When a blue Jeep sped down an Aurora, Colorado, roadway in July, narrowly missing protesters, some witnesses swore the driver had put their lives at risk.
“I saw him look straight at the crowd and hit the gas,” Rebecca Wolff, a protester who spoke to police about the incident, told the Denver Post. Another protester broke a leg jumping off the raised highway to avoid the driver.
But in an hour-long press conference on Wednesday, District Attorney George Brauchler announced that he would not press charges against the driver unless presented with more evidence against him. Also Wednesday, in neighboring Denver, a different man drove a car into a crowd that was protesting Kentucky prosecutors declining to charge any officers for fatally shooting Black 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor in March.
As of Thursday evening, no charges had been filed in the Denver incident, either.
Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, Americans have spent months in the streets protesting racism and police brutality. Those same streets have also become the site of a disturbing pattern of vehicle attacks, with drivers speeding toward and sometimes striking protesters. Complicating matters are calls by lawmakers to impose harsh penalties on those who block traffic—and even to grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters under certain circumstances.
As The Daily Beast recently reported, such calls have been percolating in legislative chambers for years, their language sometimes curiously similar, like a right-wing fever dream playing on repeat. But drivers don’t always need those immunity laws. A pattern of dropped or languishing cases across the country has already seen drivers duck charges for speeding at—and sometimes ramming into—protesters.
Meanwhile, the attacks keep coming.
Ari Weil, a PhD student studying terrorism at the University of Chicago, has been monitoring car attacks since racial justice protests swept the country in late May. Between those first days of protests and Sept. 5, he’d recorded 104 incidents of people driving into protesters: 96 of them civilians and eight of them law enforcement. Of those civilian drivers, 39 had been charged, Weil found.
In other words, well under half of people who drove vehicles at protesters this year had been charged, he estimated.
Not all of those cases are necessarily malicious, Weil stressed. Five of the 96 civilian cases appear to have stemmed from someone taking a wrong turn, or encountering a protest by accident. In 48 of those cases, Weil found, the driver’s intent was not immediately apparent.
But he estimated 43 of them to be overtly malicious acts based on the driver either having known extremist associations, yelling slurs at protesters, or deliberately swerving or turning to run people down.
Other monitors of car attacks have offered slightly different figures. A protest-tracker by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a conflict-mapping non-profit, has logged 69 malicious ramming attacks from May 28 to Sept. 15. More recent incidents not captured in the Weil or ACLED dataset included collisions following Wednesday’s announcement of no charges over Breonna Taylor’s death. In addition to the Denver incident, a driver in Buffalo, New York, was filmed hitting protesters. Both cases were under investigation as of Thursday.
The discrepancies in such tallies reflect the difficulty of determining whether a vehicle attack was attempted murder, an honest mistake, or something in-between. When Brauchler declined to press charges against the Aurora Jeep driver on Wednesday, he said the driver was trying to get away from protesters. He noted, correctly, that a protester has been charged with attempted murder for firing a gun at the Jeep, although, again, the details vary according to individual accounts. The protester fired the gun after the Jeep driver started moving through the crowd, accelerating toward a “wall of moms,” two of those women told CBS4, accusing the driver of nearly killing them.
It’s the kind of murky situation that has plagued the George Floyd protests—by many accounts the largest American mass-mobilization in history.
Car attacks “in prior years have been a lot more cut-and-dry,” Weil said, noting the past use of car attacks by jihadists and the far right—most notoriously the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. During the more recent protests, however, “there are many more opportunities for motorist-protester interactions, some of which are motivated by racism and some of which are not,” he added.
The threat of vehicular homicide often has protesters looking over their shoulders, according to Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild, which monitors protests.
“This is a really dangerous trend that appears to be on the rise, where we’re seeing far-right actors using vehicles as weapons, driving into protesters,” she said, noting that, although anecdotal, car attacks do appear to be on the rise. “Protesters are aware of this. Legal support organizations like the National Lawyers Guild are aware of this, and they’re very alarmed by it.”
Some car attacks have resulted in arrests. A driver who plowed through a Bloomington, Indiana, protest, striking at least two people, was arrested two days after the incident and charged with criminal recklessness and leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury. A self-proclaimed Ku Klux Klan member was convicted last month for an attack on Black Lives Matter protesters outside Richmond, Virginia. A Seattle man accused of driving onto a closed section of highway and striking two protesters (one fatally) has been arrested and pleaded not guilty to vehicular homicide and reckless driving. A Long Island man accused of hospitalizing two protesters with his car was arrested in July, as was an alleged Iowa City car attacker who, during his arrest, told police that protesters needed an “attitude adjustment.”
But several high-profile cases have passed without charges. In Tampa, Florida, on June 21, the driver of a pickup truck was filmed cursing at protesters before driving over a median and onto the wrong side of the road to hit Jae Passmore, a prominent local activist. The driver has not been charged, although according to Passmore’s attorney Ben Crump, police know the driver’s identity.
When Passmore held an event six days later, a second car ran into the group and drove away with an injured protester on the car’s hood, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Police stopped the driver, but did not arrest them. Instead, the protester was with four counts, including felony criminal mischief.
A spokesperson for the State’s Attorney Office in the 13th Judicial Circuit on Thursday said the pickup incident was still under investigation. They added that the charges against the protester in the second incident were being dropped—but also that driver who struck them was off the hook.
“There is no evidence that either person intended to cause harm, and therefore charges are not appropriate,” the spokesperson for prosecutors said in a statement. “Both people made decisions that escalated the situation, and basic courtesy by either person could have minimized or avoided this conflict.”
A slew of these incidents remain in a bizarre state of investigative limbo. When a car full of pro-police demonstrators drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists in Manhattan’s Times Square earlier this month, the news site Gothamist was quick to name the car’s likely driver, who has posted the vehicle on pro-police pages. (A passenger also spoke to the media under her own name.) Several witnesses have gone to police about the incident. Nearly a month later, the incident remains under investigation, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney told The Daily Beast.
“Oftentimes there’s been a big delay by prosecutors deciding whether to charge people,” Weil said.
Prosecuting car attacks might become even more difficult under proposed legislation that would criminalize protesters blocking traffic or offer immunity to people who hit those protesters with cars. The most recent of those proposals, announced Monday by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, would remove liability for people who strike or kill protesters with cars if the driver is “fleeing for safety from a mob.” It’s a claim made by many such drivers, including the neo-Nazi who killed Heyer in Charlottesville.
Those proposals haven’t passed yet, and have been rejected in states like Kentucky and North Carolina. But Ellinger-Locke said even the suggestion of such laws—and the legitimacy they offer attackers—can heighten the risk of further harm.
“I think they suggest to people engaging in that kind of dangerous, harmful, potentially murderous conduct, that it’s something law enforcement supports,” she said. “I think people are seeing the introduction of these bills and feeling emboldened to take action because of them. Not only does that chill the speech of demonstrators seeking to advance their message, but I think sends a clear message that that sort of conduct is okay.”
Would-be attackers are sometimes aware of such proposals, Weil said, pointing to a Discord messaging group that planned 2017’s deadly Charlottesville rally. Some users, including the killer, James Fields Jr., spoke gleefully of the possibility of hitting anti-racist protesters, with another user writing, “I know NC law is on the books that driving over protesters blocking roadways isn’t an offense.” (The law was not, in fact, on the books, although that didn’t prevent Fields’ deadly attack.)
Weil warned that language about hitting protesters is an active part of the far-right’s meme vocabulary.
It’s also spread to conservative talk radio hosts.
When a Denver woman was filmed in May driving through a crowd of protesters and making a U-turn, allegedly with the intent to hit another, the host of a morning show on Denver’s 710 KNUS radio station reportedly said on air that the driver “ran your monkey rear-end down… You’ve got that coming.”
The apparent target of his comments, the man whom the driver allegedly made a U-turn to hit, was Black. On July 20, the driver was charged—nearly two months after the incident.
Brauchler, the district attorney who on Wednesday declined to charge the driver of the Jeep in Aurora, hosts a different show on the same station.