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Truck convoy leaves D.C. area after weeks of traffic-snarling protests

The trucker group calling itself the “People’s Convoy,” which protested vaccine mandates and aired other right-wing grievances by driving around the D.C. region for more than three weeks, left its temporary base in Western Maryland on Thursday morning to head across the country to challenge proposed coronavirus vaccine and health-related bills in California.

The protest failed to accomplish any of its stated demands and recently saw a dwindling number of participants, fractures among supporters, pushback from local residents and activists and road blockages by D.C. police. “What do you all think about heading to California?” co-organizer Mike Landis asked the crowd at the Hagerstown Speedway on Sunday. “We’re not done here. But we’ll go to California and raise awareness on this along the way and hopefully gain more people like we did on our way here — and then once we stop this, we will come back to finish this job.” He did not elaborate on what finishing the protest meant.

Although about 100 vehicles with the People’s Convoy departed from the speedway, a racetrack about 80 miles northwest of D.C. where they have been based since arriving from Southern California on March 4, researchers cautioned that some participants may remain in the region while others will return home to their local communities armed with more misinformation.

Landis said the group hopes to inspire more people to join the protest of certain proposed bills in California, and Brian Brase, the convoy’s de facto leader, who is from northwest Ohio, has mused about running for a school board seat.

“The convoy is everywhere,” Sara Aniano, a Monmouth University graduate student who studies the social media rhetoric of far-right conspiracy theories, said about the anti-vaccine mandate movement. “Those people are everywhere and they will run for office, and they will vote and they will try to be in charge of running elections and ballot counting and poll watching.”

Although inspired by Canadian demonstrators who occupied downtown Ottawa to protest public health measures including a rule barring unvaccinated truckers from crossing the border, the tactics employed by the People’s Convoy were different: Rather than occupying the city, they embarked on hours-long demonstrations that amounted to sitting in traffic on the Capital Beltway and later driving in the District. The protest kicked off in Adelanto, Calif., on Feb. 23 despite many pandemic-related restrictions at the federal and local levels already being blocked or rescinded.

Landis said the convoy is headed to Los Angeles to attend an April 10 anti-vaccine-mandate protest organized by Defeat the Mandates — the same group that rallied on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in January, attracting thousands of people from across the country including anti-vaccine crusaders such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert Malone.

Anti-vaccination leaders have seized on the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic to propel their once-fringe movement into the homes of millions of Americans, dissuading families from receiving the coronavirus vaccines — some of the most effective medicines in human history — during a pandemic that has killed more than 978,000 people in the United States. Brase said in a Facebook Live talk that he will be a guest speaker at the Los Angeles rally.

The People’s Convoy brought together parents concerned about vaccine mandates for their children, health-care workers who refused to be vaccinated and members of the Three Percenters, part of the self-styled militia movement, and those who believe QAnon conspiracy theories, including false claims about satanic child-sex-trafficking rings. Christian nationalism was evident in the group’s frequent prayers and invocations of biblical battles. Some have urged citizen’s arrests of President Biden and Vice President Harris and bragged about storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as part of the insurrectionist mob.

Still, some of the group’s supporters and drivers expressed frustration online about the People’s Convoy’s plans for California and said they plan to stay at the Hagerstown Speedway in the hope that more convoys will arrive and amid promises by organizers that the People’s Convoy will return.

It’s not clear how big a presence those remaining will have or what they plan to do. Lisa Plessinger, the speedway’s general manager, said she told protesters she needs her space back by April 7 because of races scheduled for April 9.

Brase, who left Hagerstown this week, encouraged other convoys to head to the nation’s capital.

“We’re all in this together; it doesn’t matter which group you represent,” he said Tuesday on Facebook Live. “The fight is still in D.C., 100 percent.”

The lead group’s departure to California is a potential reprieve for the Washington region, where residents have reported harassment andattacks by convoy members. The demonstration against vaccine mandates and airing of other right-wing grievances has morphed in recent weeks into drivers honking their horns through city streets.

Brase rallied supporters by calling pandemic-related mandates an infringement on their freedoms, and previously said the group would not leave until there was an end to the national emergency declaration in response to the coronavirus. The group also called for Congress to hold hearings investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.

Brase and others met with Republican lawmakers inside the U.S. Capitol and gave Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) a ride from the speedway into D.C. for a news conference. But the People’s Convoy did not accomplish its goals. The group now says that even raising awareness of the protest counts as a success.

Some convoy supporters have bragged about being a part of the insurrectionist mob. Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin spoke at the speedway after his federal conviction for trespassing in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. According to a YouTube video dated March 26, Brase told those gathered around a campfire at the speedway that if he had been in D.C. that day, he would have entered the Capitol.

The move to California comes as the Unity Project — an anti-vaccine activism group that has supported the convoy — is encouraging its supporters to fight the same proposed California mandate bills and is listed among Defeat the Mandates rally’s partners and sponsors. Paul Alexander, who was an official in the Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, is listed as the Unity Project’s chief scientific officer, and he often rallied convoy members at the speedway.

As the People’s Convoy traveled across the country and rallied in Hagerstown, it claimed to have amassed more than $1.7 million in donations. That was collected by the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom, which was launched last year and has named as its executive director a Texas woman who authorities allege violated the terms of her community supervision after pleading guilty to felony fraud and exploitation charges in 2020, The Washington Post has reported.

About 90 percent of the contributions were from small donors — people hearing about the convoy online, or through news or friends — with most financial contributions being no more than $1,000, said Christopher Marston, who is listed in the foundation’s incorporation paperwork as its president, secretary and treasurer.

He estimated that when the convoy was traveling across the country, fuel costs were about $50,000 to $70,000 a day. While the convoy was in the D.C. region, daily fuel costs were about $30,000, Marston said. There are also other costs associated with the convoy, he said, such as lodging, renting the speedway and security.

The convoy’s website includes fuel reimbursement instructions for drivers on days the group traveled in the D.C. region. At the speedway, drivers were also given gift cards and letters sent from supporters.

Marston said drivers have recognized that the protest is a “marathon and not a sprint,” with truckers rotating through the demonstration, leaving to work and earn money and then return.

Although Marston said he was unable to say exactly how much money the People’s Convoy has spent or what remains for the westward trip, he said “there’s definitely enough to convoy back.” He said that donations and expenses slowed once the convoy arrived in Hagerstown, but that he hopes the truckers setting out for California will draw more attention and donations.

“The convoy needs to raise its profile and get back on the road and, you know, get back on the news,” Marston said. “It’s hard for the American people to get excited around driving around a Beltway.”

This article originally appeared on Washington Post

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