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‘Freedom Convoy’ spinoff rallies in Md. with about 1,000 vehicles and plans to drive around the Capital Beltway

The group, which is protesting vaccine mandates, was camped in Hagerstown on Saturday

Supporters cheer the self-styled “People's Convoy” as it arrives at the Hagerstown Speedway on Friday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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HAGERSTOWN, Md. — They drove pickup trucks, RVs, 18-wheelers and minivans, some making a 2,500-mile journey from Southern California. More joined as the convoy passed through Amarillo, Tex., or rallied at a farm equipment supplier in Monrovia, Ind. And others came in Friday, as about 1,000 vehicles converged at a speedway in Hagerstown, Md., under the rallying cry of “freedom.”

The truckers and their supporters are now the closest they have been to the nation’s capital, where they say they want to hold lawmakers accountable for the government’s pandemic responses. The group’s next planned steps had been unclear. But late Saturday night, Brian Brase, an organizer of the self-described "People’s Convoy,” said in an interview the drivers planned to circle the Capital Beltway twice on Sunday morning and escalate that pattern on successive days.

“We don’t want to shut D.C. down,” Brase said. “We’re not anti-vaxxers. We’re not. We just want freedom, freedom. We want to choose. We just want the choice. So tomorrow is a basically a show of just how big we are and how serious we are.” He said it was not clear how long they planned to remain in the area and described the situation as “very fluid.”

‘People’s Convoy’ plans to slowly loop around the beltway Sunday

The convoy’s motives are muddy. People gathered in the Western Maryland city described frustrations with workplace vaccine mandates and other measures meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus — even though those rules have now been lifted in many places. At the speedway, the crowds chanted anti-President Biden slogans and displayed support for former president Donald Trump. Extremism analysts point to a broader set of right-wing causes that have motivated participants.

Trucks and cars filed into the speedway complex Saturday morning, passing under an American flag waving from a cable between two 30-foot booms attached to semi tow-trucks. Within, truckers and their supporters were waking up after the Friday night rally. Most in the crowd were White men, but there were also some young children and dogs.

Rows and rows of tanker trucks, flatbeds, box trailers, RVs and pickup trucks lined the parking lot, bearing license plates from Utah, Maine, Arkansas, Texas and other states. A chorus of honking horns blared from the area where the convoy vehicles were stacked in lines, awaiting their next move.

Scores of people with large trucks, recreational vehicles and cars gathered March 5 on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to protest coronavirus restrictions. (Video: Reuters)

On Friday night,Brase looked out at the crowd — some dressed in red-white-and-blue beanies and waving American flags — and told them to celebrate the distance they had traveled. But he didn’t tell them their final destination or what to do when they get there.

“Well, we’re going to do something,” he said, laughing. “What this is is yet to be determined. Please be patient.”

The possibility of caravans of truckers heading to the Beltway has prompted security concerns, drawing in police agencies from D.C., Maryland and Virginia to monitor the group. Supporters have been joining and leaving throughout the trip, making it difficult to estimate the size of the convoy.

‘Freedom Convoy’ spinoff aims for D.C. region this weekend. Here’s what you need to know.

Officials across the region advised drivers to be prepared for potentially severe traffic through the weekend. “It’s a very fluid situation,” said Ellen Kamilakis, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

On Friday night, the mood of the group was celebratory and proud. Truckers blared the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and ate spaghetti, burgers and chicken tacos donated by supporters. Leaders stood on the makeshift stage of a flatbed truck and lambasted the federal government for imposing vaccine and mask mandates, policies they believe violated their fundamental rights as Americans.

The protesters, inspired by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks, have complained about the perceived infringement on their freedoms. Some of the truckers displayed flags blending the United States’ Stars and Stripes with the Canadian maple leaf.

Extremism researchers following this movement say the demonstrators’ hostility toward the vaccines is just one of several anti-government, right-wing beliefs that they espouse. Flatbeds, semis and other trucks and cars in the speedway parking area were decorated with signs and messages referencing far-right political views and conspiracy theories, including calls to “arrest Fauci,” referring to Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci, and equating the mandates to slavery. Some supporters wore “Make America Great Again” caps. Others waved flags bearing an allusion to an explicit anti-Biden slogan.

On Saturday, signs and banners ran the gamut featuring political slogans, Bible verses and expressions of patriotism. “Open Keystone pipeline,” one read. Others: “Trump won,” and “we will not comply.”

A woman offered free copies of the Bible from a stand near another supporter selling “People’s Convoy” T-shirts.

Brase has said the group wants an end to the national emergency declaration in response to the coronavirus — first issued by Trump in March 2020 and later extended by Biden — and for Congress to hold hearings investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.

Craig Brown, a 53-year-old trucker, left his home in Sandpoint, Idaho, two weeks ago, taking a delivery of apples to Los Angeles to get closer to the convoy’s launch point in Adelanto, Calif. He felt uncomfortable that the government could expect him to receive such a new vaccine, and he wanted to teach his teenage daughters to stand up for what they believe in. So he bought a month’s worth of nonperishable food, installed an extra freezer in his vehicle, and set off to join a movement.

On his way to Los Angeles, Brown’s truck broke down and he had to wait five days for repairs. And before he even found the other truckers, Brown adopted a two-year-old golden retriever named Copper.

By Feb. 23, he had joined the group on their way out of Southern California. Since then, Brown said the trip has been more exciting than he could have imagined. People across the country had made signs to support them, he said, and so many volunteers had brought food to rest stops that he had hardly tapped into his nonperishables.

“It’s a high, seeing all the people on the overpasses and the sides of the roads,” Brown said. “All these people treating us like we are heroes.”

Brown, who had the coronavirus last month, does not want to do anything political in D.C. He said he wants to end the trip by parking alongside the truckers and their supporters, and eating a meal together.

“We are going to eat, going to celebrate and enjoy the company of people who think we are heroes,” he said.

During the journey, supporters have stood on chilly highway overpasses to wave American flags. They’ve cheered at rallies and followed the journey on social media. And donations have poured in. By Monday, the group claimed to have collected more than $1.5 million.

A nonprofit says it collected over $1.5 million for a D.C.-region-bound truck convoy. Its director recently pleaded guilty to fraud.

One convoy participant said Friday during a live stream on YouTube that “select trucks will be going to the White House” but emphasized that the group as a whole would not be going into the city. He did not elaborate on those plans, and there were no signs they had materialized by Saturday afternoon.

Large trucks are prohibited from many roads in the District, and there are many regulations governing their operation, including how long they can idle.

In response to the convoy, about 50 people gathered Saturday at Freedom Plaza in the District for a demonstration against white nationalism. Veterans, labor organizers and civil rights advocates rallied around a shared message — that the trucker convoy doesn’t speak for all veterans, truck drivers and workers.

“There’s this misunderstanding that because they’re so loud they speak for the majority of the population, and that’s just not true,” said Linsay Rousseau, 41, an Army veteran and spokeswoman for the group Continue to Serve.

At the Hagerstown speedway, Heather Kelly, 43, a former nurse said she had always got the vaccines required for her job but didn’t want to get what she saw as a novel covid shot. Her opposition to mask rules and vaccine mandates — and the loss of faith in the government she said it triggered — upended her life. She quit her job at a long-term-care facility and pulled her children out of school.

“You have free will, free choice,” she said. “You let the government tell you to put something on your face. Am I going to have to have my head covered next like I am in a Muslim country?”

Kelly, who said she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008, came to Washington for the Jan. 6, 2021, rally to show how many people had voted for Trump, but said she didn’t learn about the attack on the Capitol until later. Recently, she and her 18-year-old son climbed into their minivan and joined the convoy.

“I was working hard. I was driven. I spent my children’s childhood in medical school,” Kelly said, facing her son under the yellow hue of truck lights, her eyes welling up. “To see it corrupted the way that it is, it’s very sad for me.”

Jim Hasner, 40, joined the convoy in Indiana, driving a truck. He owns his own company and attributed economic struggles to pandemic restrictions.

Like some other participants, he accused the government and mainstream media of hiding the real truth about the pandemic. He said a virus that claimed more than 1,600 lives in the United States on Friday “is gone.”

“It would be really great if people could be honest about things,” he said. “Honest about what the government overreach looks like, honest about what the vaccine really is. Have some transparency in the media because it’s just it’s not accurate.”

Robert Erikson, 58, who joined the convoy west of Amarillo on Feb. 27, described his truck as a “house on wheels.”

On the outside, it said “For God and Country.” Inside, the sleeper was set up for long stretches on the road, with an oven, deep fryer, two burner stoves and a pair of 12-pound weights to “keep his body limber.” Altoids and bottles of metabolism-support gummies sat on top of the fryer.

Erikson said he doesn’t usually vote but went for Trump in 2016. To him the convoy isn’t a political movement. Instead, he said he wants every person in government to resign.

“We need to start over,” he said.

Duncan reported from Washington. Jasmine Hilton and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.