I am proud to be a professional driver. Every day I do my job with the intention of not being noticed. While Sunday May 31, 2020, was no exception, there was something different with the surroundings that night. I was supposed to pick up a trailer in Appleton, Wisconsin, drop that trailer in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, drive over to Minneapolis and pick up a load, and head back to Appleton. That is my Sunday routine. What made it different was the demonstrations going on in Minneapolis that night.
It is about 40 miles from the Minnesota state line to my customer. The electronic message boards in Wisconsin that night were telling us that Interstate 94 was going to be closed between I-35E and I-694, which was no big deal for me since using I-94 or I-694 is six of one/half dozen of the other. After watching the demonstrations, I was going to take I-694 anyway.
While I did not envision them actually closing the interstate, I was worried about objects being thrown off the overpasses. Trust me, having a windshield shatter in front of you sucks. I have picked glass out of my hair and face. I have even had to pull over to the side of the road and desperately try to pour water into my eyes to wash the glass out. It was just better to take I-694.
My drops are both unmanned on Sundays. I was a little nervous, but both are in safe areas. It isn’t like I hang out there anyway — I do my job and leave. It takes about 15 minutes at each place. Still, crossing the river back into Wisconsin that night was a relief.
Bogdan Vechirko did not have as easy a time as I did. He was also servicing his customer. The 36LYN Refuel store is a bit of a landmark in the area. Lonnie McQuirter has owned it for 14 years and it is no longer just a gas station. He described Vechirko in the Minnesota Reformer as quiet and professional. While the unrest was going on, his neighbors stood watch and protected his store. That Sunday his store was low on fuel. Vechirko did him a favor and made a delivery on a Sunday.
Vechirko himself is a small business owner. He is a young man of 35. He came here when he was just 4. His wife Ludmilla was 8 months pregnant on that day. Vechirko was doing his job, supporting both his customer and his young, soon-to-be-expanding family.
I-35W runs through downtown Minneapolis. Vechirko was south of downtown. I was north of it. My path from MN-252 to I-94 was blocked by three municipal dump trucks. Otherwise Vechirko and I could have passed each other that night. Somehow the Minnesota Department of Transportation made a critical mistake. They failed to block the ramp that Vechirko used to get on I-35W northbound that night.
If it were me, I would have gotten onto I-35W southbound. Taking I-35W to I-494 would add about 7 or 8 miles to the trip. I don’t know why Vechirko made that decision. It might have just been habit. We all have a habitual route home. Taking I-35W north would be the logical route home for him on most nights. This was not most nights.
Vechirko was traveling at interstate speeds on an interstate highway. The Minnesota Department of Transportation says that he was moving at speeds up to 70 mph. I doubt that. I will guess 60. Most of us have seen the video. It is scary as all hell — 18 tons of truck and trailer, and the road was blocked with protesters. Under perfect circumstances, it would take about 320 yards to bring that rig to a stop.
Newspapers were saying that Vechirko’s truck plowed into the crowd. I have watched the videos many times, but with a truckers’ eye. Vechirko did a good job of slowing the rig down. Not a single protester was hit by the truck. He did his job. He did try to keep moving. Imagine how scared he was. Someone fell in front of his truck and Vechirko stopped. At that point Vechirko’s truck was overrun and he was pulled out of his truck and beaten and robbed of his phone and wallet. Thankfully, there were more peaceful protesters that were able to keep him from being further injured. The police showed up and arrested Vechirko. They did not arrest those who beat him and robbed him.
Vechirko was taken to the hospital and treated. The papers said no one was injured. The police took him to jail from there. After reviewing all of the video, the police decided not to charge Vechirko with a crime. They also decided not to pursue charges against those who robbed and beat him.
It isn’t just Minneapolis. We have seen this happen in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and St Louis. It has become a national problem. Truckers have become targets. Interstate highways are being blocked, which forces truckers onto city surface streets. We become easy targets. When the local district attorneys refuse to prosecute attackers, they are sending a message. Criminals hear that it’s OK to attack truck drivers. Truck drivers hear it as, “We are on our own; we need to protect ourselves.”
This has been circulating around trucker sites and I don’t like it:
The American trucker will not be held hostage, threatened, robbed, or killed. We will not be a victim. We will not be this generation’s version of Reginald Denny. We will defend ourselves every time, up to and including using our 80,000 pound trucks and its 1800 pounds of torque to run you over.
As a matter of fact, I hate that. But I also understand the sentiment.
This is bad. It could get worse. No one wants that. Drivers have a right to be worried. I am a professional driver, not a politician or an attorney. I do my job. I just want them to do theirs. The criminals who robbed and beat Vechirko need to be held accountable. We cannot continue to close down interstate highways. Professional truckers are an integral part of our economy.
Jeff Clark, a professional driver for 31 years, has been both a company driver and an owner-operator. He previously wrote for Freightliner’s Team Run Smart and now drives as a company driver for Paper Transport as he tries to ease into retirement. Along the way he helped start the Truckin’ Runners Facebook group, which has grown to almost 1,000 members.
Originally published on Smerconish.com. Used with permission of Smerconish and the author.
Guest Voices features contributed posts from members of the trucking and transportation industry on a variety of current issues. (Opinions of the authors are their own and may not reflect those of HDT.)