The video is shocking. As the driver of an SUV swerves through an empty pocket of protesters on the streets of San Jose on Friday night, the passenger gestures out of the car and screams “Fuck you!” as they drive away.
But then the driver immediately executes a three-point turn and returns to the protesters, who hurl water bottles and bang on the windows. That’s when the driver suddenly reverses as people in the crowd scream. One of the demonstrators is run over by the rear tires. The camera catches the moment as the SUV crushes the man’s legs.
“I was sad. I was angry. I had so many mixed emotions. My blood was boiling,” protester Miguelangel “Mikey” Diaz, who witnessed the incident and shared his friend’s video of the confrontation on Twitter, told BuzzFeed News. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen someone get hit or run over — especially on purpose.”
The horrifying moment was just one of at least 17 incidents of drivers of vehicles accelerating at or into people demonstrating against police brutality since civil unrest broke out last week in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (See the end of this article for a list of incidents.)
The incidents span the country. In Tallahassee, Florida, the driver of a red SUV revved their engine before accelerating amid a crowded protest, sending one man flying over the vehicle’s hood. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the driver of an SUV towing a trailer rammed slowly through a group as two protesters were pushed along by the car’s grill. In Denver, the driver of a black car steered through a small crowd that was surrounding them, only to turn around and run over a man who had been on the car’s hood a moment before. In Gainesville, Florida, an armed man allegedly drove directly into the crowd and threatened to shoot them. In West Fargo, North Dakota, a man allegedly struck a protester and drove with him on his hood for three blocks.
As the nation’s streets become contested spaces, cars have been turned into weapons.
“I think we’ve definitely seen an increase of [vehicle rammings] happening at protests,” said Brooklyn-based activist Chinyere Tutashinda, director of the BlackOut Collective. “They’re very scary and concerning. I can’t help but get a stark reminder of what happened in Charlottesville.
“It’s being used as a weapon to bulldoze human bodies.”
Ari Weil, the deputy research director for the militant propaganda analysis team at the University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Threats, said he had tracked more than a dozen incidents last week of civilians driving into protesters, as well as four others of police doing the same, including a viral incident in Brooklyn on Saturday night involving two NYPD cars. (Police officers in New York have also been hit by cars in at least two incidents.)
While it’s still too early to determine the motive in each of the civilian cases, Weil said there has been a flood of posts online, both flippant and serious in tone, calling for protesters to be run down and celebrating the viral clips from the last week.
But according to Weil, these memes and posts can have real-world consequences if they serve to inspire lone-wolf attackers and dehumanize protesters. The Charlottesville attacker, for example, shared memes about driving into protesters prior to his deadly attack there in 2017, as did other members of the "Unite the Right" rally.
“For the right, encouragement is done in more implicit ways, through either memes that make light of running over protestors or statements that encourage it,” Weil told BuzzFeed News. “Examples include describing protesters as ‘speed bumps’ or writing, ‘If protesters get in my way, I'll run them over.’”
Weil noted two high-profile examples from leading right-wing men online in recent days: the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh and YouTuber Steven Crowder.
Left-wing demonstrators began relying on street blocking as a form of protest during the Black Lives Matter and anti–Dakota Access Pipeline movements in 2015 and 2016, according to Weil. For these protesters, halting traffic leaves citizens with no choice but to take notice of their messages.
“Street-blocking protests are a form of civil resistance meant to disrupt normal routines in order to make a political claim,” Weil said. “The goal is to make people uncomfortable and force them to engage with the demands of the aggrieved protesters.”
But as the left turned streets into political spaces, Weil said, their opponents began claiming the protesters had made themselves into “legitimate targets.” Comments about running over protesters stretch back to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016.
“The far right is taking advantage of the opportunity that protest repertoire evolved to include street blocking,” he told Vox on Monday. “They simply decided to target that.”
Politics does appear to be a factor in at least some of the incidents. In Visalia, California, occupants of a Jeep flying a “Keep America Great” flag had allegedly been taunting protesters on Saturday shortly before the driver hit two women. The driver then turned themselves in to a police station and have not yet been arrested or charged. In Bakersfield, California, a 31-year-old man was arrested for attempted murder after he reportedly rammed his Toyota RAV4 into a crowd, injuring a 15-year-old girl. Authorities believe he had been antagonizing the demonstrators and “gestured through his open window” at them prior to the incident.
Sometimes, however, the confrontations may be simple misunderstandings. Minnesota authorities said Monday they had no evidence to show that a truck driver was intentionally trying to hurt demonstrators when he drove his semi-trailer into a crowd of thousands on a Minneapolis highway on Sunday. Investigators believe driver Bogdan Vechirko was already on the highway by the time demonstrators arrived and authorities then rushed to close it. He was speeding when he finally saw the crowd and honked his horn in panic before finally slowing down and stopping. Protesters, fearing the act was intentional, surrounded the truck and pulled him from the cab.
Miraculously no one was injured in the incident, and Vechirko was released from jail without charge on Tuesday. “We don’t have any information that makes this seem like this was an intentional act,” John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said. “It wasn’t that he went around the barricades to get to the protest.”
Tutashinda, the Brooklyn activist, said some of the incidents also appear to have involved motorists who did not set out to harm demonstrators, but who instead became frustrated or scared while surrounded by protests.
“There’s a lot of different reasons and different actors, but no matter what, it’s still not a viable tactic, no matter how frustrated or scared or angry you may be in that moment,” she said. “To use your vehicle as a weapon, to hurt, and to escalate in that way — it’s very dangerous.”
For drivers who may find themselves suddenly surrounded by a crowd of protesters, Tutashinda encouraged them to become curious, rather than scared.
“For those folks who are out there and who get caught in the middle of it, take a moment to support the protest that is happening. Honk for black lives while you’re in your vehicle. Calm and center yourself in that moment,” she said. “Yes, you may be afraid, but the people who are out there are afraid and protesting.”
In a statement about the incident in San Jose on Friday, police said they had arrested Bianca Orozco, 26, for attempted murder. A family member said in a Facebook post that Orozco was trying to save her family in the car from the protesters outside.
“She was a mother scared for life and her child,” the family member said. “We ask at this time you find it in your hearts to understand when a mother is put in a position like this, you have to do what you can to save your baby.”
But police said a deputy witnessed Orozco intentionally drive her Dodge Durango over two men who then had to be hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. “The deputy believed the suspect was intentionally attempting to run over the victims,” police said in a statement. “The suspect vehicle then turned toward the protesters and deputies, and drove directly at them. One deputy fired once from his department issued handgun to stop the imminent threat.”
Diaz, the San Jose protester who tweeted the video, said he has been disappointed by some of the comments he has seen in response. “There’s people replying under in the comment saying they got what they deserved,” he said. “No one deserves to get run over at all.”
But the young Latino bank employee said witnessing the incident has inspired him to keep protesting, even if he is somewhat scared.
“I felt like it’s really important that instead of it giving me fear, it’s more important for me to go,” Diaz said. “It’s scary that stuff can happen to you, but it’s scary that every day innocent black people are losing their lives.”