“Busy, busy, busy, busy today,” a man with the screen name “GreyWolfRon” said over Zello, a walkie-talkie app, on Tuesday evening to hundreds of people. “Very windy, cold, and lots of blowing sand. Not a lot of trucks at the moment, but we expect it to grow. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be kicking off.”
“Hope all goes well,” replied “SouthDakotaCindy.” “We got minus 35 temps with the wind chill, and blowing snow. Good luck to y’all, God bless you.”
“God bless you, too. Stay safe. We’re gonna do this for everyone,” GreyWolfRon replied. “Clock’s ticking.”
This exchange took place on the eve of the Feb. 23 departure date for the “people’s convoy,” a spinoff from the “freedom convoy” movement that started in Canada last month. Supposedly led by truckers, ostensibly as a protest over vaccine requirements, most “freedom convoy” organizers did not have connections to the trucking industry, and the protest quickly turned into a cornucopia of right-wing anti-government grievances.
The official starting point for the U.S. convoy Wednesday was the parking lot of the Adelanto Stadium in California’s High Desert. A day earlier, big rigs, pickup trucks, and regular cars had begun rolling in. A black truck emblazoned with yellow slogans such as “The People’s Convoy,” “We Will Not Comply” and “Let’s Go Brandon,” and volunteers in yellow T-shirts were there to greet new arrivals.
By the time they set off at about 11 a.m., the number of vehicles on the premises was around 1,000—but it was unclear how many of those were actually joining the convoy or just there for the send-off.
Much like their Canadian counterparts, organizers behind the “people’s convoy” in the U.S. claim they’re mobilizing against COVID-19 restrictions, which they see as antithetical to their freedom and American values. However, this movement is getting underway in the U.S. at a time when many Democrat-run jurisdictions are easing or even scrapping COVID-19 regulations amid declining case numbers and hospitalizations.
It’s apparent, based on the rhetoric in many of the convoy’s channels on Telegram, Facebook, Getter, and other social media platforms, that this movement isn’t really about COVID-19 restrictions anymore. It has morphed into a grab bag of right-wing grievances—including the results of the 2020 election, “critical race theory”, inflation, vaccines, sex trafficking, and the “deep state”—rolled into a rallying cry of “Tyranny!”
Though it’s perhaps overly simplistic to draw comparisons between the convoy movement and the run-up to the violent riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, there are some overlaps, says Jared Holt, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who focuses on domestic extremism movements in the U.S.
“You’re seeing a national call, rooted in anti-government sentiment, to head to the D.C. area and establish a disruptive and chaotic presence.”
It’s still unclear how any of this will actually shake out, whether the movement’s thousands of supporters on social media will translate into IRL participants—and what will happen once everyone gathers in the D.C. area. Participating in the convoy requires dedication, time, and money. Holt worries that the contingent who eventually roll into the D.C. area will be the most radical of the lot.
“Where I think the risk is here, is anybody willing to slam their brakes for a month to drive across the country and go to D.C., I don’t think will be content just having a little protest on the National Mall,” said Holt. “You have to have very, very strong sentiments and feelings about politics to consider participating in something like this.”
In Canada, police and government officials were clearly surprised that the “freedom convoy” set up shop downtown in the capital city of Ottawa and didn’t leave until they were arrested en masse three weeks later.
The current plan for the “people’s convoy” is to clog the Capital Beltway, a critical roadway that surrounds D.C. and its suburbs in the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia.
The original plan and others around the country was to snake their way toward D.C. and then jam the city. But that plan has shifted slightly. Some participants expressed concerns about entering D.C. city limits, citing the ongoing effort to prosecute the Jan. 6 rioters and voicing fears that convoy participants could be baited into criminal activity by the government (which touches on a popular right-wing conspiracy theory about the Capitol riot). The “Truckers for Freedom” Telegram channel with over 100,000 subscribers described D.C. as “District One” from “The Hunger Games”: “Expect massive traps.”
The “people’s convoy” will make its way cross-country, avoiding major cities, through Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and Maryland, aiming to arrive at the Beltway area by March 5.
A second major convoy, called the “American truckers freedom convoy,” has organized a web of routes from around the U.S., the earliest of which are expected to depart from Spokane, Washington, and Weatherford, Texas, on March 1. A planned convoy out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was meant to hit the road Wednesday but failed to muster enough support to make the journey worth it. Videos showed the leader and a few other vehicles driving around downtown Scranton in a small parade. This past weekend, organizers with the Illinois chapter of the “people’s convoy” did a tour through Chicago suburbs, picking up supplies, as Proud Boys in their uniforms cheered them on.
Overall, the movement appears to be getting underway despite having faced a number of obstacles in recent weeks, including chaotic planning, social media de-platforming, and fundraising crackdowns.
Facebook removed one of the biggest U.S. convoy organizing pages after it found overlaps between administrators and the QAnon movement. The social media company also axed an array of other accounts promoting a U.S. trucker convoy after NBC reported that they were linked to content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania, and other countries.
Plans for a U.S. convoy, including key details like route, set-off date, and meet-up spots, changed drastically in the space of a week—the departure date was originally March 4 but it moved up to Feb. 23 after hopeful participants complained that the initial date was too far away and gave “the left a big heads-up.”
GiveSendGo, a Christian fundraising site that had been pulling in millions of dollars to support the truckers in Canada, was hacked last week, and the personal information of all the donors (the majority of whom were American) was published online.
Maureen Steele, an American anti-vax activist and organizer with the U.S. convoy movement, appeared on former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast last week, and said they’d found a fundraising option that didn’t rely on GiveSendGo.
“We are taking very secure donations, we have (wealth management company) Exemplar Financial who is overseeing all our donations in crypto and cash, which is being overseen by lawyers and accountants, and being held in a private bank,” Steele claimed. “So our account won’t be able to be frozen or hijacked.”
Then there were the scenes coming out of Ottawa, which were being watched closely by U.S. movement organizers. After days of warnings, police ultimately deployed tear gas, and stun grenades to disperse the crowds. They towed over 70 vehicles, and arrested nearly 200 people, including three ringleaders of the weekslong blockade.
But the possibility of a showdown with law enforcement in the U.S. has only appeared to rile some of the organizers, stoking conspiracies about police in certain areas being “infiltrated” by the “New World Order.”
Organizers of the convoy have repeatedly insisted their movement is peaceful, and participants in Telegram channels or other social media groups have been condemning racism or antisemitism, and admins have had to remind participants to steer clear of threats of violence against government officials or law enforcement. And to be fair, the majority of supporters of the convoy seem to be just regular people who’ve been galvanized by misinformation.
But there also appears to be a vocal contingent within the movement who are hungry for violence. At times, some of the rhetoric has veered into troubling territory, often framing this movement as a primordial battle between good and evil.
“We will ALL DIE, some sooner than later, but it is our destiny. We chose what we believe in and what we will fight for. I have chosen my hill and this is it,” wrote one person on a Telegram channel with over 35,000 subscribers. “I will not be enslaved and I will not comply, so fighting is the only option. Live free or die on your knees as the truckers sign says. ”
“People will die. The question is: do you die on your feet or on your knees,” wrote someone else on another channel. “On your feet destroying your enemies without killing your friends,” another replied.
“I wish we could win this with plenty of ammo, but we should try the law -biding way first,” someone else wrote in a channel coordinating the meeting spot. “Then when they step over, well.”
And despite the admonishments from administrators of some of these groups, there have been threats of violence directed towards government officials, including images of nooses. “I’m in the mood for public hangings,” wrote one member of a Convoy Telegram group. “Don’t stop until Trudeau is HUNG BY HIS NECK and the others implementing his illegal tyranny,” wrote someone else.
The Department of Homeland Security recently reaffirmed its assessment that the country continues to be in a “heightened threat environment” due to “an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories” and individuals who “seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest.”
Authorities in D.C. don’t appear to be taking chances given this climate. On Tuesday, the Pentagon approved the deployment of 700 National Guard members and 50 tactical vehicles ahead of the trucker convoys’ arrival in D.C.
“The people who have stuck around, and are angry and upset enough to participate in something like this definitely present a risk,” said Holt. “Even if that risk isn’t completely clear right now.”