Editor’s Note 9/24/20: This story was updated to reflect the decision not to charge the Jeep driver who drove through a protest in Aurora in July. This story was also updated to include an additional incident in Denver on September 23.
In a widely circulated video taken in Denver on May 28, the first day of Denver’s Black Lives Matter protests, the driver of a black SUV accelerates through a crowd gathered around her car. A man falls from the hood, and as he staggers to keep his balance, the woman behind the wheel swerves across two lanes and hits him with her vehicle.
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It’s a scene that’s become a familiar during recent demonstrations in Colorado and across the country: Between May 27 and July 25, drivers have taken their cars through protests or counter-protests at least 85 times in the United States, according to Ari Weil, deputy research director at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats. Civilians were behind the wheel 77 of those times; the other seven, the driver was a police officer. At least six have taken place in Colorado—including an incident on September 23 in which a driver struck protestors with his car during a rally for Breonna Taylor.
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint how large an increase the United States has seen in so-called vehicle-ramming incidents since the Black Lives Matter protests began this summer (no systematic data on this scenario was collected in previous years), Weil says there was a clear increase in late May and early June. Experts suggest multiple factors for the disturbing uptick.
“We don’t have access to a person’s soul”
Using a car or truck as a weapon isn’t unique to 2020. A 2018 report from San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute identified vehicle ramming as an increasingly common terrorism tactic. ISIS and Al Qaeda, in particular, encourage followers to drive into unsuspecting pedestrians. The rationale is as simple as it is ruthless: Obtaining a car is easier (and less likely to raise suspicion) than buying guns or explosives, and radicalized acolytes need little-to-no training or planning to carry out the attack.
Tragically, these attacks have been successful. A 19-ton cargo truck driven by an ISIS follower killed 86 in Nice, France, in 2016, and eight people died in New York City’s Hudson River Park when a driver barreled down a pedestrian and bike path in 2017. The United Kingdom, Sweden, and Spain, among other countries, have also experienced similar violence.
Determining motive for these attacks in the past had typically been relatively easy. The driver in New York City had an ISIS flag in his truck, and the Islamic State took responsibility for the rampage in France. But according to Brian Michael Jenkins, director of Mineta’s Transportation Security Center and co-author of the 2018 report, the incidents during the Black Lives Matter protests are different. “These people aren’t following direct exhortations,” Jenkins says. “It’s tricky to determine motive. We don’t have access to a person’s soul.”
Jennifer Watson, the woman behind the wheel of the black SUV in Denver, was charged—two months after the incident—with third-degree assault, defined by Colorado law as knowingly or recklessly inflicting bodily injury on a person. Although many who saw the video point to the dramatic swerve Watson made as a sign of intent to cause harm, her lawyer painted a different picture in a statement posted on his firm’s website: “She was alone in her car with her dog when she was surrounded by people who began kicking and hitting her car and taunting and yelling at her. While stopped, a man jumped up onto the hood of her car and her windshield was smashed in two places. She was terrified and fearful for her safety.”
It’s equally difficult to determine motive in several other Colorado incidents. In Colorado Springs, a driver steered a Jeep onto a sidewalk to circumvent a Black Lives Matter demonstration blocking an intersection on June 3. In the video, protesters surround the car; the driver ultimately pushes through the crowd and injures a woman who was subsequently taken to the hospital. The next day, in Alamosa, a protester named James Edward Marshall IV shot the driver of a pickup truck when the car came toward the crowd (Marshall faces charges of attempted murder in the second degree, among others; the driver of the pickup remains in a coma). Neither drivers’ motive has been determined.
In Aurora, on July 25, the driver of a blue-green Jeep sped through demonstrators marching on I-225. A protester shot at the Jeep, and bullets ricocheted, injuring two other protesters. According to a press release from the Aurora Police Department, the driver told officers his vehicle was surrounded by protesters, who were yelling and hitting the car. He also said a white pickup truck struck his Jeep during the encounter. His decision to drive through the crowd, he says, was fueled by fear and a desire to escape. District Attorney George Brauchler announced on September 23 that the driver would not be charged, at least for now. The alleged shooter, Samuel Young, faces four charges of attempted murder. The Aurora Police Department did not respond to 5280’s requests for comment.
Some eyewitness reports raise questions about the Jeep driver’s story: Monica Machon, a 36-year-old Lakewood resident who works in marketing, attended the march that day. “The energy was really good,” she says. “It was peaceful. Some people that had tried to get on to the highway saw what was happening, stopped, and made a barrier with their cars at the on-ramp before getting out to join us.”
Machon and her boyfriend, Kevin Holtclaw, were walking along the side of that blockaded on-ramp near Mimi’s Café and a Chili’s restaurant when they saw the blue-green Jeep jump the curb to go around the barrier and get onto I-225. Machon saw the driver and passenger give the protestors the middle finger.
Such a gesture is one of the markers Weil looks for when deciding how to categorize a ramming incident. Of the 84 he’s studied, he believes 33, including the one in Denver, were malicious based on certain factors: association with extremists, yelling slurs at protesters, swerving to hit someone, and taking a second pass through a crowd. Weil says four were genuine mistakes. “There’s a guy in Cincinnati who took a wrong turn and wound up in a protest,” he says. “He was lost, didn’t know what was going on, but he found his way out eventually. That was a true accident.”
In the 40 other civilian cases, including the Jeep incident in Aurora, Weil is waiting for more information from the legal system to determine motive. But court proceedings aren’t always guaranteed. So far, 36 civilian drivers of the 77 have been charged: Two with attempted murder, three with hit-and-runs, 17 with assault, and 18 with reckless endangerment or driving. Two assault charges also came with hate crime charges.
Weil is also not prepared to draw conclusions from the race and gender of the drivers, though he notes that not all drivers have been white and 85 percent have been men. Not every protest has been for racial justice, either. In Eaton, Colorado, a man drove through a Blue Lives Matter rally on July 25 and was charged with seven counts of attempted first-degree assault, seven counts of felony menacing, and reckless driving, according to CBS Denver.
“You’re seeing them as an inconvenience rather than a person.”
If the recent rise in motorist-protester conflicts isn’t part of a top-down terrorism threat, what’s causing the spike? Part of the reason is that there are more protestors in the streets this summer, and therefore more opportunity for motorist-pedestrian conflict. Jenkins also believes some of these drivers are responding to “soft encouragement,” such as social media posts and memes about hitting protesters. Weil agrees—he’s observed such posts circulating on far-right social media groups on Reddit and 4chan, with certain jokes bleeding into mainstream conservative spheres. “There’s an online meme culture around driving through protesters,” Weil says. “I would contend that it makes it easier for someone to go through with it if they’re joking about it online.”
The “Run Them Over” message became popular in far-right circles in 2015 and 2016, Weil says, after a few drivers struck Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as Indigenous peoples blocking the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. After right-wing extremist James Alex Fields deliberately drove into a crowd protesting the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, sympathizers, and some police officers, were scrutinized for spreading violent memes containing phrases like “Black Lives Splatter.” A ProPublica investigation later found that, while planning the Unite the Right rally, white supremacists had made comments about using cars to run over opponents.
Some people, including certain officers, have continued engaging in such language. Keith Wrede, a sergeant with the Colorado Springs Police Department, was temporarily suspended after using a fake profile to comment “KILL THEM ALL” and “KILL EM ALL” on a livestream of a protest in late June. CSPD Chief Vince Niski wrote a letter to the public calling the comments “unprofessional, distasteful, and not reflective of our department,” but defended his decision not to outright fire Wrede, saying he did not want to deprive the community of a good officer over an error in judgement.
Weil believes the dehumanizing nature of these memes could help lower a driver’s inhibitions. He points to a grotesque line about turning protesters into “fleshy speed bumps,” a phrase that’s appeared in social media posts since the 2020 protests began. “If you’re describing someone as a speed bump, you’re seeing them as an inconvenience rather than a person.” But he emphasizes that the memes aren’t created by white supremacist groups to order attacks, but instead random individuals online. Says Weil: “It’s entirely bottom-up.”
Jenkins describes this kind of information dissemination as the “contagion effect” and says the memes spread even to people who wouldn’t identify as right-wing in their political beliefs. Some are angry or annoyed with protesters and recall seeing news reports of others driving through crowds. “We’re not seeing premeditation to kill,” Jenkins says, though two people, Diaz Love in Seattle and Robert Forbes in Bakersfield, California have been killed in vehicle rammings since protests began. “What we’re seeing here is premeditation to display belligerence.”
Can protesters be protected?
Police departments have limited ability in protecting protesters from that belligerence. One option? “They can treat it how they would treat a rowdy celebration after a team wins the Super Bowl,” Weil says. “In those situations, it’s the police’s job to cordon off the streets to prevent anybody from driving through.” But he points out that some protests are spontaneous and could leave officers scrambling to secure an area.
Prosecutors could also bring charges to drivers with heftier jail time to deter these incidents, Weil says. Conversely, officers could fine protesters for being in the street. When 5280 asked the Denver Police Department what it’s doing to protect protesters from vehicles, Doug Schepman with the media relations unit responded via email: “First and foremost, we strongly discourage demonstrators from standing in a roadway or attempting to block vehicular traffic as this poses a significant safety risk to the demonstrators and all road users. While circumstances vary, officers sometimes block/re-route traffic away from protestors helping to prevent this safety concern.”
In the email, Schepman also encouraged motorists to, “Be aware of their surroundings and look further down the road for potential issues to avoid—particularly in the areas around the State Capitol and Civic Center Park where most of the protest activity has occurred.”
For protesters like Machon, the potential for an encounter with a motorist will not deter her from taking part in advocating for racial justice. “I know fighting for change can be dangerous,” Machon says, “but if we all just quit, nothing is going to change. If I have kids, I want to make sure I was an active participant in fighting for their equality.”