Episode 47: Vehicles as Weapons 


[NEWS CLIP: We have some breaking news: a man charged with intentionally driving his car into a group of protesters.]

[NEWS CLIP: A white SUV that nearly ran over protesters.]

[NEWS CLIP: … of a police car being driven into protesters.]

[NEWS CLIP: … revved his engine, and actually ran his truck into some of those protesters.]

[NEWS CLIP: Demonstrators were marching as part of police reform protests.]

[NEWS CLIP: There have been at least 66 car attacks targeting protesters.]

[NEWS CLIP: It’s in some cities across the country, including in New York, San Diego, Bloomington, Indiana, Los Angeles, Charlottesville, Bakersfield, Richmond, Virginia, Boston, Seattle, Tulsa, Denver …]

Sarah Goodyear: I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars. Using a vehicle as an instrument of terror is nothing new. Over the last decade, ISIS extremists and other terrorist groups have used trucks and cars to murder pedestrians in London, Barcelona, Nice, Berlin, New York, the list goes on. In the United States, however, we have a different disturbing trend in vehicular assaults. These attacks are not random—the targets are protesters, people using the streets and roads of the United States to express their opinions, to demand justice and to call for the reform of systemically racist institutions.

Sarah: We saw it at the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. We saw it in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when Heather Heyer was run down by a white supremacist while protesting the Unite the Right rally. And now, in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, we have seen dozens of these attacks in cities across the nation. Some are clearly motivated by white supremacist ideology. Others apparently stem more from impatience over inconvenience caused by blocked streets, and complete disregard for human life. In some cases—most notoriously in New York City—the drivers hitting the gas were cops.

Sarah: Two protesters were killed by drivers in the month of June. Summer Taylor in Seattle and Robert Forbes in Bakersfield, California. On July 25, in Austin, Texas, Garrett Foster was shot and killed by a motorist, who witnesses said drove intentionally into a group of marchers. Foster had been pushing his fiance’s wheelchair in the march. He himself was legally carrying an AK-47, and apparently confronted the driver. Exactly what happened next is not yet clear. I spoke with Robert Foster—no relation to Garrett—who was on the scene in Austin. He says he came upon the protest, and noticed there were no police providing traffic control, so he joined with a few others to help protect marchers from cars. He told me what happened next.

Robert Foster: So we turn to Congress, which is the main street that runs through downtown Austin, the main north-south street. And we turn off 3rd Street and start going north. And I’m blocking—I’m blocking 3rd and Congress, and the march has pretty much all passed. There’s one or two people that were really straggling by the end of the night. So there’s one or two people in my intersection. And then I start to hear a little bit of a commotion at 4th and Congress, and I just turned up and I see that a car has entered the crowd at that point. But even from my vantage point on the other side of the march, I could see that the people had given it enough—like, you know, people were shouting, I heard some people banging on the car. But I could see that the car had a pretty clear path to get out. Like, they had already parted the group. And I kind of—I turned away from it, and then the shots rang out. And everyone—you know, it’s pandemonium. Everyone’s trying to find whatever cover they can. We end up huddled behind, I think a Honda Fit. Not a very large car. Obviously terrified. You know, I don’t know, it felt like an hour. But it was definitely only like 90 seconds or maybe two minutes at most that we were huddled behind there.

Sarah: The incident in Austin is part of a pattern of escalating violence against protesters who have claimed public roadways. Increasingly, firearms are in the mix as well. To learn more, I spoke with Ari Weil, who has been studying vehicle ramming attacks for years now. Ari is an incoming PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago. He also works as deputy research director at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. I talked with Ari back in early July about his research. Since we spoke, the number of incidents he has logged has only grown.

Ari Weil: So I’ve been studying vehicular attacks for two years now. And it came about because I was adjacent to a few of them. I was living in London in early 2017, and was meeting an old friend at the National Gallery on March 22. And we heard the sirens across the bridge at Westminster. I had lived on Great Dover Street, and I had left to return to the US on June 3. And so when I turned my phone off airplane mode, the first thing I saw was that the neighborhood that I had called home up in London Bridge and Borough Market had been attacked in an ISIS van attack there. And then that summer, I was working in DC, and had actually been visiting Charlottesville to go see some of the great progressive programming they’re doing about the lives of enslaved people at Jefferson’s plantation the weekend before the 8/12 attack. And so I was kind of left thinking, like, why are all these individuals of different ideologies taking up the same tactic? And so when I started my master’s in international relations at UChicago, I chose to spend it studying the diffusion of this tactic among different ideologies.

Sarah: Right. So I think that, you know, five or six years ago, we really were seeing this as an ISIS or ISIS-affiliated tactic. And obviously here in New York, we had the attack on the West Side bike path that was really horrific. And there are just countless examples of that. When do you find that that tactic is being or was picked up by right wing groups?

Ari Weil: So it really comes about in 2015 and 2016. So with ISIS, it’s a terrorist tactic meant to target anyone, these mass casualty attacks. With the right in America, it’s really distinctly an anti-protest tactic. And so the reason it appears in 2015 and 2016 is because the Black Lives Matter movement takes to the street as a way to make their claims, right? You disrupt normal life, you block traffic and you make people listen to your claims. And similarly in 2016, we saw that with No Dakota Access Pipeline blocking the bulldozers. And so it’s really then that it starts to come up in Ferguson and other places. We start to see these incidents, and then we also see accompanying that, a whole series of jokes and memes online, the hashtag #RunThemOver in 2015, that start to further encourage these kinds of actions.

Sarah: And how organized is the dissemination of those memes?

Ari Weil: So that’s I think what’s most surprising here is that, in the case of ISIS, you have, you know, their magazines are instructing people what trucks to rent, right? With the right, it’s much more organic. And it’s not as if it’s the Klan or the National Socialist Movement that is doing this top down. And that’s actually what’s particularly worrisome, right? It’s a Facebook post by somebody joking about Charlottesville that, for example, in the last month has gotten 10,000 shares. You know, it’s these kinds of things. And so this is what we saw in the original wave, in 2015 and ’16. We saw Fox News and The Daily Caller share a clip of—you know, cutting together videos of people running into Black Lives Matter protesters. And the caption was pretty horrific. It said, “Keep this in mind. This is gonna be useful in the next four years.” Right?

Ari Weil: And so I want to be clear here that I think some of the coverage in the recent weeks as I’ve been studying this has really looked at kind of—or framed as far-right extremists, but I think what’s more dangerous is the bigger group of people who either don’t agree with Black Lives Matter or are frustrated drivers, but then because of this online ecosystem, think it’s okay to do this, even though they’re not, you know, the card-carrying Klan member.

Sarah: One of the things we cover in The War on Cars is that there’s a societal agreement, essentially, that if you kill somebody with your car in an “accident”—which is the terminology that a lot of people use, we prefer to use “crash.” But if you kill somebody, that it’s just one of the things that happens in life, and it’s sad, but it’s the price of having the kind of society that we do, and it’s the price of having the mobility that’s afforded by automobiles. So we also have a society where killing people with cars or people dying in car crashes is just part of the water we swim in.

Ari Weil: And I’ve seen that actually reflected in the language that’s used online, that culture. So that post that I just told you about that’s sharing kind of Charlottesville image and has 10,000 shares, the caption is, “Don’t whine when you become nothing more than a fleshy speed bump. It’s your own fault,” right? So the way it’s framing it is by being in the street, the protesters are giving up their right. And this is a way that they normalize this, and in those terms, it’s kind of in legal terms, and it basically portrays the protesters as an inconvenience. And so, James Alex Fields, the Charlottesville attacker, actually shared a similar meme twice on his Instagram in the months before his attack. And it says, “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work,” right? So he acknowledges that they can be out there, but they’re being an inconvenience to him. And, you know, I think what’s dangerous is that people are taking this inconvenience to this next level, that then they’re taking it to normalize and encourage just pushing through.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think that in two of the incidents that we’ve seen just in the last week to 10 days, the incident in Seattle in which a protester was killed on I5, and also the incident in Times Square, where fortunately nobody was seriously injured, but a Dodge Durango driver went through a crowd of protesters. In both of those cases, there seems to have been some of that element of, “I’m inconvenienced. The highway is closed. Why is it closed? I’m just gonna get on the highway and go.” That was the case in Seattle, it seems. And then in New York, they’re defense, that the police quote is, “I was in fear for my life.”

Ari Weil: There are I guess, like, four categories of people I’ve seen doing this over the last month. I mean, the first are like the true extremists, right? You had a Klan member in Virginia, or a guy with neo-Nazi tattoos in Bakersfield. The next are the people who maybe aren’t at that level, but clearly are trying to intimidate the protesters. People who are yelling “White lives matter, all lives matter,” and then driving in. And then next are these people who are basically angry and inconvenienced, and yet still decide, as you said, to do that, right? A guy in Seattle who couldn’t get into his condo parking garage—which is pretty minor, and yet he decides to back up and speed right in, which was really horrific. And then there are a couple where they’ve been truly ruled accidents. A guy’s GPS took him to the wrong place and things like that. But, you know, I think it’s important to note that I’ve seen true card-carrying extremists, but then the bulk are either those who disagree and are trying to intimidate—the white lives matter folks—and then those who just are pushing ahead because they feel wronged and they’re just gonna do it anyways. And that’s kind of the bulk of folks who are doing this.

Sarah: And then there’s another group that we have to discuss, and that’s law enforcement. I think something like seven of the incidents that have occurred since George Floyd’s death, seven of the 60-something involved law enforcement drivers.

Ari Weil: So I’ve now tracked 72 incidents from May 27 to July 7, and seven were by law enforcement. Obviously, the widely-circulated video of the NYPD SUVs driving in. We had Detroit recently. And it actually fits a pattern that we saw in that first wave in 2015 and ’16, which is law enforcement were caught sharing those memes I described online. And just recently, we had a New Orleans police officer, a Washington state detective, different fire chiefs and county commissioners around the US. A mayor resigned because he was sharing this stuff. And that worries me in particular, because those are the people who one of their responsibilities was protecting the protesters. When protesters come to take over a highway, part of the police’s job is to block that off and reroute traffic. So we shouldn’t have those same people then encouraging this. There was a case in Texas last month where, you know, somebody was making one of these comments on Facebook, and then a local police officer kind of encouraged it and supported it. And so I really don’t want to see them either sharing these things or encouraging civilians to do it, let alone doing it themselves.

Sarah: Right. And then there’s, in the case of New York City, the mayor of New York not really doing much to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with that kind of behavior.

Ari Weil: Yeah. And I worry that that then tacitly encourages future behavior. A few days later, we heard on an NYPD scanner, an officer saying they were dealing with some group of protesters, and you can hear over the chatter someone says, “Well just run them over.” And it worries me if they too begin to see this as legitimate or a tool in their arsenal.

[POLICE SCANNER: We have a group of people blocking traffic on Albany and Dean streets. They’re refusing to let—so eastbound on Dean Street and Albany. So we’re stuck here.]

[POLICE SCANNER: Run them over!]

Sarah: The other thing that I am interested in is that a lot of these are crimes of opportunity, right? That you’re angry, you’re frustrated, you’re maybe explicitly white supremacist, what weapons do you have handy? And a vehicle is a really, really powerful weapon that almost everyone in this country has available to them. Have you seen people talking about, look, here’s this thing that we have that’s easy to use, and it’s legal and it’s sanctioned.

Ari Weil: So I haven’t seen that in the right-wing circles as much. That was very clear with ISIS, right? They were saying, “Use what you’ve got. Use your car.” And I think it’s been a little bit confusing. I’ve been trying to figure out why the right wing turned to this, right? There’s a lot of gun carrying in America. Why not do that? And I think part of it is that you not only have it, but it largely has fallen under the radar, and so you can just push through and keep going. Of the 72 I’ve tracked, 28 have been charged. And so there are a lot that have kind of gotten under the radar in that way. And so, you know, I can’t confirm this based on the rhetoric, but I wonder if it is a case that this is both something that we have and something that we can just do with impunity.

Sarah: And what kind of charges have those 28 incurred?

Ari Weil: So it’s a real variety up and down the spectrum, from some misdemeanors to hate crimes. A lot of reckless endangerment is a pretty common one. I have been pleased to see in recent weeks some local DAs bringing higher charges and saying explicitly, “We’re doing this to show that this isn’t okay,” and to try and have some kind of a deterrent effect. I don’t know if it will, because this is a national phenomenon. And I don’t know if some local DA is going to have that impact, but they are trying in some cities to send a message that, you know, this isn’t just your right to push through, this is actually illegal.

Sarah: But in some places, they’ve gone the other way and tried to legitimize it, right?

Ari Weil: Yeah. And that’s again what worries me, that it’s—in 2017, came into the legal sphere, not just an extremist space. And so what happened was, it first kicked off in North Dakota in early 2017, trying to pass a law that would give drivers protections. And that spread to six states that attempted. The closest was North Carolina, where it passed the House but died in Senate committee. And these are actually very limited laws. They would only protect them from civil suits, and only if they unintentionally hit a protester and the protester didn’t have a permit to be there. But what’s really important here is that it has stayed on in the imagination on the right as if these laws had passed. So if we look at the Discord channel for planning the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, somebody made a comment. “Hey, I know this is legal in North Carolina.” It wasn’t, but he thought it was. And I saw similar tweets this last week that it was. And just this last month, on the largest white supremacist forum in the US and the world, Stormfront, somebody shared news of Detroit police driving through, and then they complained that these laws hadn’t passed. They called them self-defense laws, and they said, “Well, why didn’t we pass these before Charlottesville, right? This should be okay. We should be allowed to do this.” And so my concern is that even those tiny scope laws, they’ve remained in the imagination as if they passed and as if it was okay and legal to do this.

[NEWS CLIP: You then have in the North Carolina House, a bill that would protect drivers—ironically—who hit protesters. In North Dakota, it would become legal to hit a protester with your car. There’s a bill that would make drivers immune from civil liability in protest if they hit someone in Tennessee. In Florida, a proposed bill that would protect drivers who unintentionally hit or kill protesters. Texas, a bill that would ease liability for running over protesters.]

Sarah: I also wonder about the car as the castle, and this defending one’s property. You’ve seen that in Florida, that people can act as if their cars are their personal space, that they’re allowed to defend with a gun or with the car itself.

Ari Weil: Yeah, and there was—it’s even gone further, where there’s a case in Tampa where it was the protester who was hit who was arrested and charged. And, you know, there are a couple of very unique cases where that was necessary. There was a Louisville case where the person on the street had a gun and was actually threatening the driver, and the driver was trying to get away for their safety. But for the most part, as I’ve watched these, a lot of them are very slow moving. There’s room to back up. The protesters aren’t banging on the car until it gets close to them and is going to hit them. And they’re doing it in self-defense because they’re pedestrians. There’s a lot of cases, I’m watching them closely to see, you know, more information come out of their court documents about each case, but I’m not sure self-defense really works in a lot of these.

Sarah: In New York, the famous NYPD incident is very much what you’re talking about, where they say, “Oh, we were hemmed in by the protesters,” but the video shows clearly they could have backed up safely.

Ari Weil: And important to note on the NYPD that none of the seven law enforcement cases have had anything happen. They’d been largely absolved. And that worries me that, as you said with de Blasio, it sends a message that this is okay to do going forward.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bill de Blasio: It’s inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers. That’s wrong on its face. And that hasn’t happened in the history of protest in this city. I’ve been watching protests for decades. People don’t do that. And so it’s clear that a different element has come into play here who are trying to hurt police officers and trying to damage their vehicles. And if a police officer’s in that situation, they have to get out of that situation.]

Sarah: So where is your research taking you? Where are you going with this research?

Ari Weil: So I originally chose vehicle rammings both because of that personal connection, but then also because it is a uniquely lone actor phenomenon. Very few of these are formal members of groups. They’re often doing it by themselves, but encouraged by kind of this online space and by this broader culture. And so I want to continue looking into that, and kind of the radical milieu of ways that encourages people to choose different tactics. And then I think a future avenue is something we had talked about is kind of why this specifically, compared to other options. Why choose the car over the gun or the knife? You know, some of that is just structural and opportunistic, but I’d like to take a little more into that.

Sarah: Also, I’m interested in gender. Are there many female actors in this space, or is this a male action?

Ari Weil: There have been a few females, but isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s largely overwhelmingly male. There’s still a lot of cases where—because they’re trying very quickly, I don’t have that information, but just a quick glance here, it seems like probably about 20 percent were female drivers. We have seen some cases where there are multiple people. And the Bloomington case this weekend in Indiana, there was a man and wife together. A 66-year-old woman who was driving, and I believe it was her husband in the passenger seat near a BLM protest. There was an electric scooter in the way, and I think the men had gotten out to move it. And then there were some words—I don’t have clear audio. There were some words exchanged with protesters, and then they drove through and drove away, and then were eventually found by police. And they’ve been charged with criminal recklessness and leaving the scene of an accident.

Sarah: So what about the frequency of these attacks? I mean, it seems to me that they’re increasing in frequency. And I am interested to see that mainstream media, USA Today, other mainstream publications are starting to cover this as a phenomenon.

Ari Weil: So in general, certainly an increase. You know, I was really surprised a little over a month now to see 72 of these incidents. The positive is that, within that period it’s declining, that a lot of these happened at the end of May, early June. There’s a huge, huge spike there. So we had 21 in that first week of June, and seven in this first week of July. Seven is still too high, but my hope is that that trend continues and this stops, but there’s no way of knowing at this moment if it will continue.

Sarah: And do you see patterns in terms of the types of vehicles that people are using?

Ari Weil: So I think what’s striking here is that, compared to ISIS where they’re being instructed to try and get the biggest truck and cause the most damage, I haven’t seen any cases of that. Everybody seems to be using their personal vehicles. And so there’s a whole variety of vehicles. But again, that contributes to what we talked about earlier, right? That this is my road and my space and I’m taking it back, kind of attitude. And so they don’t need to go get a bigger truck. They’re reasserting their right with their own personal vehicle.

Sarah: Yes. And as we’ve discussed on our show before, a lot of people, a lot more people year after year, are driving larger and larger vehicles. And the vehicles themselves are getting larger and larger—SUVs especially. And a lot of people have modifications like bull bars or other after-market modifications that make the trucks ride higher or, you know, potentially more destructive to pedestrians. And SUVs are just, by their nature, much more dangerous for pedestrians because of the profile of the vehicle.

Ari Weil: Yeah, I don’t have a complete count for you right now, but, you know, just looking through, I’ve got—there’s a decent number of trucks and SUVs involved. And it also is reflected in the way they joke and talk about this online, which is that they’d say that, you know, my best weapon to stop this is my 4X4, right? It’s part of asserting your car and your culture there.

Sarah: As far as injuries and fatalities, what’s the data on that?

Ari Weil: So I have not been able to systematically track injuries, just because it’s very difficult to get a solid count when somebody runs through a crowd like this. But there have been two fatalities: the case in Seattle on the highway, a really tragic incident, and then one that has not received very much coverage at all. In early June in Bakersfield, a man ran through protesters and killed—I believe his name is Robert Forbes. And the man was not arrested by police. He was let go. But what makes me still skeptical is that he has two neo-Nazi tattoos.

Sarah: Is there any attempt on a federal level, like an FBI level, to look at these things as a national phenomenon that needs to be tracked or addressed? Is there anyone else tracking this stuff as systematically as you are?

Ari Weil: So certainly you can find some declassified intelligence bulletins from 2017 and ’18 talking about ISIS, and there was a federal—in addition to the local case on James Alex Fields in Charlottesville, but this has not received a lot of national law enforcement attention. And that’s partially a way that extremism is treated in general in the US. So the material support of terrorism charge is a federal charge, and everybody who has anything to do with ISIS gets slapped with that. But because domestic extremists are not on the list, they’re often just getting local charges.

Sarah: Do you think that there’s anything that policymakers, elected officials, law enforcement should be doing to prevent such attacks? Do you think that there’s any solution, whether it be a design solution, an enforcement solution?

Ari Weil: That’s a great question. I’ll preface this by saying that I study the incidents themselves, and I’m not a policy person. I’m training to be a political scientist, so I’ll offer some conjectures here. But the first thing I want to say is that, even before we get to solutions, there’s kind of a negative aspect here, right? Like, we got to get to the baseline. We need to stop police officers doing this. We need to stop police officers sharing these kinds of things. So that’s the first step. And I don’t really know how we can do that precisely, but that’s been really troubling is that we’re not even where we could be at a kind of a neutral space.

Ari Weil: A lot of the discussion in the terrorism studies community, especially around ISIS, when they try to run into markets or things was, you know, you put up barriers and harden the target. And I think that works, but it doesn’t apply here where these are spontaneous protests in the street. I’ve seen some encouraging self-driven action, right? Rather than the police who are generally responsible these days for blocking these things off. You know, if you get a celebration after a baseball game, the police block off the street. But protesters have taken that into their own hands. So bike brigades, using protesters’ own cars to follow the foot protesters to provide kind of blocking. So I think that’s been really encouraging to see them take that into their own hands so that they don’t have to rely on the police, who we know, unfortunately, in some cases, are tacitly supporting these kinds of actions.

Sarah: Thank you so much, Ari. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Ari Weil: Absolutely. Thank you for covering this.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks to Ari Weil and Robert Foster for talking to us. We’ll put links in the show notes to some articles about vehicular attacks—including an op-ed Ari wrote for NBC News that has much more detail about his research.

Sarah: And thanks to you for listening. Don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we always love to hear from you. Email [email protected], or find us on Twitter @thewaroncars.

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Sarah: This episode was produced and edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Sarah Goodyear, thanking you again on behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon. Until next time, this is The War on Cars.