The recent spate of vehicle rammings in the wake of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests is a surge unique to the USA, and unprecedented internationally. It also indicates a dangerous and worrying trend that threatens the right to peaceful assembly as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
A new report, Metal Against Marchers 2020, from the Mineta Transportation Institute also suggests, however, that the trend is not as bad people think at the moment because, unlike the vehicle rammings studied before, the intention has not yet been to kill people, but rather intimidate.
Prompted by the disparities in the total numbers of vehicle ramming incidents, the report’s authors, Brian Michael Jenkins and Bruce R Butterworth, reviewed the wave of reported vehicle assaults and other vehicle-related events that have occurred since the protests began in late May 2020.
They examined 52 vehicle-related incidents at protests, including those by Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter rallies and one demonstration supporting President Donald Trump. Nine of them were dismissed as clearly being accidental encounters. Of the remaining 43 more closely examined, 19 were clearly malicious, and another 16 possibly malicious.
Researchers also noted that some of the characteristics that made past ramming campaigns deadly were a premeditation to kill, the use of large commercial vehicles or very high speeds and then continuing the action using other methods such as bombs and incendiaries, such as seen in China.
After examining videos and accounts in the media as part of their latest research, the pair concluded that although there were some similarities with terrorist vehicle ramming attacks, there were also important differences.
“Not all of the encounters between drivers and protesters appear to be hostile, but it is hostility, more than political aim, that seems to propel the confrontations and collisions against protesters,” explained Jenkins.
“There is little evidence of planning and with hundreds or thousands of people on the streets and highways, some incidents start with drivers encountering protestors accidentally. Others reflect confused or frightened drivers. Still others result from angry encounters that turn violent—a form of road rage. The malicious attacks display emotion, anger, and contempt for the protesters and their causes, but the encounters appear to be more about intimidation than about premeditated murder,” continues Jenkins.
He is quick to add that this observation is by no means intended to mitigate the drivers’ responsibility or suggest that they are less guilty. Often their actions, which sometimes ended in injuries and death in one case (and possibly two more), were the direct consequence of deliberately seeking confrontation.
The report also found that exhortations on the Internet encourage vehicle attacks while memes circulating on social media or displayed on T-shirts display callous contempt for the victims.
“While it is difficult to connect any specific incident with these messages, they create a hostile atmosphere,” said Butterworth. “It is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure the protection of those exercising the right of peaceful assembly while rigorously enforcing the law. Perceptions of bias corrode respect for the law,” he adds.
Given that the United States has seen more than 10,000 protests in 2020 involving tens of millions of protesters and the strong emotions the protests evoke, the small number of incidents involving vehicles and protesters suggests that police, often under difficult conditions, are managing to separate protesters and vehicles.
“However, the trend is an assault on an important right in our democracy and it is dangerous. It could suddenly turn very lethal, and that is what is worrying,” said Butterworth.
The report calls on police and organizers to work together to prevent what they describe as the potential for a serious loss of life.
MTI’s previous research showed that incidents with the highest number of fatalities occur when attackers are able to plow into public gatherings or people walking on partially pedestrianized streets. In effect, a demonstration or protest march pedestrianized a street, potentially exposing a lot of people to danger. It takes only one individual extremist to create a tragedy involving hundreds of casualties, which could inflame the country.
The full report can be read here: https://transweb.sjsu.edu/research/SP1020-Metal-Against-Marchers
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Brian Michael Jenkins is the Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s Allied Telesis National Transportation Security Center and since 1997 has directed the Institute’s continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorism and other serious forms of crime.
Bruce R. Butterworth is a Senior Transportation Security Researcher at MTI and former Director of Aviation Security Operations at the Federal Aviation Administration. Bruce has taken a leading role in creating MTI’s unique database of attacks on public surface transportation.
ABOUT THE MINETA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE
At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nation's transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. MTI was founded in 1991 and is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.