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Behind the Story: The ‘People’s Convoy’ is in the D.C. region. Here’s what it’s like covering the protests.

Supporters cheer on and wave flags as the "People's Convoy" arrives at the Hagerstown Speedway on March 4, 2022. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Since early February, Washington Post local reporter Ellie Silverman has been covering the “People’s Convoy,” a group of activists protesting vaccine mandates in the United States. The group was inspired by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” which occupied downtown Ottawa for several weeks in January.

The People’s Convoy, made up of about 1,000 vehicles, made its way to Hagerstown, Md., a city two hours outside of D.C. last week and has been making loops around the Beltway, the highway that circles D.C. They recently met with several Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), to share their concerns about federal vaccine restrictions. Cruz joined convoy leaders on Thursday and rode in one of its lead trucks. The group’s leaders say they will continue their protest until vaccine mandates are lifted.

We spoke to Silverman, who covers protests and activism as part of her beat, about the convoy and getting to know some of its members. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get in touch with the People’s Convoy?

Ellie: I talked with Brian Brase, one of the organizers, on the phone in February. I wanted to hear more about what he was planning, what his goals were and hopes were for this group. They arrived in Hagerstown, Md., on March 4, and since then, I have been in the Hagerstown speedway every day, walking around, chatting with people about where they came from and what motivated them to protest for such a long period of time.

Tell me about some of those interactions. Who are some of the people you’ve met?

Ellie: At the Hagerstown speedway, there are big rigs, campers, pickup trucks, as well as people in passenger vehicles. There’s been so many trucks that even the gravel going into the speedway has started to get potholes. At times, it feels like a festival — over the weekend, there was a funnel cake stand, people hanging out around a fire pit and launching fireworks. Then, other times, there are rallies where they talk about vaccine mandates and their demands. Despite the fact that many pandemic-related restrictions have been rolled back at the local and federal levels, they still are upset about vaccine mandates. Brase has called to end the national state of emergency for the coronavirus, which [President] Trump declared first in 2020, and that [President] Biden has expanded. Those demands are specific to the pandemic, but when people hop up onto the stage, other things come up: People bring up the election and that they believe that the election was rigged or stolen and that Trump really won. They bring up broad concerns about what they call government overreach.

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

How do you approach people and introduce yourself, especially in a big crowd?

Ellie: If I’m just going up to someone who may be standing around chatting with friends or listening to a speech, I just say, “Hi, how’s it going? My name is Ellie Silverman. I’m a reporter for The Washington Post. I’ve been at the speedway since Friday night, and I would love to talk to you about why you’re here.” For the most part, people have been really receptive to that, and they’re more than willing to share where they’re coming from and why they feel the way that they feel, right?

In one of your stories, you mention that some of the motivations have been a little murky. For instance, one person said they weren’t here to do anything political. How do you try and dig into these motivations further?

Ellie: Something that organizers have said a lot is that this is not right or left issue. It’s an issue of the American people and that this is for Republicans and Democrats. But at the speedway, there are a ton of Trump flags, everything from Trump 2020 to Trump 2024. I’ve seen signs that say “Let’s go Brandon,” calls to arrest Dr. Fauci or a citizen’s arrest of Biden and [Vice President] Harris. I brought that up to organizers, and the responses I’ve gotten is that, even if the organizers want to paint this as bipartisan, they’re also not going to tell someone what to do. They feel like that’s contradictory to their message.

I talked to one man who said that he saw someone flying a Confederate flag and thought to himself, “This isn’t the place for that,” but again — that’s still there, right?

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

I think that’s something really interesting about covering activism and protests. Oftentimes, you just see a big mass of people, but there are so many individuals within it. What’s something that’s been surprising to you about the convoy that people might not realize seeing it from afar?

Ellie: The convoy organizers have emphasized that they’re working with law enforcement to have a minimal disruption on traffic and that the Beltway loop is to show lawmakers they’re here and that they’re not going anywhere. The people I’ve talked to are kind of surprised that their goal isn’t to clog up the Beltway, at least not yet. It’s also just that this is really evolving every day. I’m not sure what they’re going to do tomorrow. I don’t know what they’re going to do the next day. I don’t know what this movement and protest will look like and how it will end — and I’m not sure that the people there know how it’s going to end either.

‘People’s Convoy’ organizers meet with GOP lawmakers amid pandemic-related demonstrations

Something else I found surprising — the other day, this woman got on stage and was wearing a costume that was red, white and blue full of American flags. It had Trump written on it and the letter Q, for the conspiracy theory QAnon. She got on stage and she started talking about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and saying that she was there that day and it was what she called the most patriotic day of her life. And then she started sharing more about her thoughts, about conspiracies, and QAnon, and eventually someone cut the mic on her. I don’t know why they cut the mic on her and she was upset about that.

But it does seem like this movement is very much attracting people with extreme views, and when those people speak up, the organizers also try to pivot back to their message that this is not a right or left issue and this is about government overreach. That’s something that I will continue to pay attention to — the ways that this broad group of people interact, who has power within this movement and the direction that it goes.

I want to step back and talk about your beat, which is protests and activism. What do you think about as you cover these protests — what do you think is most important to focus on, and what do you see as your role?

Ellie: I think my favorite part of being a journalist is how we get to meet new people and learn about perspectives different than our own. I just always try to connect with people on a more human level and ask supporters of a movement about the life experiences that led them to this.

I’ve covered everything from voting rights protests to instances of police shootings. In 2017, I covered the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Last fall, I covered the federal civil trial on behalf of plaintiffs who were emotionally or physically injured that day against some of those white supremacist organizers. This beat takes me from the streets covering criminal justice issues to talking with local D.C. residents to covering the March for Life. It’s a whole range. I see my job as covering social movements, the people in them and what motivates them to keep trying to make change. I also think it’s important to hold people account for the effects of the movement as well.

We spoke to Ellie on March 9. Read some of her reporting on the convoy as well as her previous reporting on protests:

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