Reporter’s Notebook: The People’s Convoy
Thousands of protesters vent frustration with government, COVID-19 restrictions, and more
HAGERSTOWN, Md. — When Matt Fritz, a trucker from Mendon, N.Y., started his drive across the Northeast to join a convoy of protesting truckers, he decked out his trailer with political and patriotic flags. At a stop in Harrisburg, Pa., a World War II widow unfolded her husband’s memorial flag and brought it to him, asking the convoy to wave it in his honor. She told the truckers she had not seen such patriotism since the war. Fritz promised to return the battered flag to her when he drove home.
In Oklahoma, a grandson of another WWII veteran met up with convoy co-organizer Mike Landis to do the same. And someone handed over a third war hero flag before the convoy reached Hagerstown, Md. Now the tattered flags wave on truck trailers as they drive once per day, weather-permitting, around the Capital Beltway to slow traffic and send a message to lawmakers: Listen to us.
The People’s Convoy is a conservative American protest against COVID-19 restrictions, inspired by last month’s Freedom Convoy in Canada. Last week, semitrucks, pickups, SUVs, motorcycles, and personal cars participating in the demonstration arrived at the Hagerstown Speedway, now a headquarters and staging area for the group.
The main convoy set out from Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 23. As it gained members and motored across the country, other subgroups from the Northeast, Midwest, and the South converged in Maryland to await the convoy’s arrival. I spent weeks talking to grassroots organizers before walking around the camps and rallies at the racetrack in Hagerstown—roughly 60 miles from the nation’s capital. Then I watched their first venture onto the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.
Protesters shared frustrations that have become pent up over the past two years, not just about the pandemic, but about religion, politics, marginalization, health, and freedom. Each person had a different story but shared a largely similar aim: to participate in a modern movement to restore American freedoms, starting with the defeat of vaccine mandates.
Convoy organizers have made the following demands of the U.S. federal government: End the COVID-19 state of emergency, remove all mask and vaccine mandates at the federal and local levels, and open congressional investigations into the origins of the coronavirus and into the responses of state governments and health officials. Representatives of groups such as the Unity Project and the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance spoke at rallies at the speedway, making claims such as that the coronavirus vaccines are unsafe or lethal and that officials violated the Nuremberg Code by enforcing experimental vaccines.
Robb Dorazio, a self-employed handyman from Batavia, N.Y., said he remains unconvinced about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. But what really bothers him is the treatment he and others who question the vaccines have received.
“I’ve been told many times I should just kill myself if I don’t want to get the vaccine, or that I’m killing people if I’m not wearing a mask,” he said. “When I say we just have a disagreement, they tell me I’m just wrong. That’s not America.”
Dorazio said isolation during the pandemic was fatal for two people he knew who committed suicide. He watched several others in his community lose jobs when restaurants closed. When he joined a Northeast group of likewise disaffected truckers and supporters, Dorazio said he found a new community.
Truckers themselves told me pandemic restrictions have not affected them greatly. Only drivers with federal contracts fall under a federal vaccine mandate. Organizers and supporters of the People’s Convoy said they opted for a trucker-led protest partly to stand in solidarity with Canadian truckers, who were subject to a mandate, and partly to stand with others like healthcare workers who must get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
Organizers said the People’s Convoy includes people from several races, political parties, religions, and vocations. The people I talked to were primarily white conservatives who identified as Christian. Nearly every truck had an activist message written on its windows or waved flags with slogans such as “Freedom Convoy 2022,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Trump 2024.”
At the speedway, lines formed for free burgers, sloppy joes, and spaghetti dinners out of a concession kitchen. A flatbed trailer in the center of the lot offloaded hundreds of boxes of donated food, toiletries, and Bibles. Families invited new friends to sit around a grill or chat in a truck cab. A crowd of Seventh-Day Adventists stationed individuals throughout the grounds to hand out free books, and loudspeakers at the “HQ trailer” in the center of the speedway projected patriotic tunes like Lee Greenwood’s classic “God Bless the U.S.A.”
Michael and Kristie Palmer from Missouri said watching military service members get discharged for refusing COVID-19 vaccination motivated them to join the convoy, but they are protesting more than mandates. Both mentioned recent gas price spikes, inflation, and health insurance costs as evidence that the government “doesn’t care about us.” Michael, who served as a sergeant in the Persian Gulf War, said he and his wife planned on driving with the convoy until it reached Indianapolis. Now the Palmers say they’ll stay with the group as long as it remains peaceful.
Feeling overlooked by elected officials was a common theme among protesters. Trucker and social media personality Gerald Johnson, aka “Trucker G,” declared from the podium at a Saturday rally, “Ain’t none of them ever been hungry like we have. They don’t care about you.” He revealed on a Facebook livestream and to an independent videographer that he has been diagnosed with COPD and emphysema. Johnson said he is “living on borrowed time” but will spend it protesting for as long as necessary.
In a Tuesday meeting with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., convoy co-organizer Brian Brase highlighted faith as a driver of the protest, referencing freedom of choice as a God-given right. Many protest attendees invoke God’s blessing: Rallies and daily driver meetings regularly open and close with prayer. One staffer with a mobile church ministry thanked truckers for their courage and announced from his flatbed stage, “God is in front of this convoy. Get ready, America, revival is coming your way.”
Throughout a two-hour rally on Saturday, anger with the government surged during speeches promoting family, faith, and freedom. As speakers shouted claims about vaccines being lethal, some attendees shouted back, “String ‘em up!” Many chanted “Lock them up” in reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, and Dr. Deborah Birx, a former Trump adviser. Then to close out the rally that night, the crowd sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”
Although organizers who communicated with attendees on Telegram channels in the weeks beforehand directed them to leave political statements at home, the shadow of former President Donald Trump loomed large. Many flags and signs invoked his name, people lined up for selfies next to a life-size Trump cutout, and several people wore shirts with messages such as, “If you don’t like Trump, you don’t like me.” Most adults and even young children also screamed, “Let’s go, Brandon!” (a euphemism for a curse of President Joe Biden) and profanities when referring to the current president. Co-organizer Maureen Steele announced at Saturday’s rally that the country picked “the weakest of us” to lead, to which a portion of the crowd yelled, “Trump won!”
Organizers have convened driver meetings at the speedway every morning and sometimes in the evening. Eight convoy representatives met with lawmakers Tuesday, and they said more meetings are being planned. For now, the crowds in Hagerstown seem content to drive once around the Beltway each day, honking horns to supporters waving from overpasses. But truck drivers aren’t known for staying put for long. Many yelled from crowds that they wanted action and might go into D.C., though organizers urged drivers not to.
As of Tuesday, the convoy’s website reported it has received just over $1.6 million in donations. The group has used the money to cover expenses like hotel rooms, fuel, and security staff. Smaller convoys continued to arrive in Hagerstown even as of Wednesday, bringing more donations with them. On Thursday, Sen. Cruz joined the morning meeting of drivers and hopped into Landis’ truck for the daily lap around the Beltway, praising the truckers for exercising their right to free speech and assuring them, “Your voice is being heard. I am proud to stand with you.” Landis broke away from the convoy to drive up to the U.S. Capitol, outside the Peace Circle. There, the organizers and Cruz held a press conference to explain the convoy’s demands, urge more supporters to join, and to retell the story of the WWII flag on the trailer.
Each day, truckers repeat “Hold the line” on livestreams and Telegram posts. Brase also stated at several rallies that politicians are scared of the convoy crowd because they represent a diverse group of people that threaten the status quo. Protesters claimed lawmakers started rescinding mask mandates in advance of the convoy because they were intimidated. Further action, they said, will restore pre-pandemic liberties.
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