People running, screaming and shouting words of disbelief. Bodies thrown in the air, lifted onto windshields or trapped under cars and semi-trucks. It’s become a horrifying and familiar scene in recent weeks.
Amid thousands of protests nationwide against police brutality, dozens of drivers have plowed into crowds of protesters marching in roadways, raising questions about the drivers’ motivations.
While witnesses, law enforcement and terrorism experts say that some of the vehicle incidents appear to be targeted and politically motivated, others appear to be situations where the driver became frightened or enraged by protesters surrounding their vehicle.
“There are groups that do want people to take their cars and drive them into Black Lives Matters protesters so that they won’t protest anymore. There’s an element of terrorism there. Is it all of them? No,” said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “I look at it as an anti-protester group of acts, some of which are white supremacist, some not.”
There have been at least 66 incidents of cars driving into protesters between May 27 and July 6, including 59 by civilians and seven by law enforcement, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats. Weil began tracking the incidents as protests sprung up in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
There have been two fatalities — in Seattle and in Bakersfield, California — and at least 24 of the civilian cases have been charged by law enforcement, Weil said.
At least 19 civilian incidents since May 27 have been malicious
Many of the incidents were captured in photos or videos shared to social media – two New York police vehicles plowing into demonstrators as the crowd pushes a barricade against one of them, a woman in a black SUV driving through a crowd in Denver, a Detroit police vehicle accelerating away with a man flailing on the hood.
This week, drivers struck protesters in Bloomington, Indiana, and Huntington Station, New York. Similar scenes have played out in Los Angeles, Boston, Tulsa, Tallahassee, and San Jose.
Weil said that, by analyzing news coverage, court documents and patterns of behavior — such as when people allegedly yelled slurs at protesters or turned around for a second hit — he determined that at least 19 of the 59 civilian incidents were malicious and four were not. Weil said he did not have enough information to classify the motives of the remaining 36 incidents.
One of the more “clear-cut” cases of malice, MacNab said, was in early June in Lakeside, Virginia. An “avowed Klansman” drove up to protesters on a roadway, revved his engine and then drove through the crowd, wounding one person, Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said in a statement.
The 36-year-old man was “a propagandist of Confederate ideology,” Taylor said. He was later charged with four counts of assault with hate crimes, two counts of felonious attempted malicious wounding and one count of felony hit and run.
“We lived through this in Virginia in Charlottesville in 2017,” Taylor said, referencing when a neo-Nazi plowed his car through a crowd of counterprotesters at a Unite the Right rally, killing Heather Heyer. The driver was sentenced to life in prison on hate crime charges.
Around the same time in Visalia, California, occupants of a Jeep displaying a “Keep America Great” flag hit two protesters who were in the road, causing minor injuries, according to Visalia police. Witnesses said those inside the car were mocking protesters by cupping their ears as if they couldn’t hear their chants. The protesters started chanting profanities and throwing items before they approached the Jeep, which then accelerated, hitting the protesters before driving off.
County prosecutors didn’t charge the driver Wednesday, saying that the protesters involved weren’t “seriously injured” and the driver and his passengers felt threatened. Other civilians and police officers have similarly claimed that they drove through protesters because they were afraid of them and wanted to escape the situation.
MacNab noted that while drivers may say they were afraid of the protesters, “some of that fear is going to come from racism and bigotry.”
Videos of vehicle rammings have become ‘a meme in white supremacy circles’
The motivations and circumstances of many of the drivers are still unfolding.
Officials in Minnesota said last month that a 35-year-old semi-truck driver who drove through a crowd of thousands of protesters gathered on a bridge was not deliberately targeting the group. And a lawyer for the Black man who hit two protesters in Seattle, killing one, said the crash was a “horrible, horrible accident.” Prosecutors on Wednesday filed three felony charges against the man.
Video of many of the vehicle rammings have circulated on social media, including white supremacist websites, said MacNab, who said she has seen “revolting” commentary on videos shared to white supremacist YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“This has become something of a meme in white supremacy circles. There’ll be a picture of a car driving into a crowd, and then there will be a humorous remark about it. It’s definitely part of the discourse,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at Brookings who researches counterterrorism and Middle East security. “They’re doing a lot of kidding-not-kidding sort of humor … which is the modern white supremacist world.”
Byman said he’s seen the meme previously shared by the Charlottesville killer circulating in white supremacist circles. Right-wing extremists turned the man into “a bit of a saint” following the killing, MacNab said.
Vehicles have a history of being used for terror, and ‘ISIS made it a science’
Vehicles have been used as tools of terror for decades, but they’re more common now than they were 10 years ago, the experts said. It was ISIS that initially popularized the tactic and disseminated information about how to use it, said Lorenzo Vidino, director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“Between 2014 and 2017, we saw several attacks, and ISIS was very meticulous in a variety of languages that gave clear instructions about what trucks to use, how to rent a truck and how to hit a group,” Vidino said. “ISIS made it a science.”
Most of those attacks have been in Europe and the Middle East, Vidino said. Terrorists influenced by the Islamic State used vehicles to kill people in Nice, France, in 2016 and on the London Bridge in 2017. That year, a man influenced by the Islamic State killed eight people when he drove a pickup truck about one mile in Lower Manhattan.
Other extremist groups have borrowed the tactic, Vidino said. In 2018, a member of a misogynist online subculture drove a van into downtown Toronto, killing 10 people.
The vehicular attacks have been “the trademark of the affiliated wannabes that are at times extremely deadly,” he said. The tactic is cheap and doesn’t take much coordination or organizational support. It’s also “camera-friendly,” Vidino said.
“The Charlottesville attack, it killed one person, but it stuck in everybody’s mind because you have the spectacle of bodies flying. It’s catchy. It’s. And that’s what a lot of extremists pursue. It terrorized people,” he said.
In the U.S., the tactic was first introduced by the far-right around 2016 to attack Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Weil said in a Twitter thread. That’s when “the right began creating memes to celebrate” the attacks, he said.
“I would be very careful in the middle of the street,” MacNab said. “There’s a significant amount of people who think that any protester hit in the street has it coming, and that’s a dangerous mindset.”
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