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On eve of D.C. arrival, ‘Freedom Convoy’ picks up more cars — and anti-Ukraine talking points

The American offshoot of the “Freedom Convoy” that brought chaos to Canada’s capital is promising to stop traffic outside of Washington, D.C., on Saturday, but exact plans remained vague Friday as the group hit its last pit stop in Maryland.

The convoy, which was organized on pro-Trump and anti-vaccine channels on the Telegram messaging app, has picked up hundreds of cars and several trucks since the group left a rural parking lot in Adelanto, California, on Feb. 22.

According to extremism researchers following the movement, the convoy now consists of several dozen tractor-trailer trucks and hundreds of cars. The group is staging in Hagerstown, Maryland, on Friday and ramping up for its final protest somewhere in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

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Livestreamers from within the convoy have repeatedly referred to “blocking the Beltway,” the 64-mile highway that surrounds Washington, but specific plans have been kept secret by group leaders.

One organizer, Dan Fitzegerald, who has been livestreaming his journey in the convoy on YouTube, said on a Friday morning stream: “I can tell you now that there will be select trucks going to the White House.”

The convoy was initially formed to protest mask and vaccine mandates, which have largely been repealed as the omicron variant dwindled over the past several weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that indoor mask use is no longer necessary in most of the U.S.

People on an overpass cheer on the convoy near Portsmouth, N.H., on March 2, 2022.
People on an overpass cheer on the convoy near Portsmouth, N.H., on March 2, 2022.Joseph Prezioso / AFP – Getty Images

Around a dozen Telegram groups that planned the rallies have accrued tens of thousands of followers, many of whom have posted messages stating that they believe their convoy directly contributed to the mandate repeals.

The group’s demands are now vague and tied to what they call “accountability,” according to Sara Aniano, an extremism researcher who has spent the last month following the convoy in its Telegram chats.

“That could mean financial accountability. It could be physical accountability. It could be legal accountability. Their inability to distinguish what exactly that means is where the concern lies,” said Aniano, who recently published a report on QAnon’s growth after Jan. 6 for the International Centere for the Study of Radicalization, a London-based nonprofit group.

But as its Covid mission has become less clear, the group’s channels have turned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where conspiracy-minded thinking has flourished. While some group members have admonished Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion, QAnon and anti-vaccine contingents within the groups have seized on a false conspiracy theory that the war is a cover for a military operation backed by former President Donald Trump in Ukraine.

The conspiracy theory, which is baseless and has roots in QAnon mythology, alleges that Trump and Putin are secretly working together to stop bioweapons from being made by Dr. Anthony Fauci in Ukraine and that shelling in Ukraine has targeted the secret laboratories. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has emerged in the past year as a main target for far-right conspiracy theories.

Cody Moores blows his horn as he drives past onlookers cheering on the convoy in Kennebunkport, Maine, on March 2, 2020.
Cody Moores blows his horn as he drives past onlookers cheering on the convoy in Kennebunkport, Maine, on March 2, 2020.Joseph Prezioso / AFP – Getty Images

Aniano said she is worried about the overt QAnon messaging in the group that has recently picked up steam.

The convoy has added some of the most extreme QAnon adherents: a group that had congregated in Dallas because they believed that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999, was still alive and would reveal himself on the site where his father, former President John F. Kennedy, was shot. That group joined the convoy as it drove through Texas.

At one nightly convoy stop, where rallygoers give stump speeches over a loudspeaker while they eat and refuel, some participants recited “Where We Go One We Go All,” the QAnon slogan.

Aniano said the vague, ominous messaging is worrying, pointing out a Friday morning Telegram post that read: “We can’t fail. We are not GOING to fail. We are gonna fix this.”

“In their fantasy, Trump comes back, and the military tribunals commence over Covid tests,” Aniano said. “But I don’t think they know what they want. They are just mad, and they want a reason to express that.”