As protesters took to the streets in Indiana on July 6 to decry an alleged hate crime at Lake Monroe, a red Toyota Corolla sped toward them, dragging two protesters along, on the hood and on the side of the car. Both suffered non-life-threatening injuries. A few days later, a 66-year-old white woman was arrested and charged in the incident.

Tragically, this was not an isolated crime. Over the past months, as renewed anti-police-violence protests have spread across the U.S., dozens of drivers have accelerated into the crowds. In Seattle, a 24-year-old protester died and another was seriously injured after a car struck them on a closed highway.

Over the past months, as renewed anti-police-violence protests have spread across the U.S., dozens of drivers have accelerated into the crowds.

In the U.S., vehicle rammings gained popularity on the far-right as a violent anti-protest tactic during the early waves of Black Lives Matter street-blocking protests in 2015. Memes online then normalized this behavior and encouraged drivers to take matters into their own hands. But these memes are not limited to the dark corners of the internet, and neither are these attacks. We are now seeing everyone from an avowed extremist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a reported Ku Klux Klan member in Lakeside, Virginia, to an older woman in Indiana charged in this kind of attack.

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So why have so many lone actors of so many differing ideologies taken up this tactic recently? We can’t speculate as to what motivates the drivers, but we do know the far-right is once again encouraging the violence, often through the use of online memes and jokes about targeting protesters.

Over the past two years, I have studied vehicle rammings as part of a broader project on the diffusion of terrorist tactics. For the past month, I have tracked these incidents and constructed a database of incident date, location, charges and motive. From May 27 to July 7, I cataloged 72 incidents of cars driving into protesters across 52 different cities, including both civilian and law enforcement vehicles. Less than half of the drivers included in my analysis have been charged so far.

A variety of drivers are behind the wheel. First are the clear white supremacists, as reports about a KKK member in Virginia and a Bakersfield, California, driver with a neo-Nazi tattoo illustrate. Next are those who yell “White lives matter” or “All lives matter” before driving in. A driver in Illinois faces a hate crime charge for allegedly driving into protesters. In Denver and Jackson, Michigan, among other cities, drivers have turned around to hit protesters a second time.

Not all of these incidents are motivated by racism. Some are angry drivers, such as a Seattle man who angrily sped through protesters to his condo’s parking garage. Several other cases have been ruled accidents, such as the Minneapolis tanker driver who took a wrong turn or a driver in Cincinnati following his GPS.

In other words, we don’t know why many of these incidents happened, but we know enough to see a clear pattern of malicious behavior.

In other words, we don’t know why many of these incidents happened, but we know enough to see a clear pattern of malicious behavior.

Vehicle ramming is a relatively recent phenomenon. I analyzed 127 incidents that occurred between 1999 and 2017 from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database and found that the vast majority (85 percent) happened in 2014 through 2017. It is also a tool of lone actors; my analysis of the data shows the majority were carried out by individuals who were not formal members of terrorist organizations.

Interestingly, they appear to have occurred in waves, such as incidents involving Palestinians in Israel, jihadis around the world and the far-right in Western Europe and North America. Incels — misogynistic, “involuntary celibate” men with a violent subset — have also used the tactic. What explains this most recent wave?

The online environment that encourages far-right ideology also encourages this tactic, which is not a coincidence. While ISIS focused on instructional material about how to cause mass indiscriminate casualties, the far-right deploys memes that normalize the tactic by arguing protesters in the street are giving up their rights.

A meme shared 5,000 times on Facebook since early June features Jackie Chan with the text: “If your lives matter so much, why do you stand in the middle of the road?” A Facebook post shared 10,000 times since early June features an image of the Charlottesville attack accompanied by the caption, “Don’t whine when you become nothing more than a fleshy speed bump.”

This creates an environment where, even among nonextremists, people “think that any protester hit in the street has it coming,” as J.J. MacNab, a fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, described to USA Today.

Importantly, memes also dehumanize the protesters. Calling protesters “animals” and “speed bumps” is a method of moral disengagement that makes driving into them easier. Similarly, the Charlottesville driver, James Alex Fields Jr., was able to justify his attack afterward by labeling the victim’s mother an “anti-white communist.”

As a reminder, these memes aren’t new: Fields shared a meme saying, “You have the right to protest, but I’m late for work,” twice on his Instagram account three months before his attack

Nor are they particularly hard to find, surfacing on social media and even in mainstream outlets. In January 2017, the Daily Caller shared a video of several vehicle rammings, writing: “Study the technique; it may prove useful in the next four years.” The author bragged on Facebook that the video had received 2 million views in 24 hours. (Both the Daily Caller and Fox Nation, which aggregated the post, took it down after criticism.)

GOP state legislators also attempted to make it harder to punish drivers. In 2017, bills were proposed in six states that would shield drivers who hit protesters. None became law, but they made an impression on the right. In the planning chat for the Unite the Right rally, a user wrote: “I know NC law is on the books that driving over protesters blocking roadways isn’t an offense.” In June, a post on the largest neo-Nazi website lamented that so-called self defense laws still hadn’t passed, while sharing news of a Detroit police SUV driving into protesters.

Lastly, members of law enforcement in the U.S. have not always discouraged the violence. During the initial wave in 2015 to 2017, at least three police officers posted on social media encouraging driving into protesters. This was repeated over the past month, with memes being shared by a New Orleans police officer, a Washington state detective, an Okanogan County commissioner, a West Virginia fire chief and a Minnesota mayor.

Audio reportedly from a New York Police Department scanner featured a person recommending to just “run them over.” Over the last month, there have been seven occurrences of police officers driving into protesters, including the widely circulated video of two NYPD SUVs driving into protesters in Brooklyn.

The tragic death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville made vehicle rammings a national headline, but the tactic has not gone away — and, indeed, appears to be getting worse. Once again, jokes are being shared online that encourage this action, and these memes have a real, dangerous impact when they filter down to civilian and law enforcement drivers.




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