Drivers in a pro-Trump caravan shouted obscenities as they cruised through an intersection near Jennifer Merritt’s home in Larchmont, New York, on Sunday. Some flipped the bird at bystanders. Then one of Merritt’s neighbors saw something more alarming than rude hand gestures.
“That guy has a gun!” the woman told Merritt of a man in a black pickup truck.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and the election looms, fans of President Donald Trump have increasingly turned to vehicle parades or “Trump trains” in support of their candidate, who has openly encouraged voter intimidation. And as one of the most hotly-contested campaigns in American history careens toward the finish line, people across the country have complained of aggressive actions by the caravans, especially when they bring their bullhorns and signboards near early voting sites.
Merritt, who has already cast an early vote for Joe Biden, said she learned on social media that a Trump caravan was in her area in suburban Westchester County and that it had been blocking traffic in a nearby town. But she didn’t know the group of cars and trucks was nearing her house until she heard the sound of their horns blaring down a nearby road. She made a “split-second decision” to stand outside holding her Biden lawn sign, she explained in an interview. Another neighborhood woman stood nearby and booed the caravan, although Merritt decided to commit to a “silent protest.”
Ultimately, she told The Daily Beast, the pro-Trump drivers shouted sexist slurs at her and the other woman anyway. Then the women noticed the driver holding a handgun, Merritt recalled.
“He was pointing a gun at us while driving,” she told The Daily Beast. “He didn’t stick it out the window, it was just there and he was staring at us. Traffic was moving slowly.”
Merritt said she called 911—largely out of concern that the group was approaching a nearby early voting site where locals were lined up to cast their ballots.
“There was a long line, even though it's raining. I just thought about these people, all these people standing out there and this guy with his gun,” she said. “You can have your freedom to rally and annoy people with your loud horns or whatever, but he had a gun.”
Nancy Seligson, the town supervisor for nearby Mamaroneck (where the 911 call was routed), told The Daily Beast that police received the call, but that the parade was full of black pickup trucks that fit the description. “The decision was made to monitor the caravan until it left the town,” she said.
Merritt said she joined a larger group of neighbors when the caravan passed again. This time, she said, a couple spat at her, and multiple people issued threats, including someone who threatened to cut her head off.
“I honestly couldn't believe it,” she said. “Some people were so angry in their words, and when they were cursing at us or calling me names or calling me a piece of shit or whatever, they were spitting mad.”
Seligson said that loud trucks near the early voting line had been a persistent irritation, but probably not one amounting to illegal harassment.
“It's been an annoyance,” she told The Daily Beast. “We've had early voting here for the past nine days and we did hear several times a day people driving by on the Post Road honking their horns, screaming things. I was told that they were holding, uh, pictures of Donald Trump and making noise. I do not think that it, um, dissuaded anyone from voting. We had a long line to vote every single day while we were open for early voting, but we did hear that kind of behavior several times a day, each day when there was early voting.”
New York is not a battleground state; its electoral votes are almost certainly going to Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But the caravan Merritt encountered was just one among many that took place across the country in recent days, while voters waited outside in long lines and candidates made last-minute bids for support in key states.
A group of trucks waving Trump flags outside Austin, Texas, surrounded a Biden campaign bus on Friday and, according to a Biden campaign staffer, attempted to stop the truck on the highway or run it off the road. (The Biden campaign later canceled two associated events in the area, citing safety concerns.) Rather than condemn the actions, Trump and his surrogates repeatedly praised the drivers.
A voter in conservative Tuscarawas County, Ohio, told the Washington Post that Trump supporters with guns and bullhorns set up shop outside the county’s lone early voting site last week. The voter, a retiree, told the paper that he didn’t even mind that he could hear the bullhorns from blocks away because he respected the Trump contingent’s right to free speech.
“I’m all for that,” he said. “The thing that got me more was the members of the ‘Ohio militia’ in military garb with firearms. That’s intimidating enough.”
Police in Temecula, California, said they received complaints this weekend after a large Trump caravan drove 60 miles to rally in a sports complex that was also hosting early voting. (Police made no arrests.) And, perhaps most notoriously, during the first weekend of early voting in Virginia in September, poll-goers in Democratic-leaning Fairfax County were dismayed to see a caravan of Trump supporters drive in from outside the county and encircle the parking lot where voters were lined up. The executive director of the Fairfax County Democrats said elections officials had to escort some voters through the crowd of megaphone-wielding Trump supporters.
Not all Trump trains targeted polls—or even battleground states. In some areas, the caravans appeared to serve little function but to heckle locals. A MAGA caravan drove through the only majority-Black city in California’s Marin County this weekend. Onlookers accused participants of yelling racist slurs at children and “trying to make a statement” with their presence.
In New York City and on a New Jersey highway this weekend, Trump supporters blocked traffic; the move likely didn’t persuade any drivers in the gridlock-prone areas to vote for Trump, but they did suggest a willingness to sabotage lefty neighborhoods, as well as an apparent immunity from arrest for traffic violations. In New York City and elsewhere, caravan participants were filmed driving with tape over their license plates, preventing people from filing reports against them. One woman told Gothamist that a driver with a taped-over plate had hit her with a car, and that police had witnessed the incident but not engaged.
Some Trump trains in blue districts have turned violent. Participants in a series of Portland, Oregon, Trump trains this summer pointed paintball guns and mace at the left. As he has to the prospect of “poll watchers” and the drivers of the Austin caravan that surrounded the Biden bus, Trump appeared to give his blessing to the paintball gun-carriers, downplaying the threat of the guns. During a subsequent Trump train through the area, an anti-fascist shot and killed a Trump supporter, whom he accused of drawing a weapon on him.
In Merritt’s New York county, she said, some Trump supporters attacked her online when she posted about seeing the Trump train participant with a gun. One man in a local Facebook group, whom a July news article identified as a cop in a nearby town that would not have responded to Merritt's 911 call, shared a screenshot of Merritt’s Facebook post about the incident and called her account “fake news.”
Another member of the Facebook group replied, calling for Merritt’s arrest.