Political Violence Is The New American Normal

On June 24, mere hours after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade and upended abortion rights in America, a truck driver sized up a group of protesters crossing the street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and put his foot on the gas.

The victims — all of them women — were among the last few people in a group of about 100 trying to cross a busy downtown intersection safely via the crosswalk. They described the attack as a slow-motion horror show: A visibly irritated driver maneuvered his truck around the car in front of him and then beelined it through the intersection, directly toward the protesters.

He slowed down as his bumper met with the outstretched arms of the women still in the crosswalk. But he didn’t stop.

“We made eye contact at that point. And I saw hate. Just hate,” said one of the women, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety. She spoke through tears as she continued, “He screamed at me to move, and I remember shouting ‘No,’ and he started driving. And that’s when I knew I was going to get run over.”

The driver — whose identity police haven’t made public — pushed forward, bowling the women over before he left the scene, witnesses said. Several were hospitalized, including one woman who suffered a concussion and another whose ankle had been rolled over.

Multiple high-profile members of the community attended the march and witnessed the attack, including a local bartender, a city councilwoman, a county prosecutor (who had his wife and two young daughters in tow), and a journalist. Initially, witnesses thought they might have an open-and-shut case in front of them: They had witness statements from community leaders, footage of the incident from multiple angles, and they all saw the same thing.

But in the hours and days that followed, they learned the same harsh lesson that many other communities had learned in the previous few years: The system was set up to support the driver in this situation, not the protesters they hit.

In 2021, Iowa Republicans passed a bill that effectively eliminated civil liability for drivers who hit protesters in the street, and increased various penalties for protesters. The bill was championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose own SUV driver struck a Black Lives Matter protester in the heat of the 2020 demonstrations (state police blamed the protester). While it remains to be seen how those laws might affect the case in Cedar Rapids, two women who’d been hit by the truck wondered aloud in interviews with HuffPost whether they might face charges instead of the driver.

“We made eye contact at that point. And I saw hate. Just hate.”

– A victim of the June 24 attack in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

It’s unclear whether charges will be filed at all. Cedar Rapids police made contact with the driver the day of the attack, but declined to press charges at the time, a department spokesman confirmed. The county attorney, Nick Maybanks, saw the entire incident, but he told HuffPost that his new role as a case witness meant he had to recuse himself as prosecutor. (He forwarded the case to Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams, who said his office hadn’t gone through any evidence yet, let alone made any charging decisions.)

The sobering reality now coming into focus is that the attack on this community isn’t particularly unique or surprising. Taken alongside recent incidents of political violence across America, the Cedar Rapids attack is an almost insignificant data point on a densely packed timeline.

In fact, vehicular assaults against protesters amount to a crisis in their own right. Incidents have skyrocketed since the summer of 2020, when millions of protesters took the streets to demonstrate against police violence and bigotry following the murder of George Floyd by an officer in May. Data collected by The Washington Post proved that those protests were overwhelmingly peaceful — no injuries or property damage were reported in more than 96% of events — and yet protesters across the country were met with vitriol, authoritarian crackdowns and physical violence from then-President Donald Trump and his administration.

Trump called them “vicious dogs” and “thugs,” and deployed federal troops to events, where they attacked protesters and disappeared them in unmarked vans. Fox News, meanwhile, was churning out disinformation and lies surrounding those rallies, using isolated footage and even doctored images to manufacture a false sense that entire American cities had fallen to BLM and antifa.

And the vilification worked. Everyday people really seemed to want to kill protesters: The Boston Globe analyzed 139 cases of vehicles ramming protesters in just 16 months following Floyd’s death, leading to more than 100 injuries and three deaths. The Cedar Rapids community remembers that era well, because their state was home to no fewer than four vehicular attacks against protesters in 2020 alone.

Today, political violence is a regular feature at civic events, and not just at far-right and MAGA rallies. Gun violence is an ever-present threat across the country, and even on the rare day where a mass shooting doesn’t happen, droves of armed demonstrators and militia groups show up to political events to ensure that the specter remains. Meanwhile, far-right street gangs like the Proud Boys are now mobilizing to all manner of community gatherings in service to the right wing’s various grievances.

When the GOP was up in arms about LGBTQ issues, armed Proud Boys rushed drag events, and their fascist cousins in a group called Patriot Front threatened community Pride celebrations. When the right-wing conspiracy theory of the day was that The Walt Disney Co. was grooming children, Proud Boys showed up to Disney events and threatened attendees, calling them “pedophiles.” And when Roe was overturned and liberal demonstrators filled the streets, the Proud Boys and heavily armed members of various militia groups showed up to intimidate the crowds. These incidents are accelerating as election season draws nearer.

This appears to be the new normal in America. Politically charged violence, having gone unchecked for years, is no longer a fear but an expectation for many politically active Americans. For Cedar Rapids residents, it’s not a question of if, but when.

“Obviously this is going to happen again,” said another woman struck by the truck, who asked not to be named. “I don’t know if it’ll be in Cedar Rapids, but it happens everywhere, all the time, so it will happen again, and the public response will be predictably terrible.”

She paused, then continued: “Knowing that, what I’m trying to figure out now is, what do you do after this happens? What do you do?”

Andy Campbell is the author of “We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism,” coming to bookstores on Sept. 20.

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