In Harm’s Way
The car becomes the weapon
Demonstrators around the country have been injured and killed by vehicle rammings, but there’s been precious little justice. And new laws could make accountability even scarcer.
Switch to light mode
TULSA, Okla. — On May 31, 2020, six days after the murder of George Floyd, a welding inspector named Thomas Ryan Knight went to his first protest, a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
It was hot but clear as he and his girlfriend joined the crowd, which marched through a part of the city that was the site of a racist massacre a century ago, and followed it onto Interstate-244 West, grinding traffic in all three lanes to a halt on the overpass of a highway that long ago cleaved this historic Black neighborhood in two.
The car becomes the weapon
Demonstrators around the country have been injured and killed by vehicle rammings, but there’s been precious little justice. And new laws could make accountability even scarcer.
A grisly blueprint of terror
Charlottesville car attack four years ago foreshadowed a summer of violence in 2020.
Putting the law on the driver’s side
In Iowa and elsewhere, Republicans push bills granting some legal immunity to motorists who hit protesters.
Knight, a wry father of five who goes by Ryan and has the seal of the Choctaw nation tattooed on his right wrist, wanted to show his support for Black Americans, to be one more body in the sea of millions taking to the streets across the country to protest racism and police brutality.
But once he got up to the highway, Knight didn’t feel comfortable, decided it was time to go, and made his way toward the shoulder.
That’s where his memory ends.
While the drivers of the stopped vehicles seethed over the demonstration, a red pickup truck with a hulking, empty horse trailer pushed into the crowd as its driver placed a handgun on the dashboard, witnesses said, and protesters banged on its hood and threw things at the vehicle as it moved in. Knight can’t remember the screams, the crush of people, how it separated him from his girlfriend, and how, in the chaos, he was propelled over the highway’s edge, falling onto the grass below.
What Knight remembers is his time in the hospital, and how at first he couldn’t swallow, or breathe on his own, or move his fingers. He remembers learning his spinal cord was damaged, that he could not walk.
“As soon as I woke up, I was like, man, am I paralyzed?” said Knight, 34. “It was devastating.”
The episode left Knight in a wheelchair and cost him his job. But to Oklahoma prosecutors, neither he nor the handful of others who were injured in the chaos are victims of a crime. That July, while Knight was still at a rehabilitation center in Colorado, the local district attorney announced no charges would be filed against the driver, whose identity was kept secret, saying that the man was scared for his family in the vehicle and acted in self-defense and that protesters had unnecessarily blocked the road.
It lent the full weight of the law to the idea that the carnage on the highway was the fault of the protesters who stood there, and not the driver who plowed through them.
Nine months later, the state legislature passed a law granting drivers criminal and civil immunity if they “unintentionally” hit or kill a protester while “fleeing from a riot,” so long as they say it was necessary to protect themselves, citing the protest on I-244 as the catalyst for the law.
You read that right. Given the choice between defending the safety of pedestrians protesting a police murder and the drivers of the vehicles running them down, prosecutors and lawmakers here have reserved their concern for the drivers.
To those on the short end of this cold calculus, it feels like siding, during the 1960s civil rights protests, with Bull Connor’s firehoses over the Black children of Birmingham. Or with the cops with clubs over the brave, battered souls who traversed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
A Globe review of the recent incidents found there have been scores of people hit, dozens of injuries, at least three deaths, but precious little justice, much less sympathy, for the demonstrators injured, killed, or just plain terrified. Yet Oklahoma and 15 other states have considered bills protecting drivers, not protesters, as these ramming incidents have proliferated.
The arc of history is bending, but it is fair to ask: Which way?
“They pick and choose who the law protects,” Knight said, as he sat in his living room, decorated with family photos and blue calla lilies on the wall, one day this summer. It is difficult for him to view the authorities’ response to his plight as anything other than a cover-up, enacted in broad daylight.
“I just don’t want what happened to me to happen to anybody else, regardless of what they believe in,” Knight said.
But around the country, in big cities and small towns, on rotaries and one-lane roads, highways and crosswalks, it already has.
Vehicle ramming. It is the term researchers use to describe incidents in which a car, truck, or motorcycle is turned by its driver into a weapon against people on the street.
It is a phenomenon they had witnessed over the years through much of the world. But last year, a peculiarly American variation of this practice became increasingly common, one in which demonstrations — especially the groundswell of antiracism protests spurred by Floyd’s killing — were the target.
The numbers alone make it stunning that more national notice hasn’t been given to this violent trend. Between Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, vehicles drove into protests at least 139 times, according to an analysis completed by The Boston Globe, relying on researchers’ data, local news coverage, and the Globe’s own findings. In addition to the three deaths, vehicle rammings at protests have injured at least 100 people, the Globe found, yet in most cases the driver has gone unpunished: The Globe confirmed the existence of charges in just 65 of the cases — fewer than half of them — and found only four so far in which a driver was convicted of a felony.
This dataset includes incidents in which protesters were hit or narrowly missed by an oncoming vehicle. While it is likely the most comprehensive review of a problem that is not centrally tracked by the authorities, it may well be incomplete. Reliable information about arrests and criminal proceedings was not always available, and there may be additional rammings not reflected in the Globe’s list.
The Globe drew from research on rammings at demonstrations by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit research organization that tracks political violence, and the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University to create its tally, adding some cases and leaving out those which the Globe could not confirm or which did not fit its investigative criteria.
Injuries and deaths
A nationwide threat
An analysis by The Boston Globe found at least 139 ramming incidents since the last week of May last year, many of which occurred during the height of protests over the killing of George Floyd last summer.
Ten rammings in the Los Angeles area
In the area of Southern California in and around Los Angeles, there were 10 instances of vehicle rammings against protesters, six during the last week of May and first week of June last year alone.
Thirteen injured in New York
New York City experienced eight rammings against protesters, including one in December of last year in Manhattan where six Black Lives Matter protesters supporting ICE detainees were injured. The driver was charged with three misdemeanors.
Not just a big-city problem
Rammings were not limited to protests in the nation’s largest cities, though. Cities such as Madison, Wis., Tulsa, Okla., Akron, Ohio and Richmond, Va., all saw multiple rammings over the last 16 months, including two separate incidents at the same Robert E. Lee memorial in Virginia's capital.
Three states pass laws to protect drivers
Florida, where 10 incidents took place, is one of three states that enacted laws this year giving drivers some degree of legal immunity if they use their vehicles to hurt protesters, joining Iowa and Oklahoma.
At least 100 injured
The Globe found at least 100 people were injured in the 139 incidents of ramming examined. The injuries ranged from minor bruises and scrapes to broken vertebrae that left one protester paralyzed from the chest down.
Four protesters killed
In Bakersfield, Calif., Seattle, and Minneapolis, protesters were killed when cars hit them. A fourth protester was killed in Austin after an Army sergeant drove into a demonstration and then shot a protester who aimed a gun at his car.
Less than half of drivers charged
The Globe was able to confirm that drivers were charged in 65 ramming incidents, or just over 46 percent of the 139 rammings analyzed. Of the drivers to face charges, just over half of them were charged with a felony.
No consequences for some
The Globe confirmed that drivers did not face charges in 38 percent of cases.
Continue scrolling to explore the map. Zoom in to see multiple incidents in the same community, click on an instance of a ramming to see its details, or use the dropdown to the left to view by action taken against the driver.
The fear among those who study this data is that such incidents are going to keep happening, especially if the protest wave resumes.
“You’re going to have people coming in and expressing themselves with two tons of metal on wheels,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, the director of the National Transportation Security Center at Mineta. “That’s part of the landscape now.”
Vehicle rammings have drawn the most attention when, in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, terrorists affiliated with such groups as the Islamic State have used cars and trucks to turn Christmas markets, street corners, and even the beach into theaters of carnage to further their extremist message. In the United States, they have manifested as attacks on houses of worship, a shopping mall, random pedestrians, and a women’s clinic, including the 2017 ramming in New York City that killed eight people, which experts viewed as terrorism.
The rammings of demonstrations in the United States have been far less deadly overall and often appear unplanned, motivated in different cases by ideology, racial hatred, rage at being inconvenienced by a traffic jam, and, in some cases, a driver’s fear of finding themselves surrounded by protesters. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, considers nine of the domestic ramming cases in which protesters were targeted to be acts of terrorism.
“It’s quite unique seeing people using cars as a weapon to suppress demonstrators,” said Roudabeh Kishi, the director of research and innovation at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project. “Most incidents that we’ve seen have all been targeting peaceful protesters. … It’s really going against the narrative that these types of incidents are self-defense.”
The rise of vehicle violence against protesters has emerged in a country that is wracked by bitter divisions over race and policing, with many states giving wide legal latitude to those who turn to violence as a form of self-defense. These incidents are often tied to race, since they frequently happened at antiracism protests; in the cases in which the drivers’ race was known, they were four times more likely to be white than a person of color. Sometimes, witnesses describe obvious racism by drivers who use racial slurs or phrases such as “white lives matter” as they charge forward. One driver was an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Not all of the cases are clear cut, and some of the car rammings examined for this story were likely unintentional, as when drivers moved slowly through a demonstration in their way instead of going around it and protesters flocked toward them or jumped on the hood.
But in other cases, “the driver is intending to intimidate and coerce people from exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Mary McCord, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, who is an expert on domestic terrorism. “That’s just another way that protests have become more dangerous.”
The rammings have left lasting scars, physical and emotional, on the protesters who have experienced them. The 100 injuries the Globe counted include concussions and broken bones and are almost certainly an undercount as many protesters who were hit declined to speak to police. These rammings can also be fatal: Three protesters were killed when vehicles hit them, while a fourth died in Austin after an Army sergeant drove into a demonstration and then shot a protester who his lawyer said aimed a gun at his car. The sergeant may have acted in self-defense, but only after driving into a crowd.
The incidents span the nation, affecting red and blue states alike. It has happened in Newton, when a white man who heckled a young demonstrator with his cries about “unborn Black babies” later sped his truck close to the crowd. It has happened in Bakersfield, Calif., when a white man whom local media described as having a neo-Nazi tattoo hit a Black man, Robert Forbes, with his Acura and killed him. It happened in Daytona Beach, Fla., when a white woman drove over the foot of Dyrell Johnson, a Black organizer, during a peaceful, even joyful protest the same day Knight was paralyzed.
“She looked at me, looked directly in my eye, directly in my face, and started laughing,” Johnson said in an interview. Three of his toes are still numb; he keeps them constantly bandaged and has changed his gait to avoid letting them touch the ground. “That ruined so much,” Johnson said. The woman was not identified by the authorities.
Yet as alarming as these incidents are to experts in political violence, they have not always triggered aggressive prosecution by law enforcement. The woman who hit Johnson was never charged with a crime. Neither was the man who killed Forbes. And the driver in Newton faced only a misdemeanor charge.
Of the 65 drivers the Globe confirmed were charged in ramming incidents, just 34 faced felonies, while the others were charged with misdemeanors or lesser offenses like traffic violations. Through months of inquiries by the Globe, some of its requests to authorities were repeatedly ignored, making it impossible to say exactly how many cases yielded criminal charges or did not.
In their words
Daytona Beach, Florida
Dyrell Johnson is a community organizer in Daytona Beach whose foot was run over by a car driven by a woman through a George Floyd protest in May 2020. Police said the driver was not identified and no charges were filed.
But it is clear that many drivers who injured people never faced a felony charge. In some cases, it was the protester who was hit, not the driver, who was charged for disorderly conduct or jaywalking.
For many drivers, including the one in Tulsa, a self-defense argument carried the day. When protesters threw items or banged on vehicles, some drivers accelerated into the crowd and drove away, later saying they were afraid. In many cases, police and prosecutors simply accepted drivers’ explanations that they were not attempting to instill terror in pedestrian protesters but rather felt terror themselves.
In Visalia, Calif., an open-topped Jeep flying an American flag and what appeared to be a Trump flag hit two protesters on May 30, 2020, during an encounter, caught on video, in which water bottles were thrown at the car. The local prosecutor said the driver was acting out of fear for his safety and did not charge him. In Gainesville, Fla., prosecutors dropped six counts of aggravated assault against a man who drove through a protest on that same day, saying the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows someone in a confrontation to defend themselves in their own residence without any duty to retreat, had come into play.
Sometimes, a grand jury refused to indict drivers despite prosecutors’ efforts; that happened, for example, after a Black man was hit by a car at a children’s protest in Eugene, Ore., in June of 2020. The grand jury declined a slate of charges including attempted murder; the driver got low-level citations instead.
So far, only four drivers have actually been convicted of felonies, according to the Globe’s analysis, although that number is likely to rise as more cases wind their way through the pandemic-backlogged courts (two drivers charged with felonies died before their cases were resolved). Nineteen drivers were convicted of misdemeanors or lower offenses, and six were given alternative sentences involving court diversion programs. But the rate of charging and conviction, which has not previously been analyzed or reported, raises questions about whether prosecutors are taking these cases seriously.
Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University who studies global terrorism and has written about vehicle rammings in the United States, said the rate of convictions for serious crimes appears to be low.
“When we’re looking at a tactic,” Bloom said, “you take your car and you plow it into civilians on purpose, in order to terrify them for a political purpose, what’s the difference between plowing your car and planting a bomb?”
One day before the protest in Tulsa, a college student named Carmyn Taylor joined a group of demonstrators in blocking another highway in the city, Interstate 44. There, she said, a vehicle sped through the protesters, clipping her backpack, and turning her in the air. Lucky not to be badly hurt, she wound up in the hospital with a bruise on the back of her left thigh.
While she was there, an officer with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol came to speak with her, she said, but his questions were so “aggressive,” she asked him if she — not the driver — was going to be charged.
“All he said was, ‘You might,’” Taylor recalled.
Undeterred, Taylor texted with a friend of hers, Kenyari Porter, about their plans for another protest the next day. Porter’s mother, a nurse, was going to attend to provide medical help if anyone needed it. Taylor was going to bring safety glasses and gloves, in case of tear gas, and extra water. She texted Porter a picture of her sign, the words written in white on black poster board: “Your truck won’t stop justice.”
“I’ll try to be in the front in case stuff goes south,” Taylor texted. “White bodies should protect black lives.”
When a group of protesters made their way up to the overpass, Taylor was right there. So was Mike Simons, a longtime photographer for the Tulsa World. The protest started with a small group, who darted onto the asphalt during breaks between cars; once traffic started stopping, he said, more people joined the protesters.
“It was tense at first, then it just kind of calmed down,” said Simons. The traffic had ground to a halt, so still that the driver of a box truck set up a folding chair near its opened back door, as if he were going to recline there.
Taylor remembers the camaraderie among the protesters, the cheers of a group that had found a way to be heard. She was there as the crowd parted to let a Black woman wearing scrubs through with her car — and when the red truck with the horse trailer began inching up, even as the crowd re-formed to stop it from passing.
“I watched him put something that to me at the time looked like a TV remote … on the dash,” Taylor said. It was actually a gun, witnesses said. It was the moment, the photographer Simons said, when the tension ratcheted up.
“That’s what inflamed people,” Simons said.
As the driver moved through the crowd, protesters began hitting the vehicle with their hands, water bottles, and other objects. Some grabbed the back of the trailer and a door handle of the truck, something smoky was lobbed through the air— reactions the local prosecutor described as a violent and unprovoked attack on the truck.
As the truck edged forward, Taylor stood right in front of it, her eerily prescient sign in the air. One video shows a Black man appearing to urge her to step aside, but she didn’t. A bicycle unintentionally blocked Taylor’s ability to move away as the truck closed in, she said.
“You can see me banging on the hood of the truck and screaming stop, because I can’t move,” Taylor said, referring to the video of the incident. “The front tire of the bike got pulled under the front tire of the truck. And then the back tire, it pulled my legs. And that’s how I got ran over.”
One video shows Taylor and another person with their backs pressed to the truck’s grill as it moved forward, the bike caught under the wheel next to Taylor.
It didn’t hurt in the moment, Taylor said, but when she tried to stand up, her leg clicked and she was in enormous pain. One bone on her right leg was broken, she said; her left ankle was sprained.
Simons, who covered the Oklahoma City bombing, riots, and tornadoes, said it was the most terrified he has ever been on assignment.
“You look back and you see the giant trailer coming and you turn to run and there’s kind of nowhere to go,” he said. “The sounds were terrible … anger and screaming and after it passed, you heard people writhing.”
Knight and Tearra King, his girlfriend, were farther away from the red truck, she said, as panicked people tried to escape.
“We just got bombarded by the crowd,” King said. “I tried to grab him, to hold onto him, and we just got separated.”
King started frantically looking for Knight. “My gut is telling me something was wrong, because he would have come looking for me, instead of me coming looking for him,” she said.
“I call his phone and some guy answered,” King said. “He was like, ‘Are you with the guy that has this phone? You might want to get down here.’”
King didn’t know what the man meant. Down here? Where?
She found Knight lying in the grass below the overpass, surrounded by protesters trying to help him.
Back up on the highway, the driver of the red truck stopped to speak with law enforcement officers, who helped him secure his trailer, and then drove away.
Before millions of Americans took to the streets following Floyd’s death in 2020, rammings directed at protests were rare here.
A survey of global vehicle ramming incidents by Mineta, for example, found just three examples where protesters were targeted in the United States before 2020, including the fatal attack by James Alex Fields Jr. on antiracism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017. From the end of May to the end of September 2020 alone, their count of protest rammings they deemed malicious or possibly so, skyrocketed to 43.
Experts can’t say for sure why the numbers exploded in 2020, but they point to an array of possible reasons. First, millions of people were protesting racism in the largest wave of demonstrations in the country in decades. At the same time, conservative pundits and politicians portrayed the protesters as lawless rioters, or “thugs,” as President Trump called them, stoking hostility toward them — and also for some, perhaps, exaggerated fear of them. Memes making light of mowing down protesters, including one that read “All lives splatter,” had been proliferating on right-wing message boards and on social media — a subject the Globe will explore in more detail later in this series.
“I think about the fact that, in May and June of last year, we have this intense ... creation of fear about these peaceful demonstrations,” said Shannon Hiller, director of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University. “That creates targets of opportunity and fear.”
Jenkins, of Mineta, sees the rammings as an outgrowth of the larger spike in “aggressive antisocial behavior” in a deeply divided society. “Americans have a unique relationship to their vehicle,” he said. “There is a trigger to anger if somebody touches that vehicle, gets in the way of that vehicle, cuts off that vehicle on the road.”
Some drivers claimed they did not hit protesters for political reasons but simply believed they had the right to drive through them. In Troy, Mich., Timothy Paul Maier, 68, hit a white woman and a Black woman during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 2, 2020. “Maier admitted he struck the pedestrians on purpose to move them out of the way,” according to the police report. “Maier stated that race was not the issue, but that he just thought since he had a green signal he could drive into a group of pedestrians.” The police report included a handwritten, anonymous letter defending him and claiming the whole city was “fearful” of the protesters. His actions were unlawful; there is no right to deliberately strike a pedestrian who is obstructing travel. But he wasn’t charged with a crime.
Newsletter sign-up: The Globe Investigates
Spotlight reports and special projects that hold the powerful accountable and uncover waste, fraud, and abuse.
Others said the protesters had it coming. In Bowling Green, Ky., a 24-year-old man named James Hunton hit a woman with his truck on May 29. “The protesters were in the road,” he said, using a swear word, according to the police report. “They deserved to be hit, anybody would.” Hunton was charged with a felony but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation.
The vast majority of the protests subject to ramming incidents in 2020 were antiracism efforts, while some were held to support other progressive causes, including the environment. In at least three cases, however, the target was a pro-Trump or pro-police protest, and the drivers in two of those incidents face steep charges. In Eaton, Colo., a 21-year-old man, Isaiah Cordova, allegedly drove into a Blue Lives Matter Demonstration. No one was injured, per local news reports, but Cordova faces seven charges of first-degree attempted murder — some of the most serious charges the Globe found (he is expected to enter a plea in December). In Yorba Linda, Calif., a 40-year-old woman named Tatiana Turner was accused of hitting Black Lives Matter counter-protesters with her car, injuring two, according to local news reports, and triggering a charge of attempted murder and multiple other felony counts. She has pleaded not guilty.
Many motorists who drove into protests were never officially identified. Overall, the Globe was able to determine that the identity of 104 of the 139 drivers was known, at least to the authorities, if not to the public. Of the drivers whose gender was known to the Globe, 62 were men and 21 were women. Of drivers whose race was discernible, 44 drivers were white, while 11 were people of color.
One driver, Harry H. Rogers, had clear ties to a white supremacist group: Prosecutors said he was a leader in the KKK who ran over a bicyclist’s foot at a protest in Richmond, Va. He is now serving a six-year prison sentence. Another man who was not arrested reversed his vehicle into a protester in Iowa City after the passenger in his car screamed “white power” at the group. On Long Island, a man who shouted “white lives matter” before accelerating toward three teenage protesters of color, those protesters told a local news station, was sentenced to community service.
An Instagram account that appeared to belong to Lisa Michelle O’Quinn of Greenville, N.C., contained posts about the Confederate flag and the white race several years ago, according to the local paper the Daily Advance. O’Quinn, who is white, allegedly hit two Black women with her car during a protest of a police shooting in Elizabeth City, N.C., on May 24 of this year. She is facing multiple charges, but not a hate crime. Officials with the local court told the Globe they were not aware of her yet entering a plea.
In at least 11 cases covered in local news, on-duty police officers drove their cars into protesters during confrontations in big cities including Los Angeles and New York and small ones such as Laramie, Wyo. (A Boston police sergeant was caught on bodycam footage bragging about hitting protesters last year, but there is no evidence he actually struck anyone.) In another case, an off-duty corrections officer drove into a protest in Kokomo, Ind., leaving two demonstrators with minor injuries. She was charged with criminal recklessness and leaving the scene of an accident and is set to be tried in December. She is the only officer the Globe found to be criminally charged in connection with a vehicle ramming, although one officer in New York lost 10 days of pay after hitting a protester with the door of the moving vehicle.
Sometimes, the police themselves have been targets: Researchers and the Globe tallied five instances in which police officers were hit by vehicles at protests, four of which resulted in injuries to officers. That figure is not included in the Globe’s tally of 139, which counts incidents when protesters were targeted, although it is a concerning trend.
Some drivers seemed to foreshadow their plans on social media. Jared Benjamin Lafer “made a joke on Facebook about hitting a protester with a car,” according to the Tennessean newspaper, before allegedly doing just that in Johnson City, Tenn., on Sept. 12, 2020, breaking the victim’s leg. Lafer’s attorney said he thought he and his family, who were in the car, were in danger. Ultimately, a grand jury decided not to indict him.
In Denver, a man named Jonathan Benson wrote proudly on Facebook that he had hit a protester who he said blocked, kicked, and cornered his car on the night of President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, according to Westword. Then, in September 2020, he had another altercation with protesters, ultimately hitting the gas and knocking one aside, the publication wrote.
Benson claimed he sped into the crowd due to his fear of the protesters surrounding his car, saying one hit it with a hammer. The police charged him with reckless driving for the second episode, they said, but prosecutors dropped the charges, saying they could not prove their case.
But in Tulsa, as in so many cases, the identity of the driver remains, for the public and the victims but not authorities, unknown.
After a vehicle hits protesters, two very different storylines tend to emerge. One is about protesters, terrified by an oncoming vehicle, some of whom throw projectiles or their fists at the vehicle in the hopes of stopping it. The other is often a story of a driver who feels besieged and hits the gas, also, he or she claims, as a form of self-defense.
In many cases, it is the driver protected by thousands of pounds of steel whose account wins out in the eyes of the law.
To the district attorney for Tulsa County, Steve Kunzweiler, the victims in the red truck case were the father, mother, and two children in the truck — not the injured protesters on the highway.
“They made a conscious choice to violate the law when they had a right to be on a protected route,” Kunzweiler said in an interview. “They put themselves in harm’s way.”
Both Taylor and Knight began to receive hateful messages online that blamed them for what happened. “You should have been killed,” read one to Taylor. “Too bad your skull was not crushed.”
On July 23, 2020, Kunzweiler released a 12-page memo explaining that he would not be charging the driver of the truck. There are seven pages of images detailing the damage protesters did to the truck as it moved through the crowd, which included a door handle torn off, a shattered windshield, and dents, and only brief mention of the protesters’ injuries. The gun on the dashboard is not mentioned.
“The father described his fear for his own life and the lives of his family as their family truck was surrounded by protesters who began to beat upon the truck with their hands and various weapons, to include projectiles thrown at the vehicle,” Kunzweiler wrote. “At one point the front windshield was broken and glass fragments flew upon him.”
Kunzweiler’s decision drew from an investigation conducted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol — one that some of the injured protesters believe was biased against them from the outset.
The memo cited interviews with members of the family in the red truck. A lieutenant spoke with King, Knight’s girlfriend, she said, but Knight said he was never interviewed himself. The report said three protesters were injured — Knight, an unidentified woman, and a third victim, Lisa K. Pepin — but did not detail what their injuries were, according to the DA’s memo. Taylor is not mentioned by name and troopers never interviewed her about that incident, she said, even though her attorney, Jonathan Nation, said he reached out both to the highway patrol and Kunzweiler’s office.
“They pretty much took the statement of gospel truth from the driver … it didn’t seem like we were taken seriously from the get-go,” Nation said. “I wonder if we were a right-wing protest, if we would have been.’'
The Boston Globe sought a copy of the highway patrol’s investigation and was told by a spokeswoman they had only a two-page document to share. A Freedom of Information Act request, filed in August, for that report has not been fulfilled.
Kunzweiler defended the investigation and his charging decision as thorough, although he directed specific questions about Knight and Taylor to highway patrol officials, who did not respond to individual questions.
“The Oklahoma Highway Patrol did a complete and thorough investigation into the actions of the motorist involved in the incident on May 31, 2020, on Interstate 244,” said Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman for the highway patrol.
The lawyers for Knight and Taylor said they are preparing lawsuits, potentially against both the driver of the red truck and law enforcement.
Not every injured person disagreed with the decision to not charge the driver. To Pepin, a school counselor who was chaperoning her daughter at the protest and fell as the crowd ran away from the truck, it made sense.
“I don’t think the driver did anything wrong,” said Pepin, who broke her femur. “[The crowd] just needed to step back and let the truck go through, because he was going really slow.”
Knight feels as if there was no justice, that he still doesn’t have real answers about who hurt him and why.
“Why do you go investigate stuff,” he wondered, “if you don’t want to figure it out?”
Not every ramming case goes unsolved or ignored. In April, a 22-year-old man named Marshall R. Blanchard pleaded guilty to a hate crime and leaving the scene of an accident after he drove his motorcycle into a protest in Bloomington, Ill., injuring two people, one of whom got a concussion. He was sentenced this summer to serve seven years in prison.
“It sends a message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated when individuals are exercising their right to peacefully protest,” said prosecutor Mary Lawson, according to WGLT.
But the lack of prosecution for many drivers has left protesters and political violence experts afraid that law enforcement is often sending the opposite message — particularly in the three states, including Oklahoma, that passed laws this year to shield drivers who hit protesters and claim self-defense.
“We worry it’s licensing folks to use their vehicle as a weapon,” said Hiller, of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative.
Even Kunzweiler, the district attorney who had little sympathy for the injured protesters in Tulsa, said he did not think such laws were necessary. He was, after all, able to absolve the driver under existing state law.
Researchers worry that the sheer number of vehicle rammings last year — and the impunity for many drivers — has normalized the act of driving into a protest, raising the possibility there will be more violence the next time demonstrators take to the streets.
Back in Oklahoma, Taylor and Knight are getting their lives back to normal. Taylor transferred to a university in Eastern Oklahoma, where she is studying Cherokee and political science.
Knight spends his days helping his youngest children with virtual school, driving his kids to scrimmages all over the state, and working to strengthen his body.
King told him, early on in his recovery, that he was allowed to feel hurt, that he was allowed to feel pain.
“She helped me a lot with my emotions, because I felt anger,” he said.
He views what happened that day as continuation of this country’s long history of responding violently to protests.
“When they sat at the restaurants, when they went over the bridge in Selma, they were waiting for them,” Knight said. “If you look at history it’s like, they’re trying to hurt everybody during every protest.”
Now, his goals are simple, aided by trips to the gym and YouTube videos from other people in wheelchairs. He’s grateful for everything his injury has taught him. “I wanted to straighten my neck up, I want to work on my posture,” he said. “My goals are just, live like everybody else.”
Globe staff Liz Goodwin, Jazmine Ulloa, and Jim Puzzanghera, and Globe correspondent Neya Thanikachalam contributed to this report.
- Reporter: Jess Bidgood
- Editors: Elizabeth Goodwin, Jim Puzzanghera and Mark Morrow
- Photographer: Chris Creese
- Photo editor: Kim Chapin
- Director of photography: William Greene
- Video production: Caitlin Healy
- Copy editors: Michael Bailey and Mary Creane
- Digital storytelling, design, and development: John Hancock
- Audience experience and engagement: Christina Prignano
- Quality assurance: Chelsey Johnson and Jackson Pace
© Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC