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Terrorism Researchers Link The Spike In Vehicle Ramming Attacks With The Far Right

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Terrorism researchers are seeing a sharp increase in what they call VRAs - vehicle ramming attacks. Nearly three dozen have occurred at or near the protests that erupted two weeks ago with the killing of George Floyd. It's a grim flashback to the deadly car ramming at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. NPR's Hannah Allam reports on the return of the tactic.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Nuny Nichols (ph) got back to St. Paul late on the night of May 30. She and her friends had spent the day passing out food to protesters across the river in Minneapolis. The three of them, all black women, were walking to Nichols' place when they came to an intersection. A white man driving an SUV was at the light.

NUNY NICHOLS: And he kind of, like, motioned for us to come, you know, like, to come on. And we're like, OK, so we started walking out and it's, like, as soon as we got, like, right in front of his car, he just sped up.

ALLAM: Nichols and her friends screamed and ran. They escaped without being hit, but Nichols says she'll never forget what it felt like to have a car hurtling toward her, she believes, on purpose.

NICHOLS: He deliberately did it. Like, it wasn't like, oh, he ran a light or, oh, we were just - he was - we walked. No. He literally waited until we got, like, almost right in front of his car and he put his feet on the gas and, like, sped up.

ALLAM: Because of the tensions between cops and protesters right now, Nichols says, she didn't report the incident. So her story is not included on a growing list of ramming reports, many backed up by videos that show the terror and panic when a car is turned into a weapon. In Boston, one ramming unfolded on live TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Oh, several people just got hit. Several people just got run over.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: By a car or a police officer?

ARI WEIL: You know, to see dozens of these incidents occur over two weekends was surprisingly high.

ALLAM: That's Ari Weil. He's a terrorism researcher in Chicago. He's been documenting reports of vehicle ramming since the protests began.

WEIL: At least 34 instances across these two weekends of protests. Six of those are by law enforcement and 28 are by civilians.

ALLAM: Weil says it's too early to tell for sure how many involved the deliberate targeting of protesters and how many were accidents made worse by chaos at the scene. In at least some of the cases, video footage clearly shows hostility. Authorities say a California man antagonized protesters before plowing into them, striking a 15-year-old girl. He's in jail on one count of attempted murder.

WEIL: The message they're trying to send is you need to get out of the street and stop these protests.

ALLAM: In Richmond, Va., another suspect turned out to be a state leader of the KKK. Prosecutors there are considering a hate crime charge. That case has echoes of Charlottesville where a white supremacist killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer in a car ramming. But Weil says vehicle attacks in the U.S. showed up even earlier in protest movements in 2015 and 2016.

WEIL: This hashtag #runthemover started circulating.

ALLAM: Once again, support for the attacks is cropping up in right-wing forums. A fire chief in West Virginia was just dismissed for wearing a T-shirt with the words all lives splatter printed alongside an image of a car hitting protesters. Nichols saw that photo of the fire chief online.

NICHOLS: And I saved it to my phone 'cause I don't - like, I just felt like it related to, you know, what happened to me.

ALLAM: It's been a few days. Nichols is back at the protests, but the fear is still there. Walking to the store this week, she froze when a guy offered to let her pass in front of his car.

NICHOLS: He kind of stopped and kind of motioned me to come across. And I'm just like, no.

ALLAM: No thanks, she told him; I'll wait.

Hannah Allam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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