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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After Ottawa, trucker convoy near Washington is a low-key protest

Truckers protesting COVID safety mandates and other Biden administration policies ride in a small convoy along the Beltway around Washington, D.C., March 6, 2022.

By Matthew Roseberg and Jim Rutenberg

When a convoy of trucks pulled out of Southern California last month, rolling toward the U.S. capital just days after the police in Canada cracked down on a legion of truckers occupying Ottawa, Ontario, Washington braced for their arrival. The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning, and members of the National Guard were deployed, along with hundreds of city police officers.

But this week, when the caravan of semitrailers, pickups and recreational vehicles that had assembled in protest of vaccine mandates and other COVID restrictions reached the capital region, downtown Washington was business as usual.

The convoy’s organizers say it is early, that their restraint has been strategic and that protesters are in it for the long haul. They have managed to obtain audiences with various Republican politicians, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who nodded approvingly. And although mask mandates and local vaccine requirements have been rolled back across the country, including in Washington, the convoy’s leaders insist they are not leaving until all vaccine mandates are lifted.

“We’re going to continue to increase that pressure,” said Brian Brase, a trucker from northwestern Ohio and one of the convoy’s organizers. “They understand that we’re in their backyard.”

The pressure, so far, has been relatively low.

Although there may have been many thousands of people cheering from roadsides or donating supplies along the convoy’s cross-country route, there appear to be a few hundred coming and going at the protest’s base camp, the Hagerstown Speedway, a stock race car track 80 miles northwest of the city — truckers, but also pastors, store owners and a variety of right-wing activists.

The protests begin most mornings — although not Wednesday, when things were put off because of rain and possible snow — with hundreds of vehicles leaving the speedway amid a chorus of rousing honks. They head down Interstate 70 and make a midday lap or two around the 64-mile Capital Beltway at the legal speed limit, noticeable largely by the pro-Trump and anti-Biden bunting flapping behind them.

In the evening, the convoy returns to the speedway, which has become a combination tent revival and tailgate party, with a communal food station, a barber, vendors selling pro-Trump merchandise, huge stacks of boxes containing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine books, people in costumes and livestreamers everywhere you look.

It is a far cry from the downtown encampment in Ottawa, where eighteen-wheelers blocked off city streets, aggravating local residents and nettling the police. As the days go by, however, more than a few within the convoy have begun to question whether the daily circuits around the Beltway are enough.

“The laps are OK for a lot of people,” said Todd Church, 45, who joined the convoy in Indiana. “It’s not my choice. But I don’t want any heavy-handed protests.”

There is no shortage of defiance at the speedway, where people lament how pandemic restrictions have upended their lives and how they have been estranged from their families over their distrust of vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, should be jailed, one sign says. The graffiti on a truck declares that “mandates = slavery.” But the specter of the last big right-wing protest in Washington, which led to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021, hangs over the protest like diesel fumes.

“I would like to see us in D.C.,” said William Kyle Glenn, 36, wearing a battle helmet with a face mask painted red, white and blue. But he added, mentioning Jan. 6, “I feel like it’s a trap.”

Many people in the truck convoy seem to fear that if they went to Washington, the government would trick them into a confrontation, insisting, without a basis in fact, that this is what happened Jan. 6.

Several of the convoy’s initial organizers had direct connections to the events of Jan. 6 and the chaotic postelection period that preceded them.

One of the convoy’s earliest planners, Leigh Dundas, was a lawyer for an anti-vaccine group whose leader was charged with entering the Capitol that day. Dundas herself was videotaped the day before the riot broke out urging on a pro-Trump crowd with calls to kill any “alleged Americans” who might have helped undermine the 2020 election.

The America Project, a group that supported the convoy from its infancy, is run by Patrick Byrne, former CEO of Byrne, working with Michael Flynn, who was national security adviser under President Donald Trump, took part in a plot to persuade Trump to use the military to seize voting machines in a bid to stay in office.

Organizers have defended the presence of some far-right figures, saying they have been unfairly maligned by the left, but they also have said that they are policing their ranks for extremists.

Beyond the tactics of the convoy, there is the question of aims. As the omicron variant has rapidly receded, COVID policies and the debate around them have faded as well, and attention has turned to the war in Ukraine, inflation and soaring gas prices.

Still, Brase insisted that there are plenty of COVID mandates left to fight, above all the requirement that federal employees be vaccinated, an order currently blocked in the courts. He has also demanded that Biden end the ongoing COVID-related national emergency declaration, which first went into effect under Trump in March 2020 and which, convoy leaders charge, led to a range of constitutional abuses.

Whether the convoy achieves its stated aims should not be confused with whether it has been effective, said Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched and participated in the surge of political activism arising from the 2017 Women’s March. She compared the explosion of activity on local Facebook pages planning for the trucker convoy to the flurry of postcard writing and organizing by the grassroots anti-Trump groups that sprouted up in 2017. “People were putting in time and energy making peanut butter sandwiches, getting their kids involved,” Putnam said. Agree with the convoy or not, “that’s a social movement.”

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