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When Drivers Attack Protesters

A man in a truck hit five people at a residential school march. Police need to look deeper, says an extremism expert.

Jen St. Denis 13 Jun 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

In the wake of an incident in Mission, B.C. where a man drove his pickup truck through a residential school march and hit five people, an expert on political violence says it’s important that police fully investigate all incidents of drivers running into protests or marches to determine whether the incident was a “politically motivated vehicle ramming attack.”

Researchers have documented hundreds of incidents of cars driving into people who are protesting in the United States, and memes and videos about driving into protests have proliferated on social media in the past few years. Many of those incidents have occurred at Black Lives Matters protests.

“These memes are dangerous as they legitimize PM-VRA as defensible course of conduct in the face of political disagreements,” said Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, a professor of terrorism and political violence at Leiden University.

Some of the incidents that were at first assumed to have been politically motivated have later been found to have been accidents or involved inebriated drivers, Veilleux-Lepage said, so “it is crucial that law enforcement investigate such incidents to determine their nature.”

On June 4,* a group of Indigenous people were walking on a highway near Mission to raise awareness about residential schools in a walk organized by the Crazy Indian Brotherhood. As the marchers were turning from the highway to a road to finish their walk at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, a man in a blue pickup truck drove past march organizers who wore safety vests and carried stop signs, according to witnesses and video of the incident.

People were walking in one lane of a two-lane highway, said Garrett Dan, a Crazy Indian Brotherhood member who was at the march. While march organizers had asked the RCMP for help with the march, they hadn’t received a response, so they were relying on qualified volunteers to control traffic.

While several march organizers tried to stop the man, he continued driving on the side of the road where the marchers were, and hit and injured five people. The driver then drove away from the scene, according to witnesses and video.

Video from the aftermath of the incident shows that one of the people hit by the driver was left with a bloody hand. Garrett Dan, a Crazy Indian Brotherhood member and one of the organizers of the march, said five men were hurt as they tried to prevent the man from proceeding. Their injuries ranging from soft tissue damage to concussions after the driver hit them, and two of the people injured sought treatment in hospital.

Dan said the way the driver behaved was terrifying, especially because there were women carrying babies, children and Elders walking in the march.

Dan said the driver told march organizers “that he can hit anybody he wants and he'll drive through anybody. And then he was telling us, you guys could take all the pictures and all the videos you want, all you’re going to do is make me famous.”

Witnesses to the event as well as the wider public have been dismayed by the initial reaction from police. Hours after the event happened, and before police had spoken to the driver, Mission RCMP said in a statement that the incident appeared to have been a case of an “impatient driver” who didn’t want to wait for the march to pass by. Police also said it didn’t appear the driver’s actions were targeted or “had anything specifically to do with the people marching for their cause.”

But witnesses have told media that the driver did use racial slurs such as “dirty Indians” as he was arguing with march participants.

Some witnesses have also questioned why police haven’t yet taken their statements or accepted offers to share video of the incident.

A 77-year-old man has now come forward to police and his truck was seized by the RCMP. He has not yet been charged with any crime.

The RCMP told The Tyee it takes time to speak to witnesses, verify video and other material from social media and build a strong case for prosecution. Officers have now interviewed 20 witnesses and have held a public meeting at Cheam First Nation to explain how the investigation is proceeding, according to the force.

Dan isn’t satisfied with that explanation. There are multiple witnesses to the incident, and video footage showing what happened.

“We definitely want the work to be done a little bit faster,” he said.

“If it was anybody else that has a different colour skin, it'd be a different story. If I drove through a crowd of people like that, and if I hit even one person, they would have hunted me down.”

In February 2022, it took just two days for police to charge a man who drove into a crowd of “freedom convoy” protesters in Winnipeg and hit four people.

It’s not hard to find social media comments calling for violence against protesters in response to B.C. news stories about protests that block a road. Comments about driving into protesters and memes that show cars driving into crowds are also common, as are suggestions that protesters be flogged or have hoses turned on them.

“Everyone drive through them… your all keyboard warriors lol… see what happens when people do something without fear!!” wrote one commenter in response to a 2020 Global News story about protesters blocking traffic in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs’ opposition to a gas pipeline.

Veilleux-Lepage said memes that glorify running protesters over have proliferated on far-right corners of the internet for a long time. Before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, “‘Run Them Over’ memes spread through comments sections on YouTube videos, blog posts and news stories depicting confrontation between frustrated drivers and protesters,” Veilleux-Lepage said.

“Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s former website, the Daily Caller, even posted a video compilation of cars plowing through protesters, instructing readers to study the technique.”

During the Charlottesville rally, a self-described white supremacist hit counter protester Heather Heyer with his car, killing her. The Daily Caller video was taken down after the Charlottesville rally, although not before being viewed 20,000 times.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020, Black Lives Matters protests spread across the United States. It became disturbingly common for drivers to drive into those protests.

Some of the incidents were later found to be accidents, but Veilleux-Lepage said his research team has tracked over 100 events since 2020 that meet the criteria for a politically-motivated vehicle attack.

Const. Harrison Mohr told The Tyee that police will try to determine whether the driver had a specific motive, as well as whether there were “aggravating or mitigating circumstances.”

“All of those factors and more are being examined by our investigative team, and any evidence of a possible motivation will be highlighted in the package we provide to the BC Prosecution Service for charge assessment,” Mohr said in an email. (In British Columbia, police recommend charges to Crown prosecutors, who then determine whether to lay charges.)

Dan said it’s common to hear racial slurs or for people to make remarks like “you guys got to stop this march, this is bullshit.” Some social media comments about the incident on June 4 have accused march participants of “crying wolf.”

“If you take a look and understand why we're doing what we're doing, then you wouldn't be saying anything about crying wolf,” Dan said. “We have purpose with what we're doing, and we're looking after our people, just like Black Lives Matters.”

The truth Dan needs people to understand is that two residential schools operated in Mission, with the newest school closing in 1996. And that what happened to children at those schools was a crime, part of a colonial system that systematically abused children, tore families apart and had long-lasting effects on generations of Indigenous people.

On a tour of St. Mary’s Residential School in 2022, Sts’ailes First Nation Chief Ralph Leon Jr., who was forcibly taken to the school when he was 10-years-old, discovered a jail cell that looked out onto a playground.

Dan’s mother, aunts and uncles all attended the school.

“I went to a healing circle for residential school when I was in my early 20s with my mom,” Dan said. “I heard every single story…. I will never forget everything that I took in there.”

* Story updated on June 14 at 2:08 p.m. to correct the day the march took place.  [Tyee]

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