An anti-vaccine mandate convoy protest surprised the world last month when it all but entirely shut down Canada’s capital city of Ottawa for weeks and raised millions of dollars. South of the border, American efforts to organize protest convoys began loudly, but many appear to have foundered.
Will right-wing truck convoys reach Washington, D.C.? To find out the latest on the U.S.-based efforts, Grid’s investigative editor, Justin Rood, talked with reporters Jason Paladino and Steve Reilly, who have been investigating the convoy effort for the past several weeks.
Grid: Are you expecting convoys to arrive in D.C.?
Jason Paladino: We expect the largest convoy, dubbed the “People’s Convoy,” to reach the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday, March 5, although organizer Maureen Steele said Monday that “everything is so fluid, so it could be a day later or a day earlier.”
Other convoys appear to have petered out. The People’s Convoy has come to dominate the U.S. protest convoy effort, with hundreds of drivers and thousands of online followers. It also has support from mainstream political operatives like Kimberly Fletcher, who co-organized the pro-Donald Trump Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the insurrection. Fletcher gave the convoy a shout-out at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend.
Sara Aniano, a graduate student at Monmouth University who studies right-wing movements and has been closely following convoy efforts online, told us she would be “shocked” if it didn’t make it all the way to D.C.
G: Is the People’s Convoy growing or shrinking?
JP: The People’s Convoy appears to have grown substantially since leaving California Feb. 23.
Grid observed the convoy in Missouri Monday, using the state’s traffic cameras. We estimated at least 500 participating vehicles, although it was hard to distinguish non-convoy trucks and other vehicles from those with drivers participating in the convoy. Many pickup trucks with large flags were visible. In some areas, people lined the freeways to watch them pass.
Online, the convoy’s following has grown. Aniano said the convoy’s followings on various social media platforms have moved from the hundreds to the thousands in the past few days. “That’s interesting because it’s one of the few kind of quantifiable metrics I have to determine whether or not this is gaining traction,” she added. “And it would seem that it is.”
Its progress has come with some headaches, though. As the convoy moved through Oklahoma on Monday, several of its drivers were involved in a crash that brought traffic to a halt for 30 minutes. Oklahoma State Troopers said that several people were injured and the accident was under investigation. Afterward, organizers warned convoy’s automobile drivers not to cut in between semi trucks, and that all drivers should “not take your hands off the steering wheel to waive [sic] or take pictures of people on the on ramp.”
G: What are plans for the convoy participants once they arrive in the area? Are they likely to cause disruptions?
JP: Organizers say they don’t plan for the convoy to enter Washington, D.C., but appear to expect drivers to circle I-495, the beltway that circles Washington. That doesn’t appear to satisfy everyone in the convoy movement.
“What are they gunna do? Hang out in Hagerstown? College Park? Silver Spring?” one Telegram user responded to the news. Others began devising plans to “blockade” D.C. by surrounding beltway exits and entrances, prompting organizers to clarify that their official plans did not include blockades.
D.C.-area law enforcement agencies say they are aware of the potential for more disruption and traffic.
Over the weekend, a temporary fence was erected around the U.S. Capitol grounds in advance of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address and the potential arrival of truckers in the city. Asked how officials would handle the situation if a trucker or someone else blocks a street in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee on Monday told reporters that while “we’d like to get voluntary compliance,” any street blockage could lead to an arrest.
G: What is the People’s Convoy protesting?
SR: Officially, the People’s Convoy is seeking an end to the federal emergency declaration for covid-19 and an end to vaccine mandates. “It’s Time to End THE DECLARATION OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY CONCERNING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC and Restore Our Nation’s Constitution,” the group says on its website.
Of course, many vaccine-related mandates now either are lifted or will soon be lifted in both blue and red states, it’s not clear a particular policy is motivating the protests, nor what specifically convoy participants hope to change.
The convoy’s leaders have said it is an apolitical movement. Others describe it in starkly political terms.
After speaking at a People’s Convoy event on Monday, former Missouri governor Eric Greitens — who has emerged from scandal to run for U.S. Senate — appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast to say the cause motivating the convoys was “freedom. They’re sick of the leftist tyranny. They’re sick of Big Tech censorship. They’re sick of the mainstream media lying about them. They are ready to take their country back, and they know that the political class has failed them.”
Notably, Greitens did not mention the covid virus or vaccines.
Telegram groups for the convoy are rife with rhetoric about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. “Do not leave DC without the release of our J6 Political Prisoners!” one Telegram user posted last week. There are also indications in the Telegram chat activity that convoy members are not entering Washington, D.C., partly out of fear of another Jan. 6-like event that could lead to arrests. “Guys be on your peas and cues because I’m seeing all kinds of chatter about this then a freaking set up like January 6 was,” one user posted, an apparent reference to unfounded conspiracy theories that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was orchestrated by the FBI.
One user posted an image of a noose on a convoy-related Gab group last month with the caption, “I’m bored. When do we start hanging traitors,” but was argued down. The first reply said: “Calls for violence are not acceptable.”
Dozens of Facebook and Telegram groups initially claimed to the be “official” convoy groups. Some racked up tens of thousands of followers. One in particular mixes convoy content with snake oil miracle cures, penis enlargement and a necklace that protects you from the harms of Wi-Fi and 5G.
G: What about the other convoys?
SR: The “Freedom Convoy USA 2022″ was supposed to reach Washington, D.C., Tuesday, before Biden’s State of the Union address before Congress. But Freedom Convoy organizers pulled the plug on their cross-country effort Monday and instructed any remaining drivers to join other convoys.
The local organizer for the Freedom Convoy’s concluding rally on the National Mall Tuesday did not cancel that event, although he revised crowd estimates down to “less than 500″ on his permit application. Few appeared to show for the event.
A third convoy ended outside the District last week with a single Pennsylvania trucker circling the capital city “peacefully.”