A convoy of truckers leaves the DC area, but a “movement” continues
HAGERSTOWN, Md., April 2 (Reuters) – (Editor’s note: Offensive language in 7th paragraph)
Melanie Disporto said she lost her job at a Tennessee mental institution when she refused to wear a mask or take the COVID-19 vaccine.
A week later, in early March, inspired by YouTube videos of truck drivers driving to Washington to protest COVID-19 mandates, she and her husband packed up their Honda and joined them, camping for weeks in a tent on the grounds of the Hagerstown Speedway in western Maryland.
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As all the remnants of the so-called “popular convoy” left the region on Friday, with some heading to California to continue the protest, it is unclear what the coalition of drivers has accomplished in Washington beyond the intensified occasional traffic jams on its notoriously crowded Capitol Beltway Interstate.
The group fell short of its stated goal: to rescind the federal declaration of emergency for the COVID pandemic, first put in place by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 and twice extended by President Joe Biden. And no mask mandates were changed, for example, as a direct result of the protest, which coincided with a relaxation of COVID measures nationwide as the rate of the virus’s spread in the United States slowed.
But right-wing movement experts say the convoy of pickup trucks, SUVs and tractor-trailers has given momentum to a fast-growing universe of alternative conservative media, led by live streamers and podcasters seeking to collect funds and build an audience. Others have used the convoy to lure viewers to channels sharing government conspiracy theories and misinformation about vaccines.
Shortly after the protesting truckers arrived on March 4 in Hagerstown, about an hour and a half drive from Washington, the crowds inside the racetrack began to reflect a much wider range of grievances and right-wing causes like vaccination mandates and wearing surgical masks.
Disporto, 40, and others protesting the mandates mingled with members of white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, as well as die-hard Trump supporters who bragged about their role in the Capitol uprising of January 6. Some wore the Confederate flag or those that said, “Fuck Biden.” Proponents of QAnon conspiracy theories, which cast Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of pedophiles and Satanist cannibals, camp alongside people demanding the citizen’s arrest of Biden and the top expert American in infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Many have expressed belief in a theory that the COVID mandates — and attempts to crack down on disinformation — are the first steps in a plot by “globalists” to impose a tyrannical government.
At the protest, Disporto and her husband Paul said they found a community of believers who share a common cause: pushing back against mandates they believe steal their freedom and jobs.
“I actually loved this job and was good at it,” said Disporto, tightening his jacket against a strong wind at the convoy campsite. “This is America – I should be able to do a job that I love.”
When the convoy left for California, they left.
“HARD TO KNOW WHO TO BELIEVE”
Stemming from a protest by truckers in Canada, the convoy set up a makeshift camp at the racetrack after driving through the county. Leaders addressed the crowd from a trailer and arranged daily trips to Washington, 70 miles south.
Over time, the number of participants dwindled, but the convoy did not die, its organizers said. About 100 vehicles are now heading back to California for an April 10 protest in Los Angeles against a series of proposals aimed at containing the pandemic. On Friday, the caravan traveled from North Carolina to another racetrack campsite in Greenbrier, Tennessee.
“A lot of people felt like we had abandoned our mission in DC, and that’s not the case. We are coming back,” Mike Landis, co-organizer of the protest, said in an interview on Friday. “We nibble it.”
The protest illustrates the rise of an alternative media system populated by right-wing live streamers and commentators.
While mainstream media portrayed the convoy largely as traffic protests with a vague agenda, right-wing media presented it as a rallying point for Americans who believe the media and government are lying to them about the COVID-19, vaccines, and the results of the 2020 Election — and angry at tech companies that treat such opinions as misinformation.
Kecia Pettey, of Annapolis, Maryland, said she lost her 30-year career as a flight attendant because of her refusal to wear a mask.
Wearing a pink “Trump 2024” hat, she had a sign next to her Jeep showing Fauci with a Hitler mustache. Convinced that Trump really won the 2020 election, she says she gets news from right-wing streamers, as well as Newsmax and One America News – networks that have provided platforms for vaccine skeptics and false theories that Trump really won the election.
“It’s hard to know who to believe,” she said of mainstream sources.
Caroline Orr Bueno, a University of Maryland researcher who studies right-wing movements, said the Convoy’s lack of success so far on political goals hasn’t dampened the fervor of her online supporters, who have long ceased to pay attention to mainstream news. blanket.
“They feel like their voices are being suppressed and the media is ignoring them,” she said. “It fuels that sense of grievance that fuels a lot of what they do.”
Since its inception, the convoy has also created its own media system: nearly two dozen live streamers integrated into the protest, documenting morning meetings, speeches and the often mundane daily life at the campsite, while asking for donations from their supporters. At least a dozen are still with the convoy, en route to California. A trucker, Stan Sasnak, has 127,000 YouTube subscribers.
“To me, it’s my media,” Indianapolis-based Chuck Jones said as his wife Jennifer roasted hot dogs over a wood fire in Hagerstown, saying he watched videos and live streams of the protest since its inception in Canada. “You show me live footage, I’m a believer. So I know you’re not telling me a story.”
Brian Brase, another convoy co-organizer, said the role of live streamers in their movement is now “massive”. “They’re the ones showing the real story,” he said in an interview. “People will only pay attention to live streamers in the future.”
He said the convoy planned to return to the Washington area and had no plans to stop anytime soon.
“It is no longer a demonstration. It’s a move at this point,” he said.
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Editing by Jason Szep and Daniel Wallis
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