A long line of huge semi-articulated trucks, recreational vehicles and cars was circling Washington DC, on Sunday, in preparation for what their protesting drivers have pledged will be a week of traffic disruption around the US capital aligned around a loose collection of demands, including the end to all coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions.
From its temporary base at a speedway vehicle racing site in Hagerstown, 80 miles north-west in Maryland, organizers of what they term the “People’s Convoy” of around 1,000 vehicles have said they plan to welcome the new work week by driving slowly around Washington on the already notoriously-congested Beltway, or ring road, at the minimum legal speed in an attempt to get their message across to national politicians.
The convoy, a spin-off of trucker protests further north that have snarled Ottawa and disrupted Canadian transport arteries to the US, began assembling in California last week.
As it has made its way east, it has picked up similarly mobile, ideologically-aligned, fellow-travelers along the way.
But America is already rapidly releasing its citizens from a patchwork of pandemic restrictions and Covid mandates as the most recent surge of infections subsides in many states and officials and the public begin talking of the waning pandemic.
The changing circumstances is now prompting convoy organizers to adapt their demands to a more free-ranging basket of aspirations and motives.
Some participants said the destination was reason enough to make the trek. At the speedway on Friday night, one participant who described himself as the lead trucker told a cheering crowd he would drive his truck into the heart of the American capital.
But it remained unclear if the convoy plans to drive into the small area occupied by Washington DC, itself, or snarl masses of government workers and lawmakers on their morning and evening Beltway road commutes across the states immediately neighboring the District of Columbia as they head for their offices where they run the nation’s affairs of state.
US law enforcement agencies are paying attention. A previous mobile protest called Stop the Tires [denoting the US spelling of tyres] morphed into a “Stop the Steal” demonstration supporting Donald Trump’s false claim that he had been fraudulently denied victory in the November 2020 election.
And that in turn became part of the January 6 insurrection riot at the US Capitol by extremist supporters of Trump, the then Republican president, as they tried to overturn the official certification by the US Congress of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
“I decided to create a Facebook page where me and my buddies could gather to shoot the s**t about the policies that will be implemented if Trump is no longer the president,” StoptheTires2020 founder Jeremy Rewoldt told The Trucker publication in November 2020.
At the speedway site, the drivers said their frustrations included workplace vaccine mandates and other pandemic measures. The crowds chanted anti-Biden slogans and displayed support for Trump.
The gathering appeared much like a Trump rally, with a giant American flag slung between cranes attached to the beds of semi-articulated trucks.
Many vehicles bore license plates from across the US; many drivers were honking their horns, a tactic that drove Ottawa residents to near distraction and caused an Ontario superior court to issue a 10-day ban on horn blowing.
The US Department of Homeland Security has said it is coordinating with local authorities to prepare for the convoy’s arrival and warning that the truckers could hinder emergency services.
At their Hagerstown meeting point, an estimated 1,000 protesters gathered Sunday to hear details of the plan. Kicking off with a prayer service during which a pastor told them they were “heroes”, the truckers heard from organizer Brian Brase who instructed them to drive between 45 and 55 miles per hour and stay in one line on the roads to and around Washington in order to best show the size of the convoy.
They raised their morning coffees in salute before setting off for the capital, reported The Washington Post.
Brase said the drivers planned to circle the capitol’s ring-road twice on Sunday and repeat that pattern on successive days. “We don’t want to shut DC down,” Brase told the newspaper.
“We’re not anti-vaxxers. We’re not. We just want freedom, freedom. We want to choose. We just want the choice. So tomorrow is a basically a show of just how big we are and how serious we are.” Brase added that it was not clear how long the protest convoy would last.
But he told the drivers, who are mostly white, middle-aged men, to celebrate the distance they had traveled, without instructions about what to do at their destination or what that destination might be.
Without a destination or denouement in mind, the truckers on Sunday appeared destined to circle until further notice.
Above the blare of horns, Brase described the situation as “very fluid”.