Protest convoy loops capital on D.C. Beltway
Inspired by Canadian truckers, American drivers call for an end to pandemic restrictions
HAGERSTOWN, Md.—About two dozen semitrucks and 50 personal autos set out on a cross-country protest caravan from Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 23. By the time the People’s Convoy arrived at the Hagerstown Speedway on Friday, the vehicles numbered more than 1,000. It took more than three hours for the trucks and cars to file onto the speedway grounds under an American flag hung from two cranes.
From Hagerstown, the convoy made its first trek to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, twice driving around the Capital Beltway that loops the city. Organizers said they would continue to drive at least one lap each day until lawmakers meet their demands, which include ending the COVID-19 state of emergency, removing all mask and vaccine mandates, and investigating health officials who promoted vaccines.
The Canadian Freedom Convoy that blockaded Ottawa, Ontario, for several weeks earlier this year inspired the U.S. truckers. Although the Canadians planned their demonstration for months, the People’s Convoy took shape in four weeks, starting with local donation drives. One Veterans of Foreign Wars location in Harrisburg, Pa., offered use of its parking lot, where supporters flowed in with boxes of donations. Mounds of canned and boxed food, toiletries, and even boxes of Bibles were loaded into U-Haul trailers and parked in undisclosed locations.
By the time smaller convoys from the Northeast, South, and Midwest converged at the Hagerstown Speedway on Thursday to wait for the California group, the attendees included truckers, spouses, and families with children. The vast gravel parking lot and surrounding lawns turned into campsites for personal vehicles ranging from campers to SUVs to minivans.
Some of the protesters have been politically active for years, like New York leader Matt Fritz, a trucker from Mendon, N.Y., who attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. Others had never joined a protest before. Proud Boys members patrolled the speedway grounds, along with independent militia members who freelance among right-wing groups.
Maggie Bonham from New York only planned on driving some of the way with the Northeast branch but ended up staying at the speedway.
“I’m just excited and not feeling so alone,” she said with tears in her eyes as the California convoy arrived. “It feels like so many of us have been censored and hushed. We’re made to feel alone and that we were wrong about opposing mandates. And this just shows me I’m not alone.”
President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March 2020, invoking the National Emergencies Act. That allowed the federal government to enforce mandates on such things as wearing masks and getting vaccinated against the disease. Protesters claim those mandates violate constitutional rights. The Senate voted 48-47 Thursday to end the emergency declaration, but President Joe Biden threatened a veto if the proposal passes the House.
After a rest day on Saturday to wait for stragglers, drivers headed for Washington’s Beltway. North Carolina congressional candidate Tyler Lee participated and reported the front of the line reached the line’s end on Sunday, indicating the convoy stretched around the entire 64-mile Beltway. From WORLD’s vantage point on an overpass, most of the semitrucks held positions near the front, but gaps appeared in the middle as commuters went about their day. On Monday, the convoy switched plans to drive only one lap around the Beltway, driving the minimum speed limit and taking up two lanes of traffic rather than one. Trucker Charlie Pellien from New York told WORLD the second day was much more organized with drivers staying closer together and flashing hazard signals to indicate they were part of the group.
Christopher Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency for the District of Columbia, told WUSA-TV that local and state authorities are stationed at exits along the Beltway to monitor traffic. Rodriguez also noted that obeying traffic laws and driving safely are conditions of the truckers’ commercial driver’s licenses.
On Monday, organizers posted to the convoy’s nearly 50,000 followers on a Telegram channel that they will be meeting with Senate and House members this week for “constructive dialogue about our demands.” At a Monday morning meeting with all participants, People’s Convoy co-founder Brian Brase, an Ohio trucker, said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has agreed to a meeting.
Kentucky trucker Jerry Younker is using his vacation days to join the convoy. He said he is fighting for freedom of choice. Even if the protest lasts weeks, he said, he will keep driving around the District of Columbia.
“We’re not going to burn buildings, and we’re not here to do anything violent,” Younker told me. “But I am willing to risk everything. I think we’re all willing to risk everything. I do have protection in my truck, but I don’t want to use it.”
Organizer Jeremy Moser drove trucks for 18 years before starting his own company. He drives the lead escort pickup in front of Brase’s and fellow organizer Mike Landis’ semis. He declined to say whether the convoy will attempt direct confrontation or violent measures if driving around the Beltway does not prompt legislative change.
“Right now, we all know that this administration is scared,” Moser told WORLD. “They don’t know what’s going on. It’s a chess game, and you don’t give up your moves before you make them.”
Leaders continue to post updates on Telegram and in a text chain. At each gathering, Brase leads protesters in a chant: “Remind the government. They work for us!”
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