• Tue. May 24th, 2022

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After Ottawa, Trucker Convoy Near Washington Is a Low-Key Protest

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — When a convoy of trucks pulled out of Southern California last month, rolling toward the U.S. capital just days after the police in Canada cracked down on a legion of truckers occupying Ottawa, Washington braced for their arrival. The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning, and members of the National Guard were deployed, along with hundreds of city police officers.

But this week, when the caravan of semis, pickups and R.V.s that had assembled in protest of vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions reached the capital region, downtown Washington was business as usual.

The convoy’s organizers say that it is early, that their restraint has been strategic and that protesters are in it for the long haul. They have managed to obtain audiences with various Republican politicians, including Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who nodded approvingly. And though mask mandates and local vaccine requirements have been rolled back across the country, including in Washington, the convoy’s leaders insist they are not leaving until all vaccine mandates are lifted.

“We’re going to continue to increase that pressure,” said Brian Brase, a trucker from northwestern Ohio and one of the convoy’s organizers. “They understand that we’re in their backyard.”

The pressure, so far, has been relatively low.

Though there may have been many thousands of people cheering from roadsides or donating supplies along the convoy’s cross-country route, there now appear to be a few hundred coming and going at the protest’s base camp, the Hagerstown Speedway, a stock racecar track 80 miles northwest of the city — truckers, but also pastors, store owners and a variety of right-wing activists.

The protests begin most mornings — though not Wednesday, when things were put off because of rain and possible snow — with hundreds of vehicles leaving the speedway amid a chorus of rousing honks. They head down Interstate 70 and make a midday lap or two around the 64-mile Capital Beltway at the legal speed limit, noticeable largely by the pro-Trump and anti-Biden bunting flapping behind them.

In the evening, the convoy returns to the speedway, which has become a combination tent revival and tailgate party, with a communal food station, a barber, vendors selling pro-Trump merchandise, huge stacks of boxes containing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine books, people in costumes and livestreamers everywhere you look.

It is a far cry from the downtown encampment in Ottawa, where 18-wheelers blocked off city streets, aggravating local residents and nettling the police. As the days go by, however, more than a few within the convoy have begun to question whether the daily circuits around the Beltway are enough.

“The laps are OK for a lot of people,” said Todd Church, 45, who joined the convoy in Indiana. “It’s not my choice. But I don’t want any heavy-handed protests.”

There is no shortage of defiance at the speedway, where people lament how pandemic restrictions have upended their lives and how they have been estranged from their families over their distrust of vaccines. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, should be jailed, one sign says. The graffiti on a truck declares that “mandates = slavery.” But the specter of the last big right-wing protest in Washington, which led to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021, hangs over the protest like diesel fumes.

“I would like to see us in D.C.,” said William Kyle Glenn, 36, wearing a battle helmet with a face mask painted red, white and blue. But he added, mentioning Jan. 6, “I feel like it’s a trap.”

Many people in the truck convoy seem to fear that if they went to Washington, the government would trick them into a confrontation, insisting, without a basis in fact, that this is what happened on Jan. 6.

Several of the convoy’s initial organizers had direct connections to the actual events of Jan. 6 and the chaotic postelection period that preceded them.

One of the convoy’s earliest planners, Leigh Dundas, was a lawyer for an anti-vaccine group whose leader was charged with entering the Capitol that day. Ms. Dundas herself was videotaped the day before the riot broke out urging on a pro-Trump crowd with calls to kill any “alleged Americans” who might have helped undermine the 2020 election.

The America Project, a group that supported the convoy from its infancy, is run by Patrick Byrne, the former chief executive of Overstock.com. Mr. Byrne, working with Michael T. Flynn, who was national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump, took part in a plot to persuade Mr. Trump to use the military to seize voting machines in a bid to stay in office.

Organizers have defended the presence of some far-right figures, saying they have been unfairly maligned by the left, but they also have said that they are policing their ranks for extremists.

On Monday at the speedway, a woman dressed in red, white and blue spandex, who calls herself the Q Patriot, stood up on the flatbed truck that serves as the convoy’s main stage. “Jan. 6 was the most patriotic day of my life,” she began, but as she launched into the reading of a poem, which included the phrase, “We know who was really behind 9/11,” the sound suddenly cut off.

It is unclear what happened there. But Mr. Brase insisted in general that the convoy must stay on message.

“There’s a lot of bad actors out there that want to get involved to try to find a way to take us down,” he said.

Beyond the tactics of the convoy, there is the question of aims. As the Omicron variant has rapidly receded, Covid-19 policies and the debate around them have faded as well, and attention has turned to the war in Ukraine, inflation and soaring gas prices.

Still, Mr. Brase insists that there are plenty of mandates left to fight, above all the requirement that federal employees be vaccinated, an order currently blocked in the courts. He has also demanded that President Biden end the ongoing Covid-related national emergency declaration, which first went into effect under Mr. Trump in March 2020 and which, convoy leaders charge, led to a range of constitutional abuses.

But while some in Washington remain puzzled about the convoy’s purpose, Mr. Brase is emphatic about what it is not. He repeatedly points out that it has not broken any laws, nor even particularly inconvenienced anyone. And while the convoy can look like a Trump boat parade on wheels, the leaders are adamant that its cause is not partisan and they even cautioned local organizers along the route not to turn it into a Trump rally.

Still, whether the convoy achieves its stated aims should not be confused with whether it has been effective, said Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched and participated in the surge of political activism arising from the 2017 Women’s March. She compared the explosion of activity on local Facebook pages planning for the trucker convoy to the flurry of postcard writing and organizing by the grass-roots anti-Trump groups that sprouted up in 2017. “People were putting in time and energy making peanut butter sandwiches, getting their kids involved,” Professor Putnam said. Agree with the convoy or not, “that’s a social movement.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.