Ever since James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017, maiming dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, it’s been clear that far-right extremists have come to view their vehicles as weapons—particularly in the context of protests involving their left-wing political opponents.
This has become acutely the case in the context of anti-police-brutality protests around the nation following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. As Hannah Allam recently reported for NPR, researcher Ari Weil—who has been tracking these attacks since 2017—has found some 50 ramming events have occurred since the protests first erupted, at least 18 of them definitively malicious in nature.
These “vehicle ramming attacks” in recent weeks have included:
- A Virginia Klansman who drove his pickup into a protest crowd in the town of Henrico, inflicting mostly minor injuries. He was charged with assault and battery.
- A Queens, New York, man who first threatened protesters with a bizarre knife device, then drove his SUV down the sidewalk where people bearing signs were standing. The 54-year-old driver was later charged with attempted murder.
- A Seattle driver who attempted to drive into a protest crowd, but a protester reached in his window to stop him from going farther. The driver then shot the protester in the arm, got out and brandished a gun, and then surrendered himself to police.
- A tanker truck driver in Minneapolis who plowed into a protest crowd of several thousand people at high speed, though protesters were able to scatter and no one was injured. Police took a Chicago man into custody.
Weil, a terrorism researcher with the University of Chicago's Chicago Project on Security and Threats, says that the attacks appear mostly to be spontaneous responses, but are occurring in an environment where such attacks are being encouraged on social media.
"I want to caution that this isn't just a far-right, neo-Nazi thing, but it's becoming something that's encouraged broadly, and I think that should worry everyone," Weil told Allam.
Weil recorded at least 50 VRAs nationwide between May 27 and June 17. Five of the VRAs involved police, including an egregious incident in New York City where police plowed a patrol vehicle into a protest crowd. Of the 45 attacks by civilians, at least 18 involved clear malice, while the motives in 23 others remain unclear. Most occurred during the first two weeks of protests.
The tactic has a recent history on the extremist right, Weil explains, beginning with 2015 protests involving Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline, when drivers attempted to run over and injure protesters who were blocking streets and roads. It has spread internationally, including its use by Palestinian nationalists and jihadists in Europe as well as North America, as well as the notorious London Bridge attack of 2017 and the revenge attack on mosque worshippers in London two weeks later.
“The far right is taking advantage of the opportunity that protest repertoire evolved to include street blocking. They simply decided to target that,” Weil explained to Alex Ward at Vice.
“But also lone actors can’t pull off sophisticated attacks,” he added. “Vehicles are pretty easy: You just need a license and access to something to drive. In the most horrendous cases, those incidents involve a truck — like we saw in Nice and Berlin in 2016 — or on Sunday in Minnesota with the tanker truck driver.”