On May 30 in Tallahassee, Florida, three white people in a red pickup truck yelled at protesters demonstrating against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, revved their engine, and drove into the crowd. That same day, two NYPD SUVs rammed into crowds of protesters in Brooklyn. More vehicle-ramming incidents happened the next day in downtown Los Angeles and Boston, as well as in Oklahoma, during a march memorializing the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. There, the driver of a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer reportedly threatened marchers with a gun and drove through the group. On June 3, a protester in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was hit by a Jeep and claimed it was done on purpose, his claim backed by galling video footage. The same day, a car hit several people at a protest in Cincinnati and sped off. Women protesting in Memphis, Tennessee, were also hit by a truck that day. That weekend, a man in Pensacola, Florida, jumped on top of a car that appeared to be heading straight for protesters blocking traffic on the Three Mile Bridge. This past Sunday, people drove their cars into protesters in Lansing, Michigan, and Seattle. In the latter incident, the driver got out and shot a demonstrator. Also on Sunday, a driver rammed into protesters in Richmond, Virginia, and was found to be an admitted Ku Klux Klan leader. The list of similar incidents goes on and on and on and on.
Cars striking demonstrators have become an unavoidable, undeniable part of our nationwide moment of anti-racism protests. As the rallies continue, the violence keeps repeating. A black man in Bakersfield, California, died on Sunday after being hit by a white driver during a rally. Though charges have not been brought, witnesses have alleged that the driver was trying to hit protesters.
Why is this happening so often, especially now? Vehicular attacks are not a new phenomenon. Throughout the past two decades, they were frequently employed by fundamentalists in the Middle East. The method’s popularity was, in part, a result of its uncomplicated nature—as my colleague Joshua Keating wrote back in 2014, its “crude simplicity makes it a tactic more likely to be employed by relatively unskilled ‘lone wolves’ than organized and trained terrorist operatives.” For self-justified vigilantes, it’s an easy means of striking terror—any one person can do it if they have an agenda and a vehicle. We’re now seeing this in the current spate of protests, as we saw it previously in bigoted attacks within the U.S., like the 2018 synagogue collision in L.A. and the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a counterprotest against 2017’s white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally.
The recent, American versions of these incidents strike a specific contrast: a gory reclamation of the streets that protesters have been taking nonviolently for years. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the uprising following the police killing of Philando Castile, activists adopted a new method of mass disruption, of “going on the interstates over and over and shutting down traffic.” This helped increase attention to their causes—and it heightened anger against them. Memes encouraging cars to run over street protesters soon spread among online groups of police and far-right extremists—Heyer’s killer took inspiration from this culture. And as researcher Ari Weil noted to Vox, the latest car and truck attacks are also being celebrated by extremists on Twitter and Facebook.* When protesters march against racism, a small number of people—made far more dangerous because of their chosen weapon—feel compelled to “run them down.”
Some of these drivers, like the Virginia KKK leader, have been explicit white supremacists. But these motorists don’t need to be blatantly racist for their actions to be shocking. In part that’s because in recent years, Republican state legislators across the country have proposed laws giving leeway to drivers who “unintentionally” hit protesters blocking roads, and you can see such deference to motorists repeating itself now. Look at what happened in Colorado Springs, where the police department arrested the driver who hit a woman and continued to bowl through the crowd, but then claimed the driver was “assaulted by protestors” and that the woman who was struck brought her injury upon herself.
Some of these cases might be dismissed as road rage rather than outright racism—the point of blocking a highway, after all, is to disrupt the normal movement of commuters in order to make a political point. But all of these incidents underscore a long history of racism and cars that has shaped the cities that are now erupting in protest, from the urban renewal that razed black neighborhoods in order to build highways to the disinvestment that followed the fleeing of white city residents to the car-enabled suburbs in the second half of the 20th century. If we’re going to have a national reckoning about racism in policing, then automobile attackers have unintentionally highlighted a related injustice we should also revisit: that our very infrastructure enables racist violence, too. (And that’s saying nothing of the vast disparity in car ownership and access to alternative transportation options between white Americans and people of color, a measure perniciously linked to prosperity in America, or of cars’ impact on climate change, which affects poorer and often more diverse communities first and hardest.)
What we’ve seen as the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racism demonstrations have raged on is an unprecedented intersection: a long-fighting racial justice movement in an auto-centric world now left with significantly reduced car use. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. Streets with fewer cars have helped protesters to show up in vast numbers and make an unavoidable mark in the first place. And in the midst of unimaginable mass death, cities all over the world have envisioned ways to create healthier, safer, more community-oriented places. Oakland and Seattle have embraced open streets, while other metropolises have introduced more bike lanes and announced plans to restructure their cities to create closer, tighter communities. There are already measures cities have taken to stanch the more toxic effects of cars, including congestion pricing and caps on ride-share vehicles. As is implied in these actions, living spaces made to fit the needs of drivers over everyone else do not need to be the future. Now that we’re talking about reallocating some of the resources currently put to policing, that conversation should also include transportation and safety—as in, more car-free streets, more permanent pedestrian zones, denser and more accessible city plans, and more viable transit options to help close the disparities in transportation access between white Americans and people of color. And these plans need to be implemented in a way that does not reinforce the very racist structures that a century of car-centric building has given us.
None of this is to say that any of these fixes will do away with racism, or that getting more people out of cars and off highways will stop the few people who chose to use their vehicles for violence. Still, I can’t think of a better retort to the person who sees a crowd of people protesting racism and wants to use their vehicle to stifle their righteous dissent: We belong on these streets, and your car doesn’t.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to The Gist on Apple Podcasts or listen below.