The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘People’s Convoy’ provoked and motivated by D.C. police roadblocks

The truck convoy and other traffic travel along Interstate 395 North in Washington last week. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The “People’s Convoy” of truck drivers and supporters that has been honking its way around D.C.-area roads and highways, backing up traffic in protest of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, has taken aim at government leaders, pharmaceutical and technology companies and the mainstream media. Now, as the convoy encounters roadblocks on its routes, it has a new perceived enemy: D.C. police leadership.

This progression reflects the right-wing movement’s penchant to search for obstacles to overcome in its fight for vague yet lofty goals like “freedom,” extremism researchers say, as part of a playbook that uses sinister strategies like cloaking calls for violence in humor and instigating fights in a manner that later allows for claims of self-defense.

“You’ve got to have villains. You’ve got to have enemies, you’ve got to have outgroups, and D.C. police, part because of what happened with Jan. 6, they have a special status as a potential source of antagonism for these folks,” said Pete Simi, a longtime researcher of far-right movements who testified as an expert witness at the federal civil trial last fall against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

“Because of the emphasis on confrontation, there’s always that unforeseeable potential in terms of the turns that it can take, and when it is going to escalate to the point of where there’s potentially overt violence,” he added.

When the convoy left Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 23, inspired by the protest of the Canadian convoy in Ottawa, its organizers said they would not be going into the District. They arrived in this region on March 4, setting up a base camp at the Hagerstown Speedway in Western Maryland.

The group says it is protesting pandemic restrictions, even as many mandates have been blocked or lifted, but those at the speedway appear to be motivated by a broad range of right-wing grievances and conspiracy theories.

At first, they protested by circling the Capital Beltway. Then last week, they switched tactics and set their aims on the District, seemingly provoked by D.C. police blocking interstate exits into downtown Washington, a move those in the convoy call a violation of their First Amendment rights. In the District, convoy members have honked through the streets, while residents have reported harassment and disrupted commutes.

Last week, convoy organizer Brian Brase told the crowd that every time D.C. police “pulls their bulls--t … they’re literally helping us. They think that they’re going to deter us. They think that they’re going to break us down and they think that we’re going to go away. But all they do is make us dig our heels in deeper.”

Pivoting to address D.C. police directly, Brase continued, “We still here, and we ain’t going anywhere. We will see you today, we will see you tomorrow, we will see you the day after that and the day after that and the day after that.”

It remains unclear how long the convoy and the road closures will continue. Convoy leaders have not announced any clear timeline or end date, and city leaders say they are prepared for this to be ongoing.

Convoy members portray any ability to slip past the police barricades and enter downtown as a “win,” and Brase threatened last week to share the names of D.C. police he talked to and when they spoke. This menace comes as the D.C. police union has voiced concerns about the safety of officers staffing stationary posts on the highway at all hours as vehicles move at fast speeds and requested an end to this measure.

D.C. police have declined to discuss security measures citing “operational tactics.” Chris Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said that the city had been preparing for this demonstration for over a month and that officials are aware of “reports of threatening language and rhetoric coming from individuals associated with this demonstration activity.”

“There’s a difference between First Amendment activities which every American has the right to do,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s another thing to bring bobtails and tractor trailers into the District and threaten to commit violence.”

When rallying the crowds in Hagerstown, another convoy organizer, Mike Landis, has called supposed threats to lawmakers “enticing,” invoked violent phrases like “throat punch” when talking about demonstrating in the city and lamented, “This isn’t 1776. We can’t go load our muskets and go in guns blazing and take over.” He added, “I’m sure quite a few of us would love that opportunity.”

On Friday morning, Landis passed the microphone to a man onstage who launched into a racist rant against Black Lives Matter Plaza, urging the crowd to go into the District and vandalize it. “Everybody needs to get to D.C. now,” the man, who did not identify himself, said Friday.

“Black Lives Matter Street, we’re gonna take it back. All that paint’s coming off that street. Before I get put in my grave, it’s going to get tar and feathered, and then we’re going to tar and feather all our delegates,” the man said. That afternoon, members of the convoy drove their bobtail trucks through Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Extremism researchers have warned that this movement against pandemic restrictions and mandates attracts people motivated by such violent intentions and conspiratorial beliefs.

“That’s part of what the culture thrives on, the idea that they have this power to potentially intimidate, coerce through fear, through their history of using violent action that obviously, people are well aware of,” Simi said. “That is a source of empowerment for folks within that culture.”

Convoy protesters also gathered Saturday outside the D.C. home of Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to a live stream of the demonstration where a man wearing a “People’s Convoy” shirt cast doubt on the proven safety of the coronavirus vaccine.

Conversations about the convoy were already marked by paranoia, questioning if there are “infiltrators” among them, saying D.C. is some sort of a “trap,” labeling commuters as “antifa,” referring to anti-fascist activists, and encouraging drivers to report “any illegal activity” while on the road.

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Convoy leaders claim police officers on the streets support them, urging supporters to direct their anger to police superiors. A D.C. police spokesperson refuted that claim: “Saying that every member of the badge is behind them is dangerous rhetoric and a sweeping generality that just frankly isn’t true.”

In taking aim at the city’s police department leadership, they are portraying their efforts to protest as another battle between the working class and the elite, said Sara Aniano, a Monmouth University graduate student who studies the social media rhetoric of far-right conspiracy theories and who has been closely following the convoy. “They’re really good at crafting a narrative based on the reactions of people around them without any real context,” she said.

Agencies in and around Washington are accustomed to responding to protests and demonstrations for a variety of causes. The convoy first entered D.C. last week, after an application by Brase for a nearly two-week permitted protest on the National Mall was partially denied because of other events already booked during that time frame, and then withdrawn, according to National Park Service records.

As the protest continues, it could dissolve, or some of the most ardent followers may remain, looking to take drastic and violent actions to achieve their goals, said Megan Squire, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She compared the grievances of the convoy protest to the motivations of supporters of former president Donald Trump who falsely believed the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Some convoy members have bragged about being among the insurrectionist mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, including a woman with an upcoming trial who spoke onstage earlier this month.

“Some of these same folks after the election, they were increasingly frustrated, trying to take their anger out on somebody, looking for a cause, even a lie,” said Squire, also a professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism. “It’s a lot of the same animating ideas and mistrust of government,” she said. “These are people who have a very confused and damaging, a lot of times, worldview.”

Karina Elwood contributed to this report.