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How Passenger Vehicles Became a Preferred Weapon for Domestic Extremists

Politics

How passenger vehicles became the weapon of choice for domestic extremists.

Jury selection began this week in a civil trial against the organizers of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than four years since the alarming event, which culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer by a driver who plowed his car at high speed into a group of anti-Nazi counterprotesters. At that time, the United States had rarely seen attacks where passenger cars were used as deliberate killing weapons. Today, local headlines around the country show that this practice is now a favored tactic among those who wish to strike terror against protesters and passersby.

This year, within the U.S. alone, victims and survivors of such attacks have included a Palestinian American Muslim family in Maryland; cyclists in Show Low, Arizona, and Waller County, Texas; crowds in Minneapolis and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, that had gathered to commemorate Black victims of police violence; Kellogg workers striking in Nebraska and miners striking in Alabama; and a group on the Brooklyn Bridge that had gathered to commemorate George Floyd. Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities have reported similar incidents; meanwhile, a driver who’d joked about running over protesters and had purposefully struck Black Lives Matter rallygoers last year in Johnson City, Tennessee, was cleared of charges this September.

How did we get to the point where American drivers targeting unarmed protesters and pedestrians became a common expectation?

Prior to Heyer’s killing and the spike in American car rammings that began during last summer’s protests over Floyd’s murder, such attacks were considered the provenance of fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. The image of a vehicle operator plowing their truck into bystanders brought to mind the 2016 truck massacre in France, the ISIS-inspired lorry attack in Berlin, intentional pedestrian collisions on British bridges, and more.

The war on terror was what helped make the automobile itself the fundamentalists’ weapon of choice. As the U.S. intervention increasingly destabilized the Middle East, responses to the carnage by solo vigilantes began in earnest. In 2006, an Iranian American Muslim enraged at the Iraq war—which he recognized as the “killing [of] his people across the sea”—rammed his car into multiple University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill students. A few years later, al-Qaida, which had been rapidly losing members and legitimacy, began publishing an English-language publication, Inspire, to galvanize potential readers within the U.S. and elsewhere. Inspire’s fall 2010 issue featured an article titled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” which proposed “a simple idea”: “use the pickup truck … not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” The article suggested that this form of attack be carried out in countries “where the government and public sentiment is in support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The Israel-Palestine conflict has also been an exporter of this method of terror. From 2008 onward, more militant Palestinians, some with ties to the fundamentalist party Hamas, began driving automobiles into Israeli civilians and soldiers in retaliation for their decadeslong occupation. This quickly spread far outside Jerusalem and Gaza: According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, vehicular strikes on civilians and state official subsequently occurred from 2012 onward in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

Two years later, the car-as-weapon returned stateside—this time, as the choice of white nationalists. You can trace it to Elliot Rodger, who struck and killed multiple people with his car in Isla Vista, California, after stabbing several others. Rodger’s virulent misogyny and racism, embodied in his choice of victims, did not come from a vacuum. As a Guardian report shortly following the massacre noted, Rodger was a frequent habitant of “red pill” forums, which traffic in memes that endorse targeted violence against marginalized communities through a supposed patina of irony. Shortly after Rodger’s killing spree, these very users started to aggressively troll Black feminists and social justice activists by impersonating Black users, as my colleague Rachelle Hampton has reported. Such campaigns became more explicit following the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, responding to the killing of Michael Brown. Journalist and professor Darlena Cunha recently recalled how red-pillers threw antisemitic screeds at her after she wrote an op-ed evincing empathy for Ferguson protesters. Other online communities also noted how often red-pillers expressed fury at the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.

And there was a particular feature of these protests that lent itself to gory car fantasies: the streets. After the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer as well as the police shooting of Eric Garner, protesters took to municipal roads and freeways and blocked traffic to get their message through. These tactics expanded in the wake of Anton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, with activists shutting down interstates. Beyond being an effective protest method, the move was also symbolic: Throughout the country, bustling roads both within and outside of major metropolises were purposefully constructed to rip apart existing Black neighborhoods and lay down suburb-connected commutes for wealthy white Americans. For modern-day advocates, taking back such space was yet another form of righting historic injustice.

The cops got the message. As my colleague Henry Grabar noted after Heyer’s death, far-right trolls, including cops, had been posting memes about running over anti-racist protesters for years, often within the same red-pilled meme groups that produced extremist murders such as Rodger and Dylann Roof. Throughout 2016 and early 2017, multiple officers, including the leaders of police unions, posted calls to run cars into anti-racist rallies that took over public streets, and civilians followed their lead. Cop-endorsed memes like “All lives splatter” can now be found everywhere: government social media accounts, T-shirt sites, even Facebook Marketplace. When you consider the other symbols police have displayed throughout the post-9/11 years, from military regalia to thick beards to the Gadsen flag to the “thin blue line” to the Punisher skull, such vehemence seems less like sudden radicalization and more an inevitable outgrowth.

Charlottesville fully emboldened those who’d long held these fantasies, and Heyer’s death became the first instance of a white extremist–caused vehicle murder since Rodger’s killing spree. By the summer of 2020, extremists had even more real-life examples to emulate: An incel inspired by Rodger drove over women in Toronto in 2018, and another crashed into a synagogue in a deliberately antisemitic attack in 2019.

These perpetrators now also have sympathizers in high places. Republicans in states including Florida, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Texas have passed bills granting immunity to drivers who injure or kill street protesters. (A court later struck down Florida’s bill as unconstitutional.) According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s U.S. Protest Law Tracker, dozens of similar bills are being considered in other states. There is a direct line from the backlash to BLM and “defund the police” to these anti-protest laws: As reported in Salon, many of them have been pushed by legislators who are former cops, or backed by police unions and other law enforcement interest groups fed up with traffic-obstructing protesters. (It is also worth noting that there have been occasional moments where cops themselves have been the drivers running their vehicles through protesting crowds as well as into other citizens.) Some are working to pass similar laws that would classify cops as a “protected class” and allow them to sue protesters for “discrimination.” As my colleague Christina Cauterucci has noted, such laws marked the moment when Republicans’ driving ethos of “own the libs” morphed into its final, terrible form: “kill the libs.”

But this year, another trend has emerged: Drivers are attempting to kill cops with their cars. Last month, an SUV driver in Oakland, California, deliberately struck a police vehicle that was on its way to a party the driver had attended. On June 14, a couple in Haines City, Florida, drove right at a police officer before abandoning the vehicle in order to break into the mayor’s home. In early April, a man rammed his car into two police officers in front of the Capitol, killing one. More reports of criminals intentionally ramming into police vehicles are emerging across the United States (and Canada). Now even the police who pushed for laws protecting anti-protest drivers may find they’ll need to shield themselves from this gruesome development, especially if they involve people like the extremists who stormed the Capitol and were not afraid to attack the police.

As my colleague William Saletan wrote in the aftermath of 2019’s shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, ISIS terrorists and white supremacists may seem like opposites, but their goal is the same: “a bloody campaign to destroy pluralism.” We’re seeing that play out: White extremists newly invigorated by the political developments of the past two decades are adopting terrorist strategies in order to spark chaos and spill blood. The Unite the Right organizers facing trial may have to pay monetary damages for their destruction, but the brutality of the movement they helped engender will persist as long as there are angry people driving cars.