California driver rams immigrant rights protesters, cops seem ready to let him off

Daniel Wenzek has not yet been charged, and one local cop said he meant no harm.

A still frame from video of  the moment 56-year-old Daniel Wenzek drove through a crowd of protesters in California on Thursday. CREDIT: YouTube/Unite Here Local 11
A still frame from video of the moment 56-year-old Daniel Wenzek drove through a crowd of protesters in California on Thursday. CREDIT: YouTube/Unite Here Local 11

An angry driver pushed his car through a line of immigration rights protesters marching through the streets of Brea, California, on Thursday, causing no serious injuries but invoking the murderous vehicular assault committed by a white nationalist protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, 10 weeks ago.

The driver, 56-year-old Daniel Wenzek, was arrested on the spot. But police reportedly have not yet decided on charging Wenzek with assault with a deadly weapon — with one high-ranking officer in the Brea Police Department signaling to reporters that cops do not currently view this as a criminal act.

“I think he was trying to get through the crowd,” Lt. Adam Hawley told the Associated Press. “We don’t have any indication he was trying to harm somebody.”

Wenzek, who has already been released from police custody, “was convicted in 2006 of committing lewd acts against a child under 14,” according to the AP.

Thursday’s march was staged outside the district office of Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), in protest of the congressman’s opposition to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave temporary deportation relief and work authorization to about 800,000 immigrants who came to the United States as kids. In line with his other xenophobic policies, Trump formally rescinded DACA last month and kicked the issue to Congress. After the attack on Thursday, Royce spokesman Steven Smith told the Los Angeles Times he “condemns in the strongest possible terms and and all violence.”

Video of the incident shows a familiar scene: marchers, chanting and drumming, file through an intersection blocking traffic in all directions as they go. Wenzek lays on the horn inside his black sedan for a long moment, then rolls the car into the line of humans impeding him. He drives through the single-file marchers slowly enough that none is thrown under his vehicle, but his attempt to push the multi-ton car through people’s bodies prompts a rush of other protesters to cluster at the car, some slapping the hood as he continues to drive.

By the time one marcher leaps onto the hood of Wenzek’s car, he has broken through the line into the emptier middle of the four-way intersection and begins to speed up. Police quickly appear in the camera’s frame and the driver finally stops.

The protest tactic of blocking streets is decades old but has seen a resurgence over the past half-decade, particularly among those agitating for the rights of racial minorities who historically have not been afforded the same media access as causes championed on behalf of white working-class people. The frustration commuters may feel at being delayed by protesters is exactly where the power of the tactic lies: to put bodies in the way of traffic for a cause is to ensure cameras and reporters notice.

The days of disagreeing with what someone says but defending their right to say it are long past. Citizens who hate the ideas protesters stand for — the humane treatment of immigrants in this case, or the right of black Americans to not be treated like criminals in the case of the Charlotte, North Carolina civil unrest a year ago — commonly decline to stop and dispute and instead turn to violence.

The murder of Heather Heyer and injuries to dozens of others in Charlottesville in August may have marked a bloody new breaking point, but the impulse to assault street demonstrators has been simmering in the American political bloodstream for years.

President Donald Trump openly and proudly embraced the violent treatment of protesters at his campaign rallies throughout 2015 and 2016, encouraging his supporters to rough up people who dared shout him down. The violent, hateful treatment has continued — especially toward immigration supporters and those perceived to be less American — through the first year of Trump’s presidency. After Heyer’s murder, Trump declined to clearly condemn the white supremacist rally that her alleged killer had come to Virginia to attend, and against which she’d been protesting when she was killed.

The road rage set doesn’t stop with drivers. Politicians and law enforcement officials around the country have in some cases encouraged drivers to go ahead and drive over marchers. Conservative lawmakers in at least six states are effectively trying to legalize the running down of pedestrians in such circumstances.