The American offshoot of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ which has wreaked havoc in Canada’s capital promises to halt traffic outside Washington, DC on Saturday, but exact plans remained vague on Friday as the group carried out its last pit stop in Maryland.
The convoy, organized on the pro-Trump and anti-vaccine channels on the Telegram messaging app, has picked up hundreds of cars and several trucks since the group pulled out of a rural parking lot in Adelanto, California on February 22.
According to extremist researchers following the movement, the convoy now consists of several dozen semi-trailer trucks and hundreds of cars. The group is performing in Hagerstown, Maryland on Friday and preparing for its final protest somewhere in Washington, DC on Saturday.
The convoy’s live broadcasters repeatedly referred to “blocking the Beltway”, the 64-mile highway that circles Washington, but specific plans were kept under wraps by group leaders.
One organizer, Dan Fitzegerald, who live-streamed his journey in the convoy on YouTube, said Friday morning: “I can tell you now that there will be select trucks going to the White House.”
The convoy was originally formed to protest mask and vaccine mandates, which have largely been repealed as the omicron variant has dwindled in recent weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that the use of indoor masks is no longer necessary in most of the United States
A dozen Telegram groups that planned the rallies amassed tens of thousands of followers, many of whom posted messages saying they believed their convoy had directly contributed to the repeal of the mandate.
The group’s demands are now vague and tied to what they call “responsibility”, according to Sara Aniano, an extremism researcher who has spent the last month following the convoy in her Telegram conversations.
“It could mean financial responsibility. It could be a physical liability. It could be a legal liability. Their inability to distinguish exactly what it means is where the problem lies,” said Aniano, who recently published a report on QAnon’s growth after January 6 for the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a London-based non-profit group.
But as its Covid mission grew less clear, the group’s channels turned to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where conspiracy thinking flourished. As some members of the group chastised Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion, QAnon and anti-vaccine contingents within the groups have seized on a false conspiracy theory that the war is a cover for a military operation supported by former President Donald Trump in Ukraine.
The conspiracy theory, which is baseless and has its roots in QAnon mythology, alleges that Trump and Putin are secretly working together to prevent Dr. Anthony Fauci from building bioweapons in Ukraine and that the bombings in Ukraine targeted the secret labs. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a prime target of far-right conspiracy theories last year.
Aniano said she was concerned about QAnon’s overt messaging in the group that has recently grown in size.
The Convoy added some of QAnon’s most extreme adherents: a group that had gathered in Dallas because they believed that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999, was still alive and would reveal himself at the site where his father, former President John F. Kennedy, was shot. This group joined the convoy as it passed through Texas.
During a nighttime convoy stop, where rally attendees deliver speeches over a loudspeaker as they eat and refuel, some attendees recited “Where We Go One We Go All,” QAnon’s slogan .
Aniano said the vague and disturbing message was disturbing, pointing to a Friday morning Telegram article that read: “We cannot fail. We are not going to fail. We’ll fix that.
“In their fantasy, Trump comes back and military tribunals start on Covid testing,” Aniano said. “But I don’t think they know what they want. They’re just crazy and they want a reason to express that.