On Sunday afternoon, a man driving a black Chevrolet Silverado adorned with American flags and a Confederate flag sticker shifted his truck into reverse and drove toward a crowd of anti-fascists who were protesting a right-wing rally in downtown Vancouver, Washington.
It was almost exactly one month after a man drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters at a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Some of the people present felt they had just witnessed an attempted copycat attack.
“He tried to run people over,” said David Mason, 34, an anti-fascist who watched the events unfold. Car-ramming and subsequently claiming self-defense has become a “tactic” encouraged by white nationalists, Mason noted. One reporter present at the incident wrote that “the echoes of Charlottesville are hard to miss.”
But the driver of the truck, 31-year-old Billy Wilson, insists he wasn’t looking for trouble.
Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works at an auto salvage shop. On Sunday, he drove to downtown Vancouver, about 10 miles away, to attend what he says he believed was an “American flag rally” to collect donations for victims of fires that had ravaged the area.
So far, Vancouver police have sided with Wilson. Police briefly detained him, but contrary to some reports, he was not actually arrested on Sunday. Kim Kapp, a Vancouver police spokeswoman, declined to name Wilson, but confirmed that police released the driver of the truck after questioning him and concluding there was no cause for arrest.
The only arrests made at the Vancouver rally on Sunday were of two counterprotesters accused of reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
“It’s disturbing that the cops seem very heavily focused on arresting people who are protesting white nationalism and white supremacy,” even as Wilson and members of the Proud Boys ― a right-wing nationalistic fraternity ― left without punishment, Mason said.
Police are still reviewing video footage from the rally and could make more arrests in the future, Kapp said. But the incident on Sunday — and the early, false reports that Wilson was arrested — show the potential for chaos in clashes between protesters and counterprotesters, and how hard it can be, later, to determine what actually happened.
According to Wilson, he never even made it to the rally, which was organized by Patriot Prayer, a right-wing nationalist group that holds rallies across the Pacific Northwest. The group’s leader, Joey Gibson, has said neo-Nazis are not welcome at his events, but his rallies often attract white nationalist supporters ― and anti-fascist counterprotesters. Days before the rally, Gibson urged his supporters on Facebook to bring donations for fire victims, reminded people of their right to carry a gun and warned that they would face anti-fascists.
Wilson claims anti-fascists started throwing rocks and water bottles at his truck as soon as he arrived, and that he put his truck in reverse in a frantic attempt to escape.
But Mason disputes that account, claiming that Wilson parked his truck in the parking lot and chatted with people nearby for about 20 minutes before leaving the lot and driving his truck backward towards counterprotesters.
A local reporter from Willamette Week described Wilson driving slowly down a street with counterprotesters on either side of the road. As he drove by, anti-fascists filled the street behind him and threw rocks and water bottles at his truck. Suddenly, Wilson shifted into reverse and drove quickly backward, toward the protesters, for about one block. People jumped out of the way. Wilson then drove off, but soon re-emerged near the counterprotesters, where police blocked off his truck, handcuffed him and detained him nearby.
“I was definitely scared for my safety. I did not expect this at all,” Wilson said of the anti-fascists who threw objects at his car. “I was all discombobulated.”
Mason says Wilson’s account doesn’t make sense. “If he feared for his life... he could have more easily gotten clear from the crowd by moving forward,” Mason said. “Instead he squealed his tires and tried to back into a bunch of people.”
Based on video footage, there appeared to be no reason for Wilson to reverse quickly toward counterprotesters ― several of whom had to jump out of his way ― if his intention was to escape anti-fascists.
Freelance journalist Mike Bivins, who showed up to the rally just before Wilson drove his car in reverse, said it was hard to determine Wilson’s motives, but “it was definitely a dangerous situation.”
When Wilson got home Sunday evening, he climbed atop his truck, held up an American flag and appeared to brag about evading punishment. “No jail for this proud USA patriot!” he said in a video filmed by his wife and posted to his Facebook.
Wilson says he posted the video after seeing people on Facebook accuse him of being a Nazi and claim that he was in jail. “My adrenaline was high... It made me angry because it’s not the truth,” he said. He took the video down, but a Facebook account called “The Fascist Watch” posted a copy again Sunday night. It now has more than 5,000 views.
Anti-fascists have shared Wilson’s contact information online, along with information about his employer and photos of his house and wife. He and his wife shut down their Facebook pages and turned off their phones after being inundated with harassment and death threats, he says. The auto salvage shop where Wilson works has been hit with one-star reviews on Yelp as punishment for not firing him.
Garry Gossett, the manager of the auto salvage shop, says he doesn’t believe the allegations against Wilson, but chose to suspend him indefinitely on Wednesday after three people showed up at the shop threatening to stage a protest. An online petition calling for Wilson to be charged with attempted vehicular homicide has more than 2,300 signatures.
Wilson insists he isn’t a white supremacist, and says he has never heard of Patriot Prayer or any of the other far-right groups whose members appeared at the rally. To him, the Confederate flag represents pride in his family’s Southern ancestry, he said. Wilson himself was born in Vancouver, Washington.
Gossett says Wilson, who starting working at the auto salvage shop 11 years ago, is being portrayed unfairly ― but he admits that appearances are working against his employee. In addition to the Confederate flag sticker on his car, Wilson has a tattoo of the Stars and Bars on his right bicep. The tattoo was originally a Chevrolet logo, Gossett said, but at some point Wilson added the Confederate symbol. “I haven’t had the chance to sit down and ask Billy what that symbolizes for him,” Gossett said.
Wilson says he plans to take the Confederate flag sticker off his car.
“I love the flag to death, but it’s not worth it. It just sends a lot of mixed signals,” Wilson said. “I know what it means to me. I don’t need to show it off.”