AURORA | A handful of protesters watched as Sebastian Sassi docked his mangled Ford F-150 near the intersection of East Sixth Avenue and South Potomac Street on Saturday evening.
“That guy saved our lives out there,” one person shouted.
Thirty minutes earlier, Sassi was slowly driving his truck along side a protest march for Elijah McClain that had shut down both lanes of Interstate 225.
Eyewitnesses say he likely saved lives and limbs when he quickly maneuvered his truck in front of a speeding, blue Jeep hurtling toward a dense crowd of hundreds of protesters on the highway.
“It was a snap decision, because it was, ‘If I don’t slow this guy down, he’s going to kill people,’” Sassi told The Sentinel.
From her vantage point across a median, Natalie Ledesma said Sassi deftly turned his car to block a Jeep accelerating to about 50 miles per hour just feet from the crowd.
The collision and ensuing moments catapulted the previously peaceful march into chaos.
Gun shots quickly rang out as one protester pulled out a gun and fired toward the Jeep, according to multiple eyewitness accounts. A fellow protester was hit in the leg, police later said in a Tweet. Eyewitnesses also said a protester broke their leg dodging the Jeep as it careened through the crowd.
After organizers were able to calm the crowd, protesters said Sassi became a hero when he put himself in harm’s way.
“It was quick thinking,” said Tracey Pliskin. She marched with a local Wall of Moms group, bringing up the rear of the main march across I-225. Pliskin was also an eyewitness to the crash.
Sassi wasn’t injured in the crash. He was able to drive his squealing, damaged truck off of I-225, where he spoke with the Sentinel and assessed his crumpled bumper.
Before the collision, police had shut down I-225 at least between East Alameda Avenue and East Sixth Avenue when hundreds of protesters marched onto both the northbound and southbound lanes near 7 p.m.
It was an act of disruption intended to force public attention on the case of Elijah McClain, a young, black massage therapist who died after an encounter with three Aurora police officers and first responders in August 2019. Protesters have called for murder charges to be levied against the three officers: Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema, and Jason Rosenblatt. Multiple investigations are now reexamining the events that led to McClain’s death.
Before the crash, tempers were already running high between protesters and some motorists who had found themselves suddenly stuck on I-225 in a throng swallowing southbound lanes.
One woman told protesters a pregnant woman was in her car; another man said he was exhausted and no friend of crooked police officers but was exhausted after a long shift at work. A man aggressively barked at protesters to keep away from his vehicle while organizers with loudspeakers railed against imperialism and called for a rebellion against the American state.
Activists were also handing out flowers to Black drivers stranded on the interstate. Many drivers honked their horns and raised fists in support.
Sassi recounted the events leading to the sudden violence.
He said he’d entered the closed, northbound side of I-225. Protesters were telling him to be aware of several marauding drivers that appeared aggressive and might attempt to hit marchers.
Suddenly, “I look in my rear view mirror and I could see — ‘Oh s**t,” Sassi said. “He was clearly accelerating very fast, as fast as he could, speeding toward the crowd,” he said of the unidentified driver.
After hitting Sassi’s F-150, the Jeep thundered out of control into the crowd. Sassi said a young woman then jumped a barrier to dodge the vehicle and broke her leg.
“It looks like she’s alive, but she wasn’t going to be,” he said.
Activists have shut down roads, highways and interstates across the U.S. as part of sweeping racial justice protests after the death of George Floyd in May.
Early this month, police charged a Seattle man with vehicular assault and other charges for racing down a closed section of Interstate 5 and barreling into protesters. One activist, 24 year-old Summer Taylor, died in the crash.
Sassi and eyewitnesses didn’t know the identity or the intent of the driver Saturday.
“I know he was up to no good, because after he hit me, he took off,” Sassi said. “So, he’s a hit and run. I’m sure he’s going to have a visit from the law later, which he absolutely deserves.”
For his part, Sassi was reluctant to say whether he was part of the protests or supported the march’s mission.
“I’ll take the fifth on that,” he said. “But it shouldn’t matter though, right? The guy was clearly trying to kill people, and f**k that.”
Pliskin, the Wall of Moms activist, hoped Sassi would be compensated for his heroism with insurance payouts and community support.
Police have since found and confiscated the Jeep and had contact with the driver, police said. They have not released information regarding possible motive or charges.