On March 11, the first night of spring break, Christian Saldana asked permission to leave his restaurant job a little early so he could talk with his friend Khondoker Usama about a business competition.
He had no inkling this choice would indirectly thrust Saldana into national headlines and create a controversy over hate crimes and the rhetoric of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
Usama was developing a plan for a security product that would use video to alert people when their packages arrived in the mail, he said, an idea Saldana thought was interesting. Usama invited Saldana to a birthday party.
While the food was cooking at the barbecue, Saldana and Usama volunteered to pick up some soda at the closest gas station, because all they had to drink was water, he said.
But what was supposed to take only a couple of minutes turned into an altercation with a motorcyclist who Saldana says shouted racial epithets and chanted Trump’s name.
Initial news reports of the incident relied on Usama’s account because Saldana wanted to remain anonymous, but Usama was largely a witness to the event. Saldana was the one who, besides a motorcyclist whose name has not been released, was most directly involved.
When police showed Saldana the surveillance video from the convenience store, he realized his actions looked less innocuous than he had remembered.
In the video, there appear to be some points at which he could have walked away. There is no audio in the surveillance video, but Saldana said that, although he didn’t use any racial epithets, he had cursed at the biker.
At 5-foot-8 and weighing 155 pounds, Saldana said, he never had any interest in being in a fight, let alone with someone so much bigger. He ran cross-country and was in a history club at North High School. He has a 3.5 GPA, according to his resume on LinkedIn.
He works 25 hours a week at two jobs and lives with his mom. He is studying economics and business as a freshman.
He does not seem to be the sort of person that most people, including himself, expect to be involved in an altercation just past 3 a.m. at a convenience store, a clash that would be cited as evidence by some people of increasing racially motivated and politically charged violence and by others as an example of an overly politically correct culture too quick to make every problem about race.
When they arrived at the gas pump, Usama got out to fill the tank. Saldana said he started hearing shouts, so he opened the door and saw what looked like a tall black man who was being called racial slurs by a man on a motorcycle. The man on the motorcycle was haranguing the other man about Donald Trump, Saldana said.
Saldana said he felt he should do something.
“Hey, what’s going on over there?” he said he yelled.
Then the biker drove away from the man and stopped in front of Usama’s car, saying “Trump” along the way, Saldana said.
“That guy wants my money, and he needs to get a job,” Saldana said the man told him.
Days later, a police interrogator told Saldana that he shouldn’t have responded to the motorcyclist, because it was none of his business, Saldana said.
Instead, Saldana said to the motorcyclist: “Maybe (the man) doesn’t just want your money, maybe he needs your help.”
“Well if that’s the way you think, then you think wrong,” the man responded, according to Saldana. Security footage shows that 23 seconds after the biker pulled up next to the car, the man dropped his kickstand and dismounted. As he did so, Saldana moved from behind his car door and rolled up his sleeves.
They stood facing each other.
“I remember him saying, ‘I am a lot bigger than you.’ He said he is 6-foot-something. ‘I am at least 50 pounds heavier; you should be afraid.’ I said, ‘I am not afraid of you; I’m not going to let you intimidate me.’ ”
But he was very afraid, Saldana said. He was a little embarrassed because he could hear his voice cracking.
And then Saldana put his hand out and touched the biker’s stomach. He said he wanted to push the man away. Within a second, the biker took two steps backward and swung at Saldana’s head.
Over the next three minutes, the biker swung at Saldana 14 times. He kicked Saldana four times, striking him in the abdomen three times and the backside once; he knocked Saldana over with one swing and threw him to the ground twice more, grabbing him once by the back of the neck.
During most of the fight, Saldana put up his arms into the biker’s chest or tried to push away the blows as he took steps backward. After he was taken to the ground, he said, he became more scared.
“I don’t like to assume or judge anyone by the way they look, but he seemed like the kind of guy that might carry a gun or knife,” Saldana said.
But six times as the biker backed up or turned away and looked as if he might return to his motorcycle, Saldana followed the biker. Even after he had been pummeled to the ground, with his mouth bleeding and two front teeth loose, Saldana got back up and said he told the biker to “Just get out of here.”
Saldana believes the only reason the man stopped hitting him is because Usama was on the phone with police. The man shouted “Trump, Trump, Trump” as he drove away, Saldana said. Sedgwick County has released a copy of the 911 call. In the background is the voice of a man repeating a word that sounds like “Trump.”
Both the biker’s actions and his own response surprised Saldana, he said. What he did was foolish, because he ended up with a bloodied mouth. But he did not regret it, he said, because the man had used racial epithets, including calling him and Usama “brown trash” and invoking Trump’s name.
Trump has become associated with the violent actions of some of his supporters, especially in the past few weeks. Earlier that night, a crowd of protesters in Chicago had caused Trump to cancel a rally out of concern about the event’s security.
Saldana had seen a number of videos of minorities getting pushed around and punched at Trump events recently. He also had heard stories of workplace discrimination from his mother, whose second language is English and who has worked as a maid; she said that if he were ever discriminated against, he should stand up for himself.
When Saldana finally came home for breakfast, his mom saw his swollen lip and facial injuries. She was afraid for him, she told him, and he had to calm her and convince her it wouldn’t happen again.
“After that, I see things a little differently,” Saldana said. “People are different than what I originally thought. There are people that are hateful and aggressive out there. I’ll definitely be more careful and more cautious.”
Saldana and his mom used to attend a Jehovah’s Witness church twice a week.
He started taking some philosophy courses this year that made him question his faith some. But he said he had no doubts about the moral lessons of the Bible and considers himself to be a pacifist.
So even though he touched the biker first and followed the biker six times when the biker looked as if he might leave, Saldana said, he never raised his arms except defensively and that he never swung at the biker. He felt as if he had been attacked, he said, not that he had been in a fight.
It was a learning experience that he wanted to forget almost as soon as it was over, he said. A few of his co-workers asked about his swollen lip, and he made up a story.
But Usama decided they should tell the media. After deliberating for more than a day, Usama told him that people should know that the racial violence in the current political climate is real.
Saldana agreed but said he wanted to remain anonymous. He wanted to learn from it and move on, he said. That was his way of dealing with the trauma, he said.
He didn’t realize what a big deal it would be – that Usama would contact national organizations and that several national publications, including the Washington Post, would write stories about his errand to pick up soda.
When Saldana was interrogated by a police officer and an FBI agent on Tuesday, he said, the officer told him he had no business arguing with the biker and that when he put his hand on the biker’s stomach, his touch could be considered a crime.
But Saldana said that every time during the confrontation when he got back up and walked back toward the biker, he felt as if he were taking a moral stand.
“I could have just cowered away and got in the car and drove off,” Saldana said. “I could have done that, but I didn’t want him to think he could just get away with the racism.”