking up to the injustices all around.
What does justice look like?
This whole situation is now far bigger than the murder of George Floyd, but at a minimum the four officers involved need to be convicted. Past that, justice looks like the country doing away with gerrymandering to give every citizen the chance to matter and to hold their elected officials accountable. Justice starts with education and communication. Justice looks like equality. Justice starts when people who are in positions of authority are required to undergo training on bias. Justice starts with the equal distribution of state and federal resources to make sure that every American is getting their fair share. Unfortunately, many Americans are seeing the BLM / LGBTQ / Feminism movements as the desire to place these groups above the traditionally dominant social classes and that is totally missing the point. We don’t want more or to be better than anyone else, we are just asking to be seen as equals, and it’s hard to see justice without that happening.
What can readers do to advance that cause?
The most helpful thing readers can do is to start educating themselves on bias, history and the experiences of people who are different than them within the United States (I recommend The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Code Switch podcast from NPR, as well as What’s the Difference by Sara Taylor). This goes for everyone: Bias is part of the human condition, and only by acknowledging that it exists and working every day to grow past unsupported beliefs, can we move forward together. The facts of history in the U.S. are that segregationist and racist policies have created a situation where many people simply don’t have the opportunities others do. It’s important to not only be open to interactions with people who do not look like you or come from the same places you do, but to actively seek these experiences out. Remember that, “We all do better when we all do better.”