Truckers on edge as civil unrest rages in major U.S. cities

Peaceful protests and civil unrest have erupted in nearly 140 cities in the U.S. over the last eight days since George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fears about public safety have left truckers who deliver freight in many of the affected areas on edge.

While it’s been 28 years since truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck cab and beaten during the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers charged with using excessive force in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, Joe Rajkovacz says he remembers it like it was yesterday.

“Before heading out, I was at home in Wisconsin watching the news about the LA riots on television and watched as Denny got pulled from his truck and nearly beaten to death,” Rajkovacz, who now serves as the director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association, told FreightWaves. “It led to a widely used phrase by truckers that ‘nobody is going to Reginald Denny me.’” 

Prior to his trucking career, Rajkovacz served as a police officer with the Baraboo Police Department in Baraboo, Wisconsin, for nearly two years in the early 1980s.

“It was the only time in my life [LA riots] outside of being in law enforcement I carried a weapon with me in the truck,” he said. “I was already loaded up to go and simply hoped the protests would burn themselves out before I got there.”

He said truck drivers now have access to real-time information about potential protests in riot hot spots across the country, which truckers back in 1992 could only find out about by listening to local radio stations. 

His advice to any trucker traveling through potential protest areas is to practice good situational awareness.

“Don’t go into areas with curfew restrictions and keep updated on the latest news reports of activity and avoid those areas,” Rajkovacz said. “If you can bypass major cities instead of running through a downtown area, it’ll make your job easier.”

However, he said that trucking companies have an obligation to employee drivers to ensure they are not putting drivers in a no-win position. 

“No load is worth the money if you cannot return safely,” Rajkovacz said.

Ronnie Sellers of Knoxville, Tennessee, said he sees the importance of trucker safety from both sides — as the former owner of a small trucking company and from a law enforcement perspective. 

He spent 30 years as a police officer before retiring as a captain of the Alcoa Police Department in Alcoa, Tennessee. 

After watching some of the riots unfold in Minneapolis and St. Louis, Missouri, as well as in other areas across the country over the last eight days and involving truck drivers, Sellers says there’s nothing in the back of those trailers that’s worth risking a driver’s life.

“Forced dispatch or not, you can’t drive into a riot situation because you are going to lose,” Sellers told FreightWaves. 

As a former law enforcement officer, Sellers said he carried a firearm with him in his cab throughout his trucking career. However, he admits it’s not that simple for other truck drivers.

While there is no federal law that prohibits truck drivers from carrying a properly permitted firearm, city, county, state and trucking company policies make it nearly impossible to legally comply.

“I carry my gun wherever I go, but there’s no way to win against an angry crowd,” Sellers said.

He urges peaceful protesters and truck drivers to follow curfews that city officials have established in several U.S. cities to avoid getting caught in the crossfire amid reports of looting and vandalism.

“After curfew, it’s hard for law enforcement to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys,” Sellers said.

Protesters have been demonstrating against police brutality for over a week after Floyd died while being restrained by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, who has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, was videoed by a bystander holding a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, during which time Floyd repeatedly claimed that he couldn’t breathe. 

Sellers said he was outraged after watching the footage.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this earth that wasn’t upset when they saw the video of what that officer was doing to George Floyd,” he said. “It was awful. He [Chauvin] is a bad cop and he didn’t care about that man at all.” 

If drivers are working for trucking companies that expect them to go into these sometimes dangerous hot spots, Sellers said he encourages them to find a different job.

“Companies should care more about their drivers than their equipment or making sure the load is delivered on time,” he said. “Just imagine what hundreds or thousands of rioters could do to a driver and his or her equipment in a matter of minutes.”

Jeff Bessent, safety director for Chicago-based M&J Intermodal Inc./Eagle Intermodal Inc., said the fleet’s safety department and dispatchers have been in constant communication with its 140 drivers about hotspots around the city.

“We are staying off the interstates as much as possible and we are watching all of the road closures that are going on and following all of the advice that the Illinois Trucking Association and the Illinois State Police are providing to us, as well as the Chicago Police Department,” Bessent told FreightWaves. “Right now, we are trying to move all of our freight as early in the morning as possible to avoid running in the afternoon and evening hours.”

Other safety measures

Some truck drivers say they carry cans of wasp spray that can shoot up to 20 feet to ward off potential attackers while on the road. Others prefer to keep tire thumpers, hammers or heavy-duty flashlights nearby. 

 Even in the best of times, Rajkovacz said truckers don’t go into the best neighborhoods to deliver freight. 

“You always have to be aware of your environment to avoid being victimized and becoming a statistic,” he said.

Read more articles by FreightWaves’ Clarissa Hawes