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U.S. truckers are protesting vaccines, even as pandemic restrictions ease

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A convoy of 18-wheelers is rolling across the U.S. heartland toward Washington, D.C., to protest vaccine mandates. The drivers say they're the red, white and blue version of the recent protests by Canadian truckers. And they've hit the road even as pandemic restrictions are easing across the United States. NPR's John Burnett caught up with them in northeastern Oklahoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Big rigs trundle down the Will Rogers Turnpike, blowing their air horns in solidarity with the self-styled People's Convoy. It stopped for the night at the Woodshed of Big Cabin truck stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS)

BURNETT: A muddy parking lot is crowded with dozens of tractor-trailers, RVs and pickups flying Trump and F Biden flags. The caravan has grown since it left California last week. It now stretches several miles long. Locals pack overpasses along the route to cheer and wave flags; others bring provisions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please take a box of food with you, please, a box or a bag.

BURNETT: The convoy's website says their main message is to get the White House to cancel the national emergency due to the pandemic. Trump declared it, and Biden extended it. Dan Davidson slouches in front of his cherry-red Freightliner with an American flag hanging off the side. Based in northern Ohio, he hauls bottled water, canned tomatoes, adult diapers - whatever pays.

So what's this about?

DAN DAVIDSON: Freedom, the government trying to force people to have vaccines that they don't want to have. I'm not vaccinated. I'm not going to be.

BURNETT: Neither American trucking companies nor the federal government require truckers to get the shot. And while Canada requires all travelers crossing its land borders to show proof of vaccination, the U.S. government does not force its returning citizens to be vaxxed. But Andrew Chafa, based out of Washington, Iowa, is still fuming.

ANDREW CHAFA: I am a cross-country trucker. I cannot cross into Canada unless I get a vaccine. I have chosen not to get the vaccine.

BURNETT: A convoy spokesman says the protest is non-partisan, but it looks and feels like a rolling Trump rally. Two of their financial supporters, The America Project and the American Foundation for Civil Liberties & Freedom, push vaccine falsehoods, along with the lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Yet on another level, the convoy is a morale booster for one of the country's toughest professions.

BUCKY BEAN: Two weeks ago, I was very close to shutting my door, and I was 35 years into the trucking. And I was done.

BURNETT: Bucky Bean is a trucker from Nebraska who crisscrosses the country with his loyal traveling companion, a rat terrier named Bowie Blue. Bean is tired of the long stretches away from home, the bad food, the rising cost of fuel and highway taxes. Americans like to complain about the supply chain back up, he says, but the truckers who haul their stuff never get any respect.

BEAN: I do get a lot of happiness in my heart every time I go under an underpass, see these people standing and cheering me on.

BURNETT: Just across the highway at another truck stop, a driver named Juan from LA who's vaccinated is not part of the People's Convoy and says it does not represent all American truckers. He won't give his last name because he drives for a major shipping company, and he worries he'd get in trouble with his boss.

JUAN: I was driving down the highway and for a perfect example, it says the exit 31, get off at 35 miles per hour. The Department of Transportation is telling you to go 35 miles per hour so you won't go off the curb. Right there, you're actually listening to the government, and you're still obeying. The vaccine is helping you to get life back to where it should be.

BURNETT: The protesting U.S. truckers say they're not planning disruptions like the Canadian truckers who blocked traffic and blew their horns day and night. But authorities are leery. Several hundred National Guard are on call in Washington, D.C., to help with traffic control and potentially protect the Capitol when the People's Convoy rolls in on Saturday.

John Burnett, NPR News, Big Cabin, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.