Vehicles striking protesters raise disturbing echoes of 2017 Charlottesville attack

TUESDAY, JUNE 16, 2020

Emily Bloom said she barely had time to dive to safety before a gray Kia with its engine revving was driven through the intersection where she had stood moments earlier in downtown Gainesville, Fla., protesting police brutality.

While marching with fellow protesters in the Richmond, Va., suburb of Lakeside, Rachel Kurtz said she, her husband and her 11-year-old son had to leap to the sidewalk and out of the path of a blue pickup truck.

In the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Dan Gregory fell to the ground, shot in the shoulder, after he said he attempted to stop a black Honda Civic headed toward a group of protesters. And in front of the Bakersfield Police Department in California, Lexi Colebrook said she watched in horror as an SUV hit her friend, who managed to stumble toward the sidewalk and escape serious injury.

The incidents are among at least 19 cases in the past few weeks in which witnesses or police say civilian vehicles were driven through massive demonstrations after the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes.

In at least eight of the events, a driver faces charges for what prosecutors described as a deliberate act, according to arrest and court filings.

That includes the event in Richmond, where prosecutors say the driver sought to intimidate protesters with his truck and hit one demonstrator's bicycle, running over the cyclist's foot. According to court documents, the driver told police he is a high-ranking official of the Ku Klux Klan.

In Illinois, a motorcyclist was charged with hate crimes and aggravated battery after police said he plowed into a demonstration in Bloomington.

The accusations echo the 2017 vehicle attack at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that killed Heather Heyer, a counterprotester. And they occur amid a resurgence of internet memes featuring messages such as "All lives splatter" and "Run them over" and pictures of bloodied trucks.

"To me, this is a pattern beyond coincidence," said Jacob Stoil, an expert on military history and irregular warfare who is an assistant professor at the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "We've now seen a pretty steady stream of it." Stoil, who emphasized he was speaking about his personal research and not on behalf of the Army or any institution, added, "My research would suggest that this is a cluster, and a growing cluster."

Shared in numerous instances by right-wing activists and some members of law enforcement, the social media messages at times seem to encourage attacks, using phrases such as "Run 'em all over" and "Get the protester plow." Others put the onus on protesters to get out of the way, such as when commentator Steven Crowder recently tweeted: "Charge or block a vehicle and break the windshield with the driver still in it? Congratulations! You are now a speed bump!"

During the recent spate, police and local officials deemed at least two of the vehicle incidents as accidental encounters caused by panicked drivers who happened upon pedestrians in a street or highway, including one involving a truck driver in Minneapolis in the immediate wake of Floyd's death. That driver was detained and then released without charges.

Police have not made arrests in at least three other cases in which videos or witnesses statements suggest there was an attempt to harm protesters by a driver.

Apart from the cases involving civilian vehicles reviewed by The Washington Post, allegations also have surfaced about actions by law enforcement. The New York City Police Department recently opened an investigation into a May 30 incident in which two of the department's SUVs were driven into a crowd of protesters.

As cases wind through the legal system, it could take months before a motive is determined, assuming one is clear and eventually surfaces. But the images of vehicles headed toward demonstrators revive a sense of dread.

"I don't think anybody can forget the car barreling down onto the downtown mall," said Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor, recalling the 2017 Charlottesville rally in which neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove into a crowd and fatally struck Heyer. Fields was found guilty of first-degree murder and pleaded guilty to hate crimes; he was sentenced to life in prison plus 419 years.

After the Richmond event on June 7, Taylor charged Harry Rogers, the 36-year-old driver of the blue pickup, with attempted malicious wounding, destruction of property and assault. Taylor said her office is reviewing photographs that appear to show Rogers at the Charlottesville rally, as well as other photos from 2013 and 2014 in which he appears to attend events while holding a Confederate flag and wearing a white Ku Klux Klan robe.

Rogers declined an interview request made through the Henrico County Jail, where he is being held without bond. He has not yet had an opportunity to enter a plea in the case. His attorney, George Townsend, declined to comment on the allegations or whether Rogers appeared in photos at previous rallies.

In the current court proceeding, Townsend said: "All of these alleged crimes, they're all on video. So Mr. Rogers and the alleged victims are going to have their day in court." Taylor said her office has videos of Rogers's truck striking protesters, but declined to provide them.

According to court documents, Rogers told police that he had been "ordered" to patrol Confederate monuments in the area, though he did not elaborate. Taylor said in an interview that police recovered boxes of ammunition, firearms and a green Ku Klux Klan dragon robe from Rogers's home.

In the Bakersfield incident on May 29, Colebrook told The Post she remembers seeing the driver of an SUV arguing with protesters before heading toward them.

She recalled the fear of seeing the SUV bearing down on her and her friend. Her friend was directly in front of her holding up a sign that read "Respect existence or expect resistance," Colebrook said. Suddenly the friend was hit by the hood of the SUV and doubled over in the street.

The driver, 31-year-old Michael Tran, is accused of making a U-turn to again drive "through the crowd," Bakersfield police wrote in a court document. Tran refused to make a statement to police, the document states, and has pleaded not guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. Family members could not be reached for an interview, and the public defender representing him did not respond to requests for comment.

At a protest a day later on the opposite side of the country in Gainesville, Bloom and several other witnesses told police that the driver of a gray Kia sped past other cars, then swerved into marching protesters and brandished a gun at them.

"Everyone took it personally," Bloom, 19, told The Post. "There's no more powerful way to say you're against the movement than to literally, belligerently bulldoze through it."

William Connelly, the 64-year-old driver, has pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Connelly's attorney, Mark Feather, said his client is a veteran who had no intention of coming near the protesters and harbored no ill will toward them. He blamed the encounter on the fact that "law enforcement didn't provide a safe place for people to protest" and said that Connelly waived his gun "to keep violence from escalating."

"We're really glad everybody's OK," Feather said, noting that no injuries were reported. Gainesville police did not mention any injuries in an arrest report.

On June 7 in Seattle, Gregory was sitting on the curb eating a hot dog when he saw a black Honda Civic turn the corner. The car appeared headed toward protesters. "I had a feeling, he's going to hurt somebody, he's doing it on purpose," Gregory, 27, recalled, so he ran beside the car, reached through the open driver's side window and grabbed the steering wheel with his right hand, hoping to stop the Civic.

As the driver continued to move forward, Gregory said he lost his grip and said the next thing he remembers is lying on the ground. He'd been shot by the driver with a Glock 26 pistol, police wrote in court documents. Gregory has since been released from the hospital after surgery.

"The defendant drove to the [Capitol] Hill protests to see 'how bad' the protests were," King County prosecutors wrote in a summary of their case against the driver, Nikolas Fernandez, who is charged with first-degree assault. They added, "As protesters yelled at him to stop, and even put a metal barrier in his path, he continued to drive forward."

Fernandez, 31, has not yet had the chance to enter a plea in response to the charges. His father, Ross, said he's in the process of hiring a lawyer and said that the charges are baseless.

"It was a clear case of self-defense," Ross Fernandez said. "He was going to work and took the wrong turn."

In Henrico County, prosecutor Taylor alleges that Rogers "purposefully made a U-turn" in order to get behind the group of protesters and then kept moving forward even as people stood or biked in front of him, asking him to stop. "The only reason for him to do that and maneuver his car in such a manner is because he was there to intimidate, disrupt," Taylor said in an interview.

Lorenzo Boyd, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, said vehicle-ramming incidents were once a common tactic of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Police are supposed to watch what is going on," he said. "Even when you are protesting police, it is their job to still protect you."

Online messaging encouraging such tactics was in circulation well before Fields fatally struck Heyer with his car in Charlottesville in August 2017.

In January 2017, a video published by the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller was reposted on Fox News's website, titled, "Here's A Reel Of Cars Plowing Through Protesters Trying To Block The Road." The article's author wrote, "Study the technique; it may prove useful in the next four years." Fox later told CNN that "we regret" the post.

At Fields's trial, prosecutors revealed that months before the attack, he had shared images on social media of a car ramming into a group of people, sending them flying. One image was flanked by the words, "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO PROTEST BUT IM LATE FOR WORK."

Similar messages have been circulating online in recent weeks. "JUST DROVE THROUGH MINNEAPOLIS," reads one meme shared by a Republican county commissioner in Oklahoma, accompanied by a picture of a large truck spattered with blood. "DIDN'T SEE ANY PROTESTERS." A fire chief in West Virginia lost his job in the first week of June after pictures on social media showed him wearing a shirt that read: "All lives splatter. Nobody cares about your protest."

Some social media posters have said they have no intention of endorsing attacks but feel that protesters do not have a right to impede drivers. "The intention to harm or kill should be denounced and punished," wrote Brandon Morse on the conservative site RedState earlier this month, "but if you're a protester and you begin giving signs that you have more than just the intention to protest, then be prepared to find out that you're no match for a giant hunk of metal being self-propelled by a V6 engine."

Josh Lipowsky, a senior research analyst for the Counter Extremism Project, said the messaging is dangerous regardless of intent. "Putting this out there into the public sphere - we do not know who is going to see that and take it to heart," he said.

Ari Weil, a master's degree candidate in international relations at the University of Chicago who has researched vehicle-ramming incidents, pointed to legislative efforts in 2017 that proposed limiting liability for drivers who hit protesters blocking a roadway. The bills were proposed in a half-dozen states. Florida's version would have exempted drivers from liability if they "unintentionally" killed or injured a person who "obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic."

The bills did not pass.