How America’s answer to Canada’s Freedom Convoy left Washington without landing a blow

It was called the People’s Convoy – so why did it fail to become a popular cause?

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Donny Thomas poked his head into a small tent pitched on a hillside by a car-racing track in rural Maryland, about 90 minutes' drive outside Washington, DC.

Inside, a half dozen blankets filled the small space. They’ve kept Mr Thomas, 45, warm despite frigid conditions for much of the last month, as he and hundreds of others set up camp in the small city of Hagerstown to protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and what they perceive as government overreach.

“I don't want to tell anybody how to think and I don't want to be told how to think,” Mr Thomas said.

He is part of the People’s Convoy, America’s response to Canada’s Freedom Convoy that paralysed the Canadian capital Ottawa for several weeks and shut down North America’s busiest border crossing in February.

But while the Freedom Convoy was able to grab the world’s attention, its US counterpart has not found the same success.

With states and cities dropping vaccine and mask mandates as the pandemic recedes, the convoy's main point of contention has lost some of its resonance.

Mr Thomas blames the media for the group’s inability to gain any serious traction.

“I think it's the spin of the story,” he told The National. “The media is not covering us and when they do cover us, it's negative. They're calling us racists and what have you.”

At the Hagerstown Speedway earlier this week, a few dozen big-rig lorries were scattered across the large parking lot. Tents and campsites like Mr Thomas’s filled the woods lining the property.

US and Canadian flags fluttered in the cold breeze and anti-government rhetoric was plastered on car windows and the doors of recreational vehicles.

Marek Niewiarowski, a lorry driver from Montreal, Canada, drove all the way down to lend his support.

“The same spirit from Ottawa has come over here with the people that are fighting for freedom,” Mr Niewiarowski said.

Still hurting from the government’s tough action against protesters in Ottawa, Mr Niewiarowski was hopeful that the Canadian movement would find a way to continue. “We have to regroup in Canada,” he told The National.

For weeks, the People’s Convoy has been circling Interstate 395, also known as the Beltway, causing traffic headaches in and around Washington.

But their tactics, while disruptive, have not accomplished any of their objectives, which include bringing an end to the national emergency declaration declared under former president Donald Trump and extended under President Joe Biden. The measure gives the federal government broad powers to deal with Covid-19.

Convoy leaders managed to secure a face-to-face meeting with Republican Senator Ted Cruz, but they have not made serious inroads into the capital.

Part of that is because the convoy’s permit to set up camp on the National Mall was rejected, but Sara Aniano, a graduate student at Monmouth University, whose research focuses on the far-right's use of social media, said it was also the result of bad planning.

“They didn't meet their goals, even though they keep saying that it was a huge success,” Ms Aniano told The National.

“It obviously wasn't. But I think without a leader with a clear plan, and without an actual goal and a deadline and a place to meet. I think people just got exhausted,”

After nearly a month of camping out in Hagerstown, most of the group decided to pack up and head west.

They were chased out by the cold and a calendar conflict with the Hagerstown Speedway, who had leased the group the land but needed it back by April 7 for a series of races in the following days.

“We’re not done here,” said organiser Mike Landis on a livestream on Sunday.

“We’ll go to California and raise awareness along the way and hopefully get more people like we did on our way here.”

The group plans to protest against 10 state bills that it believes “will change everything for people who want to live, work or learn in the state of CA while exercising their right to medical freedom”, according to a statement on the People’s Convoy website.

As the weeks dragged on and it became clear the movement wasn’t having its desired effect, the mood in the camp started to sour.

“The atmosphere at camp has been tumultuous,” Mr Thomas said. “Because we've had people that were bad actors trying to cause agitation and problems.”

That tension has manifested online, Ms Aniano said. “There's been more dissent among the streamers, even with each other,” she said.

But despite the division and the decision to leave the Washington area, Ms Aniano does not think this is the end of the People’s Convoy.

“They've been instructed by the so-called leaders of this convoy to work at a more state or even hyper local level to try and get their message across and their messages are rooted in far-right ideologies,” she said.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 6:44 PM
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