A rowdy convoy of truckers is descending on the Beltway outside of Washington, D.C., presenting itself as an organic reaction to mask and vaccine mandates. But the official group bankrolling all that diesel is far from a grassroots organization devoted to truckers.
As of Wednesday, the conservative dark-money organization American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedoms had raised $464,731 for “the People’s Convoy”—as the protesters have branded themselves. That amount has nearly tripled over the last few days, and is expected to climb significantly over the coming weeks.
According to the AFCLF, which has also pushed false claims about the 2020 election and raised money for election deniers, “100% OF THE DONATIONS GO TO SUPPORTING THE CONVOY!”
“Convoy up, America — the donate button is going toward the funding of the ride to Freedom: we are going to take back our country for ourselves and future generations!” the site says.
The money will “reimburse fuel and hard costs of the trucker,” the group notes, adding that “the fund is being handled by volunteer accountants and overseen by a law firm.”
Better yet, because the group is a nonprofit organized under section 501(c)3 of the tax code, all gifts are tax-deductible—and donors can remain anonymous.
Reached for comment, AFCLF chair Chris Marston did not explain how the funding would work, or how participants would qualify for and access money, saying everything came together too quickly to establish rules.
“Trucker leaders are on finance committee to determine where needs are but methods depend on the nature of expense,” Marston said over text message. “This all came together too fast to have pre determined rules so we setup a committee with Lawyer, account, and trucker oversight.” [sic]
Marston said the funds wouldn’t cover return trips after the rally, and inserted a flake of distance between his group and the event itself.
“We don’t have agreements with truckers on destination plans,” Marston explained. “We are supporting fuel, food, signage and basics for their journey,” he said, adding that his group had also “coordinated with local authorities along the path to be cooperative.” He did not clarify which authorities they were, or their jurisdictions.
In addition to the fundraising, Marston said, the AFCLF would also provide “guidance on how to stay peaceful and be unified in messaging,” and would coordinate volunteers.
“That’s the gist,” he said.
But in its first year of operation, AFCLF has already developed an ominous reputation.
Last July, Marston’s group hosted a fundraiser to support Matt DePerno, a Michigan attorney who was referred to authorities just weeks earlier for allegedly scamming donors to his outlandish legal effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
But while AFCLF self-identifies as “trans-partisan”—and Marston claims its membership includes many Democrats—the top issues on its website read like a MAGA voter’s dream platform: grievances about the 2020 election, critical race theory, cancel culture, big tech, school boards, and forced vaccinations.
In an interview last summer Marston told The Daily Beast that the AFCLF had “probably 100” members, and had been seeking to convince local elections boards around the country to take steps against alleged voter fraud. He also suggested he knew of “game-changing” evidence that could delegitimize the 2020 election and have a “brain-splattering effect” on public trust.
(After the election, Marston claimed on social media that he was a “liberal” and called ex-President Donald Trump “an asshole” multiple times.)
Marston created AFCLF’s twin nonprofits last May, after the election denial movement had made clear on Jan. 6 that it has a tendency towards spasmodic political violence. And many extremism experts today warn that those same social and cultural forces are animating the convoy movement—a warning that recently proved true in Canada’s convoy protests.
“This feels like the culmination of everything that’s happened since Jan. 6th,” one extremism researcher told NBC News, pointing to virulent anti-vaxxer and QAnon contingents within convoy groups.
And thanks to that constituency, as well as the recent violence in Ottawa, the question of peacefulness will be at the top of the bill.
Truckers in the Canadian anti-vaccine mandate protest set the example for the People’s Convoy, creating economic havoc with their blockades. The demonstration also attracted white supremacists and anti-government groups, and turned violent. When the chaos dissolved, Canadian law enforcement had arrested nearly 200 protesters.
But a People’s Convoy press release from Feb. 20 describes its mission as a “peaceful and law-abiding transcontinental journey” aimed at overturning the national vaccine mandate. The convoy departed from Adelanto, CA, on Wednesday afternoon, and plans to hit D.C. 10 days later, on March 5.
The central grievance in the press release appears to be economic.
“The average American worker needs to be able to end-run the economic hardships of the last two years, and get back to the business of making bread – so they can pay their rents and mortgages and help jumpstart this economy,” the release says, claiming that “COVID is well-in-hand now, and Americans need to get back to work in a free and unrestricted manner.”
Neither of those last two claims appear to be strictly true.
While the deadly Omicron wave has begun to subside in many parts of the country, the United States has still averaged nearly 2,100 daily deaths over the last two weeks, according to data from The New York Times.
And as for Americans getting “back to work,” the country has over the last year posted record employment gains, adding another 467,000 new jobs in January. The unemployment rate has trended steadily downward since April 2020, and currently sits around 4 percent.
But the convoy itself will strain the financial resources of its participants, especially with donor funds only available for the 10-day journey east, not the return trip.
At today’s gas prices, an 18-wheeler averaging a generous eight miles per gallon would burn around $1,200 in diesel fuel along the 2,500-mile one-way trek from Adelanto to the Beltway—and that’s before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increases gas prices more.
It’s also before any decisions payment processors or law enforcement might make to cut off fundraising channels, as happened recently in Canada when extremists joined anti-mandate convoy demonstrations.
But the People’s Convoy says that, unlike the Ottawa protests it cites as inspiration and precedent, its members will not engage in blockades—and won’t even enter Washington, D.C. (The Beltway briefly passes through D.C., over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.)
“The People’s Convoy will abide by agreements with local authorities, and terminate in the vicinity of the DC area, but will NOT be going into DC proper,” the group’s press release says, without enumerating those agreements.
It’s unclear if the group has contacted any D.C.-area authorities. Marston indicated that the “agreements” in the press release referenced local jurisdictions along the way, and said he was not aware of any efforts to contact D.C.-area officials.
A public records request to the Virginia State Police returned one document—an email which did not mention any communications with a convoy representative. The email said the agency “continues to monitor the situation,” which it called “standard practice” in advance of any possibly disruptive event.
Maryland State Police did not know of any contact from the convoy. A representative said the department was monitoring the protests “throughout the country” and will work with federal, state, and local agencies in the region “to ensure the free flow of traffic throughout the routes of travel.”
However, not all participants want to keep traffic moving—and they have made that clear, to little if any pushback from Marston’s group.
Pennsylvania trucker Bob Bolus, who has identified himself as a People’s Convoy organizer, told Fox5 DC that the convoy will “shut down” the Beltway around Washington like a “giant boa constrictor.”
“As far as if they can’t get to work, geez that’s too bad,” said Bolus, a leader of a movement which claims to stand up for people who cannot get to work.
Such a “boa constrictor” around the 64-mile Beltway loop would require thousands of trucks, and could pose a national security threat. And while a single wall across all lanes would require fewer than 20 trucks, they would likely be hauled off quickly.
Marston, who confirmed the People’s Convoy won’t cross into the District, said Bolus was “non-affiliated” and his plan was “nuts,” adding that the People’s Convoy thinks of him “like that crazy police officer from Police Academy.”
Still, it will be difficult for the People’s Convoy to separate itself from bad actors—just look at the staggering array of groups now aligning themselves with the project. And its official partners comprise a right-wing activist who called for public officials to be executed after the election, as well Trump’s first national security adviser turned convicted liar and QAnon enthusiast Gen. Mike Flynn, whose affiliated nonprofit The America Project is an official People’s Convoy partner.
The convoy also plans to absorb tributaries along the 10-day route from California to the East Coast. The official Facebook group boasts about 146,000 members. Its Telegram channel has 13,650, and it has clocked more than 10,700 followers on Gab and another 19,900 on Gettr.
Asked how they plan to differentiate from extremists and keep all of their members on the right side of the law, Marston said the group was “in conversation” with other convoys to “get agreement on code of conduct, making sensible demands, and avoiding conflict.”
“Ninety-nine percent of them want to be unified, but there’s always a few crazy eggs in every bunch,” he said.
Adam Rawnsley contributed to this report.