People running, screaming and shouting words of disbelief. Bodies thrown in the air, lifted onto windshields or trapped under cars and semitrucks. 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.
Witnesses, law enforcement and terrorism experts said some of the vehicle incidents appear to be targeted and politically motivated; others appear to be situations in which 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.”
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There have been at least 66 incidents of cars driving into protesters from May 27 to 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.
At least 19 civilian incidents since May 27 have been malicious
Many of the incidents were captured in photos or videos shared on social media: Two New York police vehicles plowed into demonstrators as the crowd pushed a barricade against one of them; a woman in a black SUV drove through a crowd in Denver; a Detroit police vehicle accelerated away with a man flailing on the hood.
This week, drivers struck protesters in Bloomington, Indiana, and Huntington Station, New York. Similar scenes played out in Los Angeles, Boston, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tallahassee, Florida, and San Jose, California.
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, 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 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, referring to 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.
Last month in Visalia, California, occupants of a Jeep displaying a “Keep America Great” flag hit two protesters in the road, causing minor injuries, according to Visalia police. Witnesses said those inside the car mocked 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 accelerated, hitting the protesters before driving off.
County prosecutors didn’t charge the driver Wednesday, saying 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 “some of that fear is going to come from racism and bigotry.”
Videos of vehicle rammings have become ‘a meme in white supremacy circles’
Officials in Minnesota said last month that a 35-year-old semitruck driver who drove through a crowd of thousands of protesters gathered on a bridge did not deliberately target the group. A lawyer for a man who hit two protesters in Seattle, killing one, said the crash was a “horrible, horrible accident.” Prosecutors filed three felony charges against the man Wednesday.
Video of many of the vehicle rammings has circulated on social media, including white supremacist websites, according to MacNab, who said she has seen “revolting” commentary on videos shared to white supremacist accounts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
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“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 a meme shared by the Charlottesville killer circulating in white supremacist circles. Right-wing extremists turned the man into “a bit of a saint” after 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 it’s become more common in the past 10 years, experts said. The Islamic State disseminated information about how to use the tactic, 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 were 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 London Bridge in 2017. That year, a man influenced by the Islamic State killed eight people when he drove a pickup about 1 mile in Lower Manhattan.
Other extremist groups borrowed the tactic, Vidino said. In 2018, a member of a misogynist online subculture drove a van into downtown Toronto, killing 10 people.
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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. And that’s what a lot of extremists pursue. It terrorized people,” he said.
In the USA, the tactic was 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.”
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; Ernest Rollins and Emily Ernsberger, The Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana); Emily Mavrakis, Gainesville.com; Sheyanne N. Romero and Kyra Haas, Visalia (California) Times-Delta
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cars hit Black Lives Matter protesters 66 times since Floyd death