It was bitterly cold in the high Mojave Desert as the American version of Canada’s “Freedom Convoy” mobilized at a staging ground in Adelanto, California. By 8 in the morning, the parking lot where the convoy started from was full of cars, with hundreds of supporters milling about, chatting and waving flags. A pink food truck sold coffee to the bleary-eyed, while another vendor sold patches, hats, and T-shirts with patriotic slogans. In the main area where the stage was located, dozens of semitrucks were parked in a ring, blaring their horns to the cheers of the crowd. American flags were everywhere, flapping in the blistering wind.
Aesthetically, the event was identical to a Trump rally: the red hats, the MAGA and Gadsden flags and the “Lock Them Up!” chants. But the vibe was different. Aside from a few unfavorable remarks about California Gov. Gavin Newsom and a fair number of “Let’s Go Brandon” flags, the anger didn’t appear to be about partisan politics. It was about class.
“I was a hairdresser,” an unvaccinated woman from Orange County told me. (Everyone I interviewed allowed me to use their first name only or none at all.) “Considered ‘not important.’ After the first four weeks of lockdown, that’s when I started going to rallies. To open up. Because, single parent, trying to keep a roof over my head and food in my son’s mouth.”
“For a good 10 months,” she said, “I lost income.”
A former high school counselor she was with, also from Orange County, lost her job because she refused to wear a mask. “Once I followed my beliefs and I was like, ‘I’m just not wearing it,’ it turned into a hostile environment for me. I was treated very differently, I was even segregated at some point. And so I ended up having to leave, and I haven’t been back.”
In Ottawa, the “Freedom Convoy” was met with draconian suppression by the Canadian government. The week before, police cleared the city by force, as defiant truckers shouted, “Hold the line!”, a phrase that’s become an unofficial motto of the convoy movement. Prior to that, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had enacted emergency decrees that targeted the bank accounts not only of the convoy’s participants, but other Canadians who had donated to them. On the day of the rally in Adelanto, Trudeau revoked those measures.
Their beliefs about the science behind COVID safety protocols ultimately flowed from the assumption that someone, or some group of people, is trying to control them.
In Adelanto, convoy supporters waved Canadian flags alongside American ones in solidarity with the Ottawa truckers. But unlike its Canadian counterpart, the American “People’s Convoy” wasn’t and isn’t just about vaccine mandates. It’s about closing the book on the entire COVID “national emergency,” which nearly everyone I spoke with believed was not about public health, but “control.” Their beliefs about the medical science behind masks, vaccines, school closures, and other COVID safety protocols ultimately flowed from the assumption that someone, or some group of people, is trying to control them. If the “scientific” beliefs of lockdown and vaccine supporters tend to hinge on what they also believe about politics, the same was true of the convoy supporters.
“I think they’re full of poison. I think they were created to make us sicker than we already are,” a middle-aged woman named Yesenia, who planned to travel on the convoy with her family as far as Kingsman, Arizona, said about the vaccines. As we spoke, Neil Young ironically blared from loudspeakers in the background. When I asked Yesenia who benefits from poisoning Americans, a young woman with her said, “Big Pharma, politicians, those who created it. There’s an elite few that are profiting from this. And it’s not the Americans, it’s not us.”
It was a theme I heard repeatedly from those at the convoy who were unabashedly against the COVID vaccines. But they were a minority—nobody I spoke with at the event was vaccinated, but most made a point of clarifying that they were not against the COVID vaccines themselves, only against the mandates. Several, including an ICU nurse in Los Angeles, had already contracted and recovered from COVID and were confident in their natural immunity.
Those who objected to the vaccines themselves believed they were not just unsafe, but that they were unsafe by design.
“Population control,” said a middle-aged woman who works as a truck driver and a private investigator, when I asked her why the government would want to force people to take a shot that was unsafe.
“Could it be population control, who knows?” another woman speculated. When I asked who would benefit from population control, a woman a few feet away said, “The elites. They’re going to benefit.” When I asked her who the elites were, she said, “The globalists, the corporation owners.”
“They need a working class,” she explained. “They need slave labor, just like China.” She believed the vaccines were a step toward constructing a Chinese-style social credit system.
Most didn’t go that far. When I asked others what the government’s intentions were with vaccine mandates if it wasn’t to protect public health, they tended to shrug and admit they didn’t know. But what they did know was that it was about power. “I think it’s control,” said Isaac from San Diego, repeating the word I heard from several different people throughout the day. “Because you’re a compliant citizen if you take the vaccine.”
The general sense was that the pandemic was over, COVID was endemic, and yet government officials are slow to lift restrictions because, in some obvious but not entirely knowable way, they benefit from them.
“In California, we’ve been locked down since day one,” said Tori, a college student from the San Fernando Valley. “Masking, they are mandating vaccines in schools and in workplaces for city employees and whatnot. It’s not based on science.”
Tori chose not to get vaccinated because she’s young and healthy and at exceedingly low risk of a serious case of COVID. “I’d rather take my chances, especially with a drug that hasn’t been tested with a normal vaccination testing rate. Usually it’s about, at the least, eight years of testing, and it’s been a year since it first came out. So there’s no way.”
“We just want to see these mandates get taken down,” Tori told me, “and freedom from the tyranny we’re seeing at different levels of government, from the governors to different aspects of the presidency.”
“A lot of people are getting insanely rich from this,” said Richard from Pasadena, who runs a medical device company. He believes the COVID vaccine is unsafe, and attributed a brain aneurysm suffered by a 26-year-old family friend to it.
Richard’s wife, Karen, has parents in New Jersey who are fiercely pro-mandate. Karen’s father, who once called his daughter a “fascist” for her views on the vaccine, wouldn’t allow her to see his wife, Karen’s mother, on her 90th birthday. She and Richard are getting ready to move to Houston. “I’m looking for my people,” she said.
The social divisions created, or aggravated, by the pandemic were another widely expressed grievance among the convoy’s supporters. A first-generation Chicana I spoke with, who was wearing a MAGA hat with an American flag over her shoulder, had been to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, “which was hijacked,” she said. She told me that her daughter, a student at San Diego State, had her blocked on social media, first over her support for Trump, and then over her position on the vaccines. She’d barely spoken to her daughter in two years. “She’s so indoctrinated, she’s so left,” she explained.
Many of the convoy’s supporters believed that these divisions were being used to benefit the elite by dividing regular working people and turning them against each other.
“These categories, essential/nonessential, vaccinated/unvaccinated, liberal or progressive or conservative,” shouted a speaker from the stage. “These are distinctions that divide us. They don’t unify us.”
“We don’t believe in these artificial distinctions!” she continued. Her voice rose to a crescendo as the crowd cheered. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, triple-boosted or not boosted, red, white, blue, yellow, brown, Black, Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Mormon, agnostic, atheist, Christian. It shouldn’t matter—because we are all Americans!”
The message was ironically reminiscent of Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, except the hats were red and the Pentagon had authorized the deployment of up to 700 National Guard troops to greet these people upon their eventual arrival in Washington, D.C. Over and over, speakers on the stage reminded the crowd that the convoy would not be entering Washington, D.C., proper, and that they would be complying with all laws along the way. They did not wish to be portrayed as the next “insurrection.”
The politics were cosmetically right wing, but the mood just seemed populist in an unaffiliated kind of way. Many of the attitudes—the distrust of Big Pharma and its enablers in the political class, the suspicion that an elite clique seeks to coerce and control regular working people, the belief in the power of grassroots organization and public protest to disrupt the status quo—would be right at home at any left-wing demonstration, or at least those on what used to be considered the political left.
What brought people to this event seemed to be the conviction that their supposedly representative government answered not to them but to the relatively powerful and privileged. After decades of mounting economic inequality, concentrated corporate power, and increasing stratification by education and professional status, that much seems beyond question.
Leighton Akira Woodhouse is a freelance reporter and documentary filmmaker. He writes at leightonwoodhouse.substack.com.