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Police divert ‘People’s Convoy’ from downtown D.C. during another day of demonstrations

A dump truck blocked their route from Interstate 295 toward I-695

The “People's Convoy,” along with other traffic, travels along Interstate 395 North on March 14, 2022, in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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District police blocked a key interstate highway ramp Tuesday to divert a group of protesting truckers away from downtown D.C., redirecting them onto the Anacostia Freeway rather than allowing them to cross the Anacostia River.

Participants in the “People’s Convoy,” who have been driving around the Washington region in pickups, SUVs and larger trucks for more than a week to protest the government’s response to the pandemic, were greeted Tuesday with a dump truck blocking their route from Interstate 295 toward Interstate 695. As the group was forced to continue onto DC-295, other off-ramps also were blocked by police.

District emergency management officials, warning of “demonstration activity” on roads, said in an alert that D.C. police closed exits “to keep traffic moving safely.” Members of the convoy eventually returned to the Beltway, made another drive to the city via Interstate 395 — where exits were blocked again — before ultimately returning to its base at the Hagerstown Speedway.

The road disruptions Tuesday were less severe than a day earlier, when hundreds of vehicles that were part of the convoy converged with thousands of other motorists on I-395 and encountered severe backups.

“We’re going to continue to do that route every single morning at this point because obviously it scares the crap out of them,” convoy organizer Brian Brase said at the truckers’ Tuesday morning meeting.

While in Washington, Brase and other drivers and supporters met with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Tuesday and complained about the D.C. police response to the convoy’s demonstration, calling the road blockages a violation of their First Amendment right to protest. Brase said others are coming from around the country to join the effort.

“We’re a very massive movement and we’re not going anywhere,” he said.

“God bless you,” Jordan said.

“We’re here for the long haul,” Brase said.

The truckers and their supporters have been arriving from Hagerstown via Interstates 70 and 270, then making their way around the Beltway most days for a week and a half. But they had avoided roads inside the Beltway until this week.

‘People’s Convoy’ drives through D.C. after permit for organized demonstration downtown partially denied

The convoy on Monday entered the District via the 14th Street Bridge amid a near-standstill, then continued to I-695 before crossing the Anacostia River and returning to the Beltway. Police blocked exits into downtown Washington.

D.C. police have declined to comment on the decision to block exits, saying the department doesn’t comment on “operational tactics.” Authorities on Monday and Tuesday reopened the shuttered highway exits later in the afternoon.

The D.C. Police Union cited safety issues tied to the convoy in a letter last week to Police Chief Robert J. Contee III.

The union referenced a fatal crash in Thursday’s letter, expressing concern over officers at stationary traffic posts during 12-hour mandatory shifts after dark and in areas where vehicles travel at high speeds. Adam Shaatal, the union’s chief shop steward, urged the department to end the assignments.

Two people were killed March 8 in the fiery crash when a car struck a dump truck and another vehicle in the District on Interstate 695, police said. The dump truck and a D.C. police vehicle were parked at Exit 1C as part of security measures for the convoy, a D.C. police spokesperson said at the time.

Those assigned to the unit “are not road cones,” Shaatal wrote. For now, the letter said, “there is no actual or imminent threat to the District of Columbia that would warrant placing your members in unnecessary danger.”

Asked about the letter, a D.C. police spokesperson said the department leadership is in regular discussions with the union.

Some members of the convoy have traveled across the country to protest, beginning their journey Feb. 23 in Adelanto, Calif., outside Los Angeles. Organizers and convoy members talked about Monday’s convoy journey to D.C. as a “win,” saying it included 258 cars, 68 motor homes and 95 trucks. At a meeting Monday night, the group criticized police efforts to block exits, saying it worsened the backups.

“Since they didn’t want to seem to trust us on what we told them we were going to do, and they screwed everybody else’s life up today, we just might do what we want to do from now on,” convoy organizer Mike Landis said Monday night. “Way to create some traffic,” he told the protesters.

Convoy leaders say they want to hold lawmakers accountable for the government’s pandemic responses, voicing frustrations over vaccination requirements for health workers, federal employees and military personnel intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Although many pandemic-related restrictions at state and local levels have been blocked or rescinded, convoy organizers have rallied supporters by calling mandates an infringement on their freedoms.

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

A broader range of grievances has also brought people to the cause, evident in signs, flags and chants from drivers and supporters in Hagerstown. Some have expressed far-right beliefs and misinformation that equate mandates to slavery; falsely claim “Trump won,” referring to the 2020 presidential election; and repeat debunked QAnon conspiracy allegations.

Clarence Williams contributed to this report.