Cyclist Who Gave Trump Motorcade the Middle Finger: 'He Wasn't Going to Hear Me Through the Glass'

News & Politics

Juli Briskman found flowers on her doorstep on Monday night. “Juli: I don’t know you and yet I am so proud of you,” an accompanying note said. “You’re my hero. Truly. Thank you for standing up to this admin. We need more like you. Continue to resist. We’re with you all the way. Sally M.”

Briskman does not know who Sally M is, but she knows what motivated the message. In the past week, she has received media calls from as far away as Colombia and Sweden as well as her share of hate mail. One told her: “I hope you get used to saying, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

It is all because of a split-second decision that made Juli Briskman a hero of the resistance – and a case study in the wildly unpredictable effects of social media.

It was 3.12pm on Saturday 28 October when Donald Trump, after a round of golf, departed the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, northern Virginia. His motorcade, which included the Guardian and other journalists, overtook a female cyclist wearing a white top and cycling helmet, who responded by raising the middle finger of her left hand.

The fleet of vehicles swept on imperiously on but then slowed for a red light, and the cyclist caught up. She persisted. She flipped the bird a second time before turning right as the motorcade turned left.

A photo of her act of defiance took off on social media. The Washington Post called it “the middle-finger salute seen around the world”. The late-night TV host Stephen Colbert said: “No one has summed up the mood of the country better … Long may she wave.”

The courageous cyclist’s face was not visible in the photo. However, in the social media age, and with some assistance from the protester herself, her identity did not stay secret for long. Briskman, 50, came clean and told her bosses at Akima, a government contracting firm in Herndon, Virginia. The marketing executive was promptly fired for violating the “code of conduct policy” – even though she was off duty at the time.

The story generated worldwide headlines again – and an outpouring of sympathy for Briskman, who clearly struck a chord. “I think the point is this resonates because millions of people feel the way that I do,” she told the Guardian, looking relaxed in an interview at her home on Tuesday.

“I don’t know that it’s all about me. I mean, some people have compared that picture to Tiananmen Square and I think that might be a bit of a reach … I wasn’t standing in front of three tanks and I wasn’t putting a flower in a military guy’s rifle like that one flower child picture that’s fairly famous. But having said that, someone said to me, ‘You don’t see it because you’re in it. You don’t see it but it is that.’”

Briskman lives with her 15-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son and labrador retriever, Sailor, near the golf club. The pleasant home is adorned with a piano, guitar and panels printed with aphorisms such as “All you need is love” and “Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful”.

Perhaps most fittingly, in a downstairs bathroom is a print that states: “Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably & never regret anything that made you smile.”

She describes herself as more of a runner than a cyclist: she celebrated her 50th birthday by pounding 50km. She has run five marathons and has a personal best of five hours 17 minutes. On a wall are numerous medals from the Ragnar long distance relay: this weekend will be her 13th. The door to the garage is plastered with numbered bibs.

Inside the garage there are stickers on the wall that say “Proud Democrat” and “I’m an Obama Democrat”. There is also the now celebrated bike: a blue Trek hybrid.

It does not take long in the company of Briskman, who had two spells abroad as a member of the US diplomatic corps, to realise that giving the finger was out of character. “It’s not something I do a lot,” she mused. “It was just sort of like, here I am on my bike. I’ve got nothing, right? This is pretty much the only thing I had to express my opinion. He wasn’t going to hear me through bullet-proof glass … So that was pretty much how I could say what I wanted to say, right?”

She never saw Trump so had no way of gauging his reaction, but she did observe others in the motorcade. “I believe I caught the gaze and locked eyes with one of the Secret Service guys who had a gun. And then I remember seeing the white cars behind the black cars that said ‘Secret Service’.

“And then, when I came past it a second time, there was a guy looking out with a very round face and grey hair. I don’t know who that was but he was looking out and I looked at him and he had no reaction … I was a little bit nervous because you don’t know what the political persuasion is of the folks that are riding with him.”

The motorcade went on its way, however, and Briskman went to bed that night assuming it was the end of the matter. She texted her family about what had happened and one member joked that it was “real mature”.

But a Guardian pool report and wire photos of the incident were spreading far and wide, generating both hero worship and vilification. Briskman got up late the next morning. “A friend of mine texted me … She said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ And she sent me a link.”

That led to the local branch of the Indivisible movement. A friend had posted that she knew the identity of the cyclist but would let her identify herself. “And so I respond, ‘Yes, that was me, ha ha ha.’”

Briskman put the photo of her protest up on her Twitter profile. She did the same on her Facebook page, which was private and visible only to users she selected. But she did not identify herself as the woman on the bike. She could merely have been a fan expressing her admiration. “I was walking the line, so to speak.”

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Briskman: ‘I believe I caught the gaze and locked eyes with one of the Secret Service guys who had a gun.’ Photograph: Liz Lynch for the Guardian

However, there was no holding back the tide. “People started tagging me and they started putting it on my Facebook. The Guardian article was posted several times. So yes, I started a snowball on Sunday and then on Monday another employer of mine, a yoga studio, said can you please do me a really big favor and take us off of your Facebook page.”

The yoga studio had received threatening emails and bogus bad reviews on its own Facebook page. Briskman knew exposure was inevitable and decided to take the initiative by informing her bosses at Akima, where she had worked for six months. She was quickly dismissed.

“They weren’t brutal, but they were very matter-of-fact and their minds weren’t going to be changed,” she said.

Briskman believes the decision was particularly unfair because, earlier this year, she says, she found an offensive public comment by a senior director at the company in an online discussion about Black Lives Matter. He was ordered to delete it but kept his job. Briskman has been in consultation with the American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer. “No decisions made but we’ll see,” she said.

Nevertheless, Briskman says she doesn’t regret what she did and is now considering her next move. “I think that I’ll be able to land on my feet.”

She does not rule out a new career in politics; on Tuesday morning she was helping Democratic efforts in the governor’s race in Virginia. Sympathisers have launched two GoFundMe efforts for her; one has already raised $12,000.

Her view of the Trump presidency is scathing. “Horrible,” she said. “I’m embarrassed. Some people have said you should respect the office even if you don’t respect the person. I’m like: I’m sorry, he does not respect the office. If he respected the office and he was serving honorably, despite my political differences, I can respect the office. I respected the office when Bush and Bush and Reagan were in there.

“It’s politics by Twitter, it’s policy by Twitter,” she said of Trump’s penchant for the social media platform. “That’s not presidential to me.”

Briskman, whose Twitter followers have soared from 24 last month to nearly 15,000 now, reflected on how social media had changed her life. “The lesson is you can’t stage things for a marketing proposition. You can’t plan this to happen. I wasn’t trying to get noticed,” except by Trump himself.

And she bears no ill will to the media who made her famous. “Was I shocked and surprised that I got my picture taken? Was it a little bit of a lesson you could get your picture taken any time? Perhaps. But no, I don’t have any anger toward the Guardian or toward Steve Herman [Voice of America’s White House bureau chief] for tweeting it. I know that he was criticised to a certain extent that this shouldn’t be part of the record. But it’s his job, and I don’t think he should be criticised for it and I don’t think you should be, either.”

See the photo at the Guardian.

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