The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Freedom Convoy’ spinoff leaves California, aims for D.C.

A sign at the intersection of third St. and Maryland Ave. SW directs all trucks and trailers. Local and federal agencies are preparing for possible disruptions in the D.C. region related to plans inspired by the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Protesters in the United States, inspired by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks, headed out from Southern California on Wednesday for a cross-country trip to the D.C. region. At the same time, a Scranton, Pa., owner of a trucking company said he planned to lead his own group of vehicles to the Beltway on Wednesday afternoon.

But as of 6 p.m. Wednesday, a convoy did not appear to materialize on the Beltway. Dustin Sternbeck, a D.C. police spokesman, said the department has a “heightened posture” on highway entry points in the District as part of its response to possible convoys blocking roadways.

These “convoys” are part of a disorganized constellation of protesters planning to target the D.C. region in demonstrations against vaccine mandates. Extremism researchers said the protesters’ grievances reflect broader right-wing culture resentments that take the form of spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election results, doubting the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine, repeating human trafficking myths and complaining about school curriculums.

Local and federal officials are gearing up for whatever these protests may bring.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s vaccination requirement for large employers and many states have rolled back pandemic-related restrictions, the anti-mandate rally cry is gathering online support.

The self-proclaimed “People’s Convoy,” leaving from a parking lot outside Adelanto Stadium in California on Wednesday, plans to arrive in the D.C. Beltway area March 5. The group said in a news release that it will “terminate in the vicinity of the DC area, but will NOT be going into DC proper.”

It’s unclear what the convoy will do if and when it arrives or how long it stay.

Photos and videos on social media from the “People’s Convoy” send-off showed 18-wheelers, flatbeds and other vehicles stationed on a road and hundreds of people cheering and waiting American flags. The convoy appeared smaller than organizers were hoping. Although hundreds of vehicles joined the convoy as it left, there were fewer than 40 big rigs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The group’s cover photo of its Facebook page, which has more than 162,000 members, includes the American flag, a bald eagle and the Constitution.

Brian Brase, a “People’s Convoy” organizer, acknowledged the Supreme Court ruling, blocking Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers, but said the group is demanding more from the White House and Congress.

Another Biden administration vaccine mandate for millions of federal employees was blocked by a federal judge in Texas, and the Justice Department has filed an appeal. The U.S. military has also fired active-duty members who declined the vaccines. Brase specifically mentioned federal workers and military personnel in his anti-mandate demands, which also include ending the declaration of a national emergency concerning the coronavirus and demanding congressional hearings and investigations into the pandemic.

“Where did the coronavirus originate from? How did it get out? Who was behind lockdowns exactly? The vaccine, ya know, the speedy trials, there’s a lot of things that come into play. We just want transparency and some investigation from the congressional level to be taken to find origins of how we’ve gotten to where we are today,” Brase said. “

Brase, who is unvaccinated, cast doubt on the 2020 presidential election results, saying he did not know whether Biden won. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know the facts.”

“Whether we make it there or not I believe the message will get out,” he said of the plans to lead the convoy.

Extremism researchers say that even after pandemic restrictions are loosened and the country emerges from the public health crisis, many people mobilized by the anti-mandate movement will pivot to another cause.

“If this was really about mandates, would they be mobilizing at the same time those very mandates are getting lifted?” said Sara Aniano, a Monmouth University graduate student studying the social media rhetoric of far-right conspiracy theories and misinformation. “There’s an undertone that isn’t really as subtle as people think.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) was briefed by U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger on Wednesday afternoon and said the possibility of erecting a temporary fence around the Capitol complex remains on the table but that no decision had been made.

One organizer has requested to hold a rally on March 1 with “hopefully 1,000-3,000” attendees at the Sylvan Theater, the public theater on the Washington Monument grounds, in “support of convoys in Canada,” according to a permit application submitted to the National Park Service. That is part of another group self-dubbed the “Freedom Convoy USA” that aiming to arrive in D.C. by March 1, when Biden is expected to give his State of the Union address at 9 p.m.

Local and federal agencies are still preparing for possible traffic disruptions from the varying plans for convoy spinoffs in the United States. Hundreds of D.C. National Guard personnel and 50 large tactical units are also authorized to assist with traffic control during expected First Amendment demonstrations, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tweeted that he spoke with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Wednesday “as part of our ongoing coordination in response to planned trucker convoys.”

There is uncertainty, Norton said, about the scope of expected disruptions.

“It looks like they are learning from Canada,” she said of the police. “They believe they’ve had time to prepare. While there could be major disruptions, they are prepared for that. Already there is some indication we won’t see anything like what Canada saw.”

She said Manger did not describe any credible security threats for now, though did describe some of the people supposedly planning to come to Washington as members of extremist groups, some of whom could be armed.

“There’s a lot of chatter — disrupting the State of the Union, etcetera — but none of that looks like anything at this point but chatter,” Norton said, describing Manger’s assessment.

She said that if Capitol Police decide it will be necessary to block off the Capitol complex, police are prepared to pick up members of Congress at prearranged locations and escort them to the Capitol safely, particularly if any attempts to disrupt the State of the Union address are possible.

Still, she said the California convoy appears disorganized, noting it isn’t mobilizing people around a specific issue like the hordes of people in Canada who rallied against pandemic mandates.

“They’re not coalescing around a specific issue the way they did in Canada around the coronavirus, which may be good news for the District,” Norton said.

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said Wednesday the agency’s position has not changed in the past day, noting that the agency “continues to monitor the situation and to communicate with our National Capital Region local, state and federal partners. This is standard practice anytime the potential exists for a significant protest that could disrupt the safe and efficient flow of traffic on Virginia highways.”

Authorities typically use large trucks to block roads during demonstrations. In some cases on Wednesday, D.C. police were paired with Department of Public Works trucks.

The Virginia Trucking Association, which represents about 300 trucking companies or suppliers headquartered or operating throughout Virginia, is against vaccine mandates, but does not support any demonstrations that would block roads or access to “normal, everyday travel,” nor any protests that would disrupt supply chains.

“While certainly everyone has their right to have their voice heard and register their grievances … we don’t have a vaccine mandate in the United States,” said Dale Bennett, the group’s president and CEO. “Frankly, we do not support anything that would provide disruption.”