June 19, 2024

The uncomfortable leader of an angry crowd: Brian Brase and the ‘People’s Convoy’

The 37-year-old lost his livelihood to the pandemic and his son to suicide before directing the right-wing protest circling the Capital Beltway.

The Washington Post | by Ellie Silverman and Karina Elwood | March 18, 2022

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — After 11 days and 2,500 miles on highways leading hundreds of truckers and other supporters across the United States, Brian Brase had finally stopped as close to the nation’s capital as he could.

Now, he had to make a choice.

Was this the moment to lead this “People’s Convoy” into downtown D.C. and “raise hell”? Brase mulled the question that first Saturday night a day after the convoy arrived at a speedway parking lot in Western Maryland. He had to decide what was best to make the protesters’ point.

How this 37-year-old trucker from Northwest Ohio came to be the one to make that decision is a reflection of a man torn by contradictions, who doesn’t fit easily into any one narrative of what this convoy or its leader is about. Brase finds himself at the center of a movement that has swollen to include not just parents concerned about vaccine mandates for their children, but also involves men associated with violent extremist groups and people who falsely believe government leaders are running satanic child sex trafficking rings. He has emerged as the de facto leader who keeps it all together — even as he says he wishes that had never happened.

The 6-foot-2, flannel-wearing organizer seems to connect easily with his followers. He portrays himself as accessible, telling the crowd that he won’t take a meeting with a lawmaker unless it is live-streamed and addresses supporters’ concerns head-on. He rallies the crowd with his most popular chant, demanding that politicians remember “they work for us!” In those moments, Brase’s personal beliefs on such issues as the 2020 election or masks or critical race theory are not important. Supporters chant along with him, attracted to the broader anti-establishment sentiments fueling their outrage.

He has fostered an environment where certain truths are somehow debatable — including whether Jan. 6, 2021, was a violent insurrection and whether research shows the coronavirus vaccine to be safe and effective — all under the guise of free speech. It’s the type of open stance that can appeal to everyone in the crowd, a blank canvas for the aggrieved.

Brase has welcomed far-right extremists into his group, but he does not view himself as one. His beliefs, he said, do not align with the fringes that he has attracted, and encouraged, to gather at the Hagerstown Speedway. He is not sure what to think of the 2020 presidential election results, even though he voted for Donald Trump for president and some of his followers brag about being among the insurrectionist mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. He’s uncomfortable receiving a coronavirus vaccine but would not stop someone else — including his daughter — from taking one. He believes the pandemic is real.

Convoy supporters rail against the critical race theory academic framework, but Brase acknowledges that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools — and he supports it being taught in colleges. He doesn’t believe in banning books and is fine with students reading novels by Toni Morrison, although the late author’s work is a frequent target of right-wing attacks. He thinks schools should teach the country’s full history, including the enslaving of Black people by White people. Still, he supports those at the speedway flying the Confederate flag.

He told the crowd never to vote a straight ticket, even as many disparage Democrats. Before a Republican senator visited the speedway, he asked drivers to refrain from chanting “Let’s go Brandon,” a phrase that is code for a profane expression directed at President Biden. He wants to be seen as bipartisan and insists that there are Democrats around the speedway.

He says this protest is about the government’s mandating actions on health care that he feels should be personal decisions. But his reasons for joining the movement are more complicated. The pandemic hurt his livelihood, and he recently suffered a devastating loss that left him searching for answers and a purpose.

This convoy, he thought, could be that mission. But he said he never meant to become the leader.

The mood at the Hagerstown Speedway that Saturday night was tense. Brase could tell there were people looking for a fight. The crowd, if encouraged by the wrong message, could be capable of anything, he worried.

“Convoys around the D.C. Beltway doesn’t do s— to the legislators, doesn’t do a thing. Literally nothing,” Brase said in an interview. “The only advantage to the loops around the Beltway is the fear that we might grab an exit.”

It was a choice similar to one facing leaders of the mainstream Republican Party: appeal to a wide audience or follow the rallying cries and untrue claims about electoral fraud that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Brase already made the choice to welcome the right-wing extremists with ideologies that have led to violence.

Brase walked the grounds of the speedway, shaking hands and meeting newcomers. But something felt off. He was in his head, consumed by the decision. He stayed awake, he said, researching the history of the iconic civil rights leaders Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He knew the crowd would follow his orders.

The next morning, a large wooden cross leaned against the makeshift stage as Brase walked up, turned to address the people who had traveled with him from Southern California and those who had only recently joined the group and were calling themselves a movement.

The crowd of mostly White men looked up at Brase with his megaphone in hand: “Today, we decided that we’re going to go onto the Beltway,” he said to cheers. “We’re going to do this peacefully. We’re going to do this with some class. …We’re not going to shut anything down today.”

A devastating loss and a new direction

Brase grew up in a truck. He remembers spending summers next to his father on the road but never thought he’d do the same. He thought he would be a military lifer.

He spent five years in the Iowa Army National Guard. But when his wife at the time wanted to return home to Pennsylvania, Brase joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Soon, he went looking for something else to do and was drawn to what he knew.

He’s been driving a truck for about five years and owns a blue 1999 Freightliner FLD120. He became involved as an industry advocate, starting the United States Transportation Alliance with Mike Landis, who also is one of the organizers of the People’s Convoy.

“I got out of it,” Brase said of the transportation alliance. “Realized if you didn’t have enough money to pad their pockets for reelection, they didn’t care what you had to say.”

Brase said he lives in Northwest Ohio but is originally from Lititz, Pa. He has hauled steel coils, sheet rock, lumber and other building material; bulldozers and tractors; and entertainment supplies, delivering staging, lighting and audio to arenas for musicians. During the 2020 onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he was sitting on a loading dock getting ready to go on tour with ZZ Top when he got the call that the tour was canceled, he said in an interview with Truck Boss Show,an Oklahoma City-based program about trucking.

“I parked the truck, waiting to find out what my next tour was going to be,” Brase said. “Then, out of nowhere, within the next two weeks, every single thing canceled.”

The pandemic had disrupted his life — taking away business and creating a new wedge between him and his eldest daughter. She has been vocal about her dislike of Trump and her belief that it is everyone’s civic obligation to be vaccinated. Her father disagreed.

“She thinks it’s everybody’s duty to get the vaccine. … People that won’t get the vaccine, she believes, is like a disservice to humanity,” Brase said. “I just tell her that I believe in freedom of choice.”

But it was something else that sent him out on this journey — the loss of his son.

In September, his 16-year-old son, Dominic Lee Brase, died by suicide.

Dom’s death shook everything Brase believed in, he said. His Catholic upbringing taught him that those who die by suicide “go to hell.” And although he never really believed that, he fell apart.

Brase’s body is covered in little reminders of these horrors. On his right arm is a semicolon, a common suicide awareness tattoo in the color teal for post-traumatic stress disorder awareness.

He rolled up the right leg of his pants to reveal a large abstract skull head tattooed on the back of a calf. A butterfly stretches across the eyes, and a clock arches over the top with bullets for hands. It’s the tattoo from his own suicide attempt years ago — the skull represents death, the clock signals time for healing, and the butterfly is half-blue, showing depression, and half Monarch, displaying strength to overcome.

As he tells it, Brase started following the protests in Canada and wondered why there hadn’t been a similar demonstration in the United States. As Ottawa-inspired spinoffs popped up on social media, he became more involved, joining groups and talking with people interested in starting a convoy, even as many U.S. pandemic-related mandates had already been blocked or lifted. While on the road, he said, he found a new connection with God.

The convoy has attracted so many Christian supporters that every group meeting and rally starts with a prayer. Christian nationalism also is evident in the group’s rhetoric: Leaders and drivers compared Monday’s convoy into and around D.C. to the biblical Battle of Jericho — the conflict in which the city’s walls fell to the sound of trumpets after it was encircled by an Israelite army for seven days.

“The whole process, between my son and this, has made me like a big believer in God,” Brase said. “Doesn’t mean I’m going to church. I ain’t going to church.”

Brase also does not know what to think about the 2020 presidential election, despite many of his supporters emphatically believing it was “rigged.” In past elections, he said, truckers have always been able to guess by yard signs across the country who was going to win. In his view, the 2020 election was the first time they got it wrong.

“I’m not saying I believe one thing or another,” Brase said. “I don’t know, and I’m not going to pretend to know.”

When people falsely claim the coronavirus vaccines are harmful, he shrugs it off, saying he’s not a scientist or doctor. He calls himself a blue-collar truck driver and says there’s “both sides” to the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. So far, no one speaking to the convoy in Hagerstown has pointed out the proven benefits of the coronavirus vaccine.

Although Brase joined this movement as an organizer and promoted it in TV appearances on Fox News shows such as “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Fox & Friends” as well as on Newsmax, he corrects people who label him the leader. He insists he is a “co-organizer.”

But at the speedway, everyone knows him. People often pray over Brase, draping their arms around him and leaning their heads close. They turn to him with questions about shipping needed medicine, or they ask his blessing to leave and return to a family back home and a job that pays the bills. People shout out during his daily speeches: “We love you, Brian!” and “Thank you, Brian!”

He has rallied crowds before, organizing “10-4 on D.C.,”an annual peaceful protest in D.C. that gathered as recently as last fall with trucks lining the Mall to raise public awareness about trucking industry regulations.

But this is different.

He sees the influence he has over his new followers, and he’s uncomfortable. At times, he said, he wishes he wasn’t the one tasked with keeping together this unwieldy group, united by anger and frustration. Some have told him that if he goes home, that will be the end of the “People’s Convoy.”

“There’s no reason for it to end because I go home,” Brase countered. “But now I feel like a f—ing prisoner in this too, even though I want this, like I want this to succeed.”

‘A leader to follow’

The armada of drivers continues to loop around the Beltway during off-peak hours in a chorus of honks and expressions of frustrations with commuters they label “antifa,” referring to anti-fascist activists, and complaints of law enforcement they view as impeding their First Amendment rights.

When they changed their route this week to enter the nation’s capital via the 14th Street Bridge on Interstate 395 before crossing the Anacostia River and returning toward Hagerstown — a more disruptive demonstration than driving in circles on the Beltway — D.C. police blocked interstate exits into downtown Washington each day. Some drivers still headed into downtown D.C. This shift came after the group’s permit application to hold a demonstration on the Mall was partially denied and then was withdrawn.

Although inspired by actions in Canada, the U.S. People’s Convoy has been nothing like the Ottawa demonstration that dominated headlines for weeks and now has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

Still, Brase tells the crowd of supporters they’ve been earning win after win — and many of the drivers stay, despite rising gas prices, a winter storm, and near daily hours-long demonstrations that amount to sitting in traffic.

Brase and others have met with lawmakers inside the U.S. Capitol and gave Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) a ride from the speedway into D.C. for a news conference — part of Brase’s public strategy of using diplomacy to achieve the protesters’ goals. He insists the group won’t leave the region until there’s an end to the national public health emergency declaration and the few remaining federal mandates are lifted — and the people cheer.

This camaraderie and progress is what he hoped for when he announced the group would loop the Beltway that first weekend. Unknown to the crowd, organizers originally planned to send them out on Monday, but they pushed the day up to weed out the people Brase referred to as “weekend warriors.”

“We had all the crazies here. … The vibe was very like alt-right walking around here,” Brase said about the first weekend in Hagerstown. “They came back [from the convoy] and it was like a totally different vibe all of a sudden. It was the right people. “Press Enter to skip to end of carousel

More on the ‘People’s Convoy’

Throughout the almost two weeks at the speedway, there has been pressure to escalate their tactics, especially coming from people in chat rooms and those watching live streams on YouTube. Some express a desire for a D.C. demonstration, but others repeat unproved theories that any protest there would be a “trap.”

They were brought together to protest pandemic restrictions, but their anger is fueled by so much more.

They are motivated by perceived infringements on their freedoms, including complaints about general government overreach, technology companies “censoring” speech, corruption in pharmaceuticals, a “stolen” election, an untruthful mainstream media and school lessons on diversity, equity and inclusion they label as critical race theory. To them, it’s about taking back a country they feel no longer represents them.

The group turned a gravel parking lot, pockmarked with potholes from the heavy trucks driving through, into a community with a daily prayer meeting, free hot meals served by volunteers and communal food and other supplies drawn from “the People’s Pantry,” boxes of supplies stacked behind the grandstands.

At night, mothers and daughters dance to Katy Perry’s “Firework” as people wave the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and the American Stars and Stripes. Families and friends sit in camping chairs around fires, and part of the Texas convoy group set off fireworks on a back hill. People bring their dogs. After the morning meeting Wednesday, a couple was married on the flatbed-turned stage.

There’s also been the logo for the militia movement Three Percenters and men wearing Proud Boys insignia, calls for a citizens’ arrest of Biden and Vice President Harris, QAnon propaganda and rampant misinformation about the novel coronavirus.

Early last week, Micki Larson-Olson took to the stage in a long blue wig, red, thigh-high heeled boots, and an emblem with the letter Q fastened in the middle of her American flag bodysuit. She told the crowd that Jan. 6 was the most “patriotic day of my life” and proudly shared that she was later arrested for her role in the insurrection. She was charged in D.C. Superior Court with a misdemeanor curfew violation, and a jury trial is scheduled for Sept. 12, court records show.

Larson-Olson introduced herself as a “General Flynn digital warrior” and “proud Protzmanian,” which are references to those who subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory and to a subset of the group that believes John F. Kennedy Jr. will come back from the dead. As she spoke, someone cut off her microphone. Later, Brase spoke from the same stage.

Jeffrey Gilman, a 43-year-old White man from Rochester, N.Y., stood on the still-muddy gravel last week and said relationships with his family had soured over views on the coronavirus vaccine.

At the speedway, Gilman said, he has found acceptance. Fellow convoy driver Troy Lundeen, 47 of Buda, Ill., agreed.

“I think I like it better than my own neighbors in Rochester,” Gilman said.

“Because they’ll actually talk to you here,” Lundeen said.

They described Brase as a humble man and “a great leader.” Gilman said he’s leaving for the weekend but plans to meet the convoy again, wherever they end up. Lundeen also needs to leave for a bit to work — and plans to come back.

“Everybody needs a leader to follow,” Gilman said.

“I’d rather follow him than Biden, I’ll tell you that,” Lundeen said, “and I only met him a few days ago.”

The next move

Brase walked out of the U.S. Capitol last week, proud of what the convoy had accomplished.

When a group of nine drivers and supporters met with two Republican senators, Brase was their spokesman.

He grabbed the attention of national news, wrangled another meeting, with Republican members of the House Transportation Committee, and spread the group’s message. He also lamented that it seemed that only Republicans were willing to come to the table for a cause he argues should cross the aisle.

Afterward, Brase headed back to the Hagerstown Speedway to rally the troops.

He does not know everybody staring back at him every morning or night, or the thousands of people talking about him and his protest convoy in online chat rooms. He feels it is his job to motivate them, boost morale and keep them united. If he told his supporters to leave, he thinks they would.

He’s aware that his movement has attracted people on the fringes of the political right. And while he says he doesn’t necessarily agree with them all, he has repeatedly said they’re welcome in the convoy if they believe in the group’s message and remain peaceful.

“You know how amazing it would be to watch Proud Boys and antifa standing together,” he said, “because they united over the fact they want their freedoms?”

It is not clear in which direction Brase will point the convoy next.

He’s urged participants to pressure the state governments and to call their representatives to demand meetings. If Brase wanted to get into politics, he told his supporters, he would focus on his local community and run for the school board.

When rain poured down early last week and the crowd scattered, Brase rushed to the organizers’ bus, somewhat relieved finally to have a moment alone.

“I feel responsible for all of those people’s safety. Yet I know that if I say certain things, people would get riled up and go right downtown without even blinking an eye,” Brase said in an interview later that night inside the bus. “That is scary. That is not a good thing. Nobody should ever be able to have that level of influence or power. … That’s why some screwed up s— in world history has happened, because they don’t think about the cost of human life.”

The next day — and nearly every morning since — Brase has continued to step up to the stage, lift the microphone to his mouth and rally the crowd.

Emily Davies, Steve Thompson and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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