As the anti-COVID restriction trucker convoy lumbers across the country towards Washington, DC, it remains to be seen whether the national far-right mobilization will create significant disruption.
Inspired by the occupation of Ottawa and blockade of the Ambassador Bridge linking Canada to the United States last month, the convoy, which is scheduled to arrive in the DC area on Saturday, has become the primary vessel for far-right discontent. The organizers of the People’s Convoy, which departed from southern California last week, have said the vehicles will go no further than the Beltway, and many participants are reluctant to go into the city for fear of a law enforcement crackdown.
Sara Aniano, a graduate student in communications at Monmouth University who researches the social media rhetoric of far-right conspiracy theories and misinformation said the “overwhelming consensus” is to stay out of the city, but it’s hard to predict whether everyone will follow the official guidance.
“Whether that happens, I’m not sure,” said Aniano, who is who is monitoring the convoy. “It’s kind of murky as to what happens when they get to the Beltway. Maybe they want to disrupt traffic, but that puts a target on their back. On the other hand, why would they come all that way to circle the Beltway and then leave? I don’t know if that’s being kept deliberately ambiguous, but they have to leverage something if they want to get what they want.”
The abysmal turnout for the Freedom Convoy USA rally organized by Maryland gym owner Kyle Sefcik, with a reported two dozen people showing up, has created a widespread perception that the convoy is already a bust. But Sefcik’s rally was organized without an actual convoy behind it, and appears to be one of many offshoots organized independently of the main effort.
Meanwhile, the People’s Convoy appears to be picking up momentum, with supporters thronging overpasses, turning out for nightly rallies, and, most tellingly, flocking to the campaigns social media pages. Membership of the People’s Convoy’s Facebook group has more than tripled over the past three weeks, from 73,800 to 280,400. A two-hour livestream on the page received 350,000 views on Tuesday, while YouTube channels with videographers embedded in the convoy regularly garner upwards of 40,000 views.
Aniano said she has been focusing on the People’s Convoy because of the clout of the organizers, including Leigh Dundas, an anti-vaccine lawyer from southern California with a large social media following.
“It seems to have the most cohesive messaging,” Aniano said. “The messaging has gotten strong. Their Instagram followers have increased by the thousands.”
The national convoy is taking day-long break today at a farm equipment dealership in central Indiana. Several feeder convoys are launching in Maine, upstate New York and Pennsylvania today, with plans to converge with the main stream over the next few days.
Aniano said it’s difficult to estimate how many people and vehicles have joined the convoy, while organizers have aspirationally characterized it as a “snowball.” But representative Maureen Steele acknowledged during an appearance on former White House strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast that many people who have joined the convoy aren’t going all the way to DC.
“The convoy is growing,” Steele told Bannon on Monday. “It’s hard to determine daily how big it is because certain times a day it could be 30 miles long and then here hours later it’s 15 miles long, as trucks and people jump off that just rode with us for a certain part of the way.”
The reduction in COVID case counts and resulting easing of restrictions across the country coupled with the global preoccupation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created some headwinds for the convoy. But analysts say that the message of the trucker convoys has wide and deep purchase in the conservative movement, and is likely to have lasting repercussions beyond whatever happens in DC this weekend.
“I think their opposition to vaccines is real in a sense,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who monitors far-right movements. “For many of them, it’s a way for them to sublimate their fears about the economy and about Biden.
“I think a lot of them don’t like the uncertainty,” Cooter added. “Generally, many of them believe the restrictions have been manufactured, and that capitalism and they have been harmed in their earning prospects.”
The deference shown by speakers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference last week is evidence that the convoy participants have already realized some degree of success, said Devin Burghart, who is the executive director at the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
“If you listened at all to CPAC, it’s become clear that COVID denial — the anti-mask, anti-vaccine style of anger — has very much become a core of the Republican message heading into 2022,” Burghart told Raw Story. “Dozens of speakers on the stage of CPAC included messaging around COVID denial themes and anti-masking. That, along with them fusing those themes together with anti-critical race theory and attacks on trans folks, and the latest round of attacks on voting rights. Those are the themes that have moved from the margins to the mainstream.”
The convoy organizers have claimed victory on rolling back mask mandates, while pivoting to additional demands for accountability for government handling of the pandemic and to eliminate emergency orders.
“So, we’re not just driving to lift the mandates,” Steele told Bannon on Monday. “There’s a lot of other issues that we need accountability for. That’s what the drivers are driving home. We want accountability.”
Aniano told Raw Story that the immediate pivot beyond the convoy’s primary goal suggests a darker impulse behind the convoy.
“A lot of their calls to action involve accountability,” she said. “They don’t care if the mandates are lifted. They want people like Fauci, Trudeau, and in the US, Biden, to be held accountable for what they consider crimes against humanity. And that’s what’s scary.”
Organizers and participants rarely spell out exactly what kind of accountability they’re looking for, whether it might be congressional hearings or electoral defeat, or something more punitive.
“If you’re looking at a QAnon group on Telegram, they bring up things like military tribunals all the time,” Aniano said. “In the GiveSendGo leak, where they were raising money to send to Ottawa, people in their donations said they wanted people like Trudeau publicly hanged.”
Aniano added that comments among far-right activists on social media also include mention of “Nuremberg 2.0,” a reference to the military tribunals held after World War II to prosecute the Nazis for war crimes.
“That’s a pretty extreme version of what they mean by accountability,” Aniano said. “I haven’t seen any discussion of what they mean in a less extreme way. I do think that it’s concerning when you don’t know what the final plan is.”
Dundas, who has been speaking at the nightly rallies, has described herself as a foe of “a second embryonic Holocaust” in her official bio, equating public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID with the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi Germany during World War II.
Dundas previously promoted the mobilization to Washington, DC on Jan. 6 and the false claim that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Speaking in front of the US Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2021, Dundas asserted without evidence that public officials were complicit in foreign election interference, and then said, “We would be well within our rights to take any alleged American who acted in a turncoat fashion and sold us out and committed treason… to take ’em out back and shoot ’em or hang ’em.”
The Maryland DC Proud Boys chapter has similarly suggested that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan should be executed for his handling of the pandemic, posting a video in January of Hogan discussing COVID restrictions with the hashtag #bringbackpublichangings. David Nell, who was celebrated on the chapter’s Telegram channel with a photo of him at the Washington Monument during the Jan. 23 Defeat the Mandates rally, is organizing supplies for the national convoy when it reaches DC. Nell is also an admin on the People’s Convoy Telegram channel, and was posting on the channel as recently as Tuesday.
Organizers, including Dundas, have pledged that the convoy will remain peaceful and law-abiding when it reaches DC.
“We’re working with municipalities on our route so we’re not overwhelming resources,” Dundas told far-right podcaster Stew Peters last month. “We’re not looking to violate any laws, nor are we going to violate any laws. This is a one-hundred percent peaceful utilization of our First Amendment rights to speak, to disagree with the government, to protest and travel.”
Specifically addressing plans for the terminus of the convoy at the Beltway around DC, Dundas added, “We’re gonna keep this convoy moving. We’re not necessarily looking to blockade anything at the other end.”
It remains unclear how long the protesters will be in the DC area. In a statement in the chat for the Peoples Maryland/Virginia Convoy Telegram group in mid-February, Nell suggested that it could be for a longer duration than the nightly stops that have taken place as the convoy has trekked across the country.
“We are unique,” he wrote. “They are going to be in our territory the entire time once they arrive. Everywhere else they’re only going to be for a short moment in time. We need to collect everything we can and continue collecting even after they arrive because they are going to need supplies the entire time and we are not going to be able to provide it just from that little bit of time before hand. It’s going to take a concerted effort; it doesn’t stop.”
Aniano said it would be foolhardy to write off the convoy based on the dismal turnout for the splinter event organized by Kyle Sefcik on Tuesday. Conversely, Burghart said that based on the embarrassing publicity generated by Sefcik’s rally, the organizers of the People’s Convoy may be preoccupied with maximizing turnout when they reach the Beltway and less concerned about policing their ranks to weed out more extreme elements.
Cooter warned that the fact that many of the participants have traveled across the country underscores the depth of their personal investment in the mobilization.
“Even if the majority of the convoy remains peaceful,” she said, “we could have some relatively lone actors trying to cause bigger problems.”
Burghart described conditions as the convoy approaches DC as “volatile.”
“It is a situation that is rife with the potential for violence,” he said. “Part of that depends on the size of the protests and how far members are willing to push it. Having watched some of the local rallies and monitoring their social media, there’s an intense amount of anger there waiting to erupt.”