west chester >> John Rodgers wants you to know that he is not a racist.
He wants you to understand that the words — which some would consider almost inexcusable — he used in a racially tinged road rage confrontation with a black driver last month on the Route 30 Bypass in Caln came from fear, frustration and anger, but not hatred.
He wants, most of all, to stop the threats he said he began receiving after a brief video clip of the unpleasant encounter went viral on the internet and television news, threats that came to his home in West Marlborough and led to real concern for his safety.
The death threats came from as far away as Georgia and remain under investigation by state police. Someone Rodgers knows had seen the video and had identified him by name and address.
“I am not racial,” said the 52-year-old commercial truck driver in an interview with the Daily Local News last week. “I have a mixed race grandchild. Bi-racial grandkids. I wouldn’t normally say that word. I am not a racial person. I don’t see color. I see ignorance.”
A civil affairs investigator with the Pennsylvania State Police who was involved in the investigation into the road rage incident tends to agree with him, even while addressing the words that went back and forth between Rodgers and the other driver, Zhaqweyza Armstrong of Coatesville, as unfortunate.
Both parties have agreed not to press any charges against the other person, said Sgt. William Slaton, Heritage Affairs commander with the department’s Equality and Inclusion Office, on Wednesday, a day after Rodgers spoke with the Daily Local. “(He) was upset and said some things he didn’t necessarily mean, out of anger. He wanted to convey to me that he wasn’t a racist. I gathered that from our meeting after seeing photos of his family.”
“Do I believe he is a racist? No,” continued Slaton. “Do I believe he used words out of anger? Yes. He isn’t a racist. I did not perceive that when I met him. He said he just doesn’t like stupid people.
“His sole purpose now is to get the message out that he is not a racist,” Slaton said. “I think he just chose the easiest words he could to offend someone because he was extraordinarily angry.”
According to the version of events given by Rodgers, the incident occurred around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13, near the Route 340 interchange of the Route 30 Bypass in Caln. Rodgers and his fiancé, Mary Hardesty, were driving west in his open-air 2005 Jeep Wrangler when a car came up behind him, cutting from right hand lane into left lane, and “almost hit the back of the car.” The driver appeared to be on the phone while driving, both said.
The driver, who was later identified by news outlets as Zhaqweyza Armstrong of Coatesville, cut back to the right hand lane and sped up, but was behind a box truck that kept her from proceeding. She then cut back over in front of Rodgers and Hardesty, causing him to swerve and scrape the “Jersey” barrier wall to the left.
“I got back in the lane, and she started slamming on her brakes ahead of me,” he said. The driver also began throwing things out of her car, food wrappers and cups, in front of him, he claimed. She “took off” and sped up the long hill east of the Brandywine Hospital exit. He continued on in the right hand lane, but the two cars were soon blocked in both lanes by a pair of slow moving trucks, he said.
As he pulled alongside her, he said, she swerved towards the Jeep, making him veer off the road onto the shoulder. “What is your problem?” he shouted out the open car door. He claims the woman responded by cursing and calling him “white trash.”
“She wants to be hollering at me?” he said in the interview. He responded by using a common racial epithet and shouting at her to “go back to Africa.” The driver used her cell phone to capture the confrontation, and then exited the highway on Route 82. Rodgers and Hardesty exited at Airport Road.
“We thought that was the end of it. We talked it over on the way home. She said her words, I said my words,” Rodgers recounted.
A day later, however, he said that the video the woman had taken of him shouting from his car “went viral” and he began receiving calls from people making death threats against him and his family.
When the threats came with the video clip being shown on television news and social media, the pair contacted state police at Embreeville to report the calls and tell their side of the story. They ended up speaking with Slaton. Rodgers said the woman had already reported the matter to state police, but had eliminated the prior incident that led to the videotaped confrontation. “They determined that she had not told the entire truth,” Rodgers said, after she was questioned about what had happened.
Slaton apparently urged the woman to take down whatever social media posts she had put on the Internet, and they were eventually taken down. “She was afraid of getting in trouble and did to go to jail for not telling the truth,” Rodgers said.
Attempts to reach Armstrong were unsuccessful.
In a television news interview, Armstrong said the slurs that Rodgers cast at her were unprovoked.
“He starts with the racial slurs. ‘You (expletive). Go back to Africa.’ Like he’s just screaming,” she said in the interview. “And he has no windows or doors on his car so I felt like he was inside of my car. I was by myself. He’s a huge man so I was terrified.”
Armstrong said she drove home after recording the encounter. She went to the Coatesville Police Department but was told she had to file the report with the state police since the incident occurred on the bypass. Armstrong said she gave state police the driver’s license plate number.
State police said there wasn’t much they could do because the vehicle wasn’t registered to the man who was yelling at her.
“At first on Friday they told me it would just be a traffic violation and there’s nothing they can do,” Armstrong told NBC 10 News “He’s allowed to say whatever he wants and it would just be aggressive driving.”
Armstrong then posted the video on Facebook. The post went viral and at one point had 400 shares and 45,000 views. Some people in the comments then identified the man.
“People were threatening him because the video went viral on Facebook before they took it down,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said the man in the video then filed a report with state police, claiming Armstrong was the aggressor during the situation and that she threw items out of her window. State police then questioned Armstrong again.
Armstrong denied the man’s allegations and said the only reason the man went to the police was because he was embarrassed on social media.
Rodgers and Hardesty were so concerned about the threats they had been receiving that they contacted David Clark, a West Chester attorney, to update their wills. “They threats were serious,” said Clark. “There were so many. I could see the concern in both Mary and John.”
“John just wants to get the message out,” said Clark. “The threats are ongoing. He wants to get the message out that he’s not a racist. What precipitated this incident was dramatic, and he felt like his life was in jeopardy.
“I say things when I get mad,” Rodgers acknowledged. “When you push me over the edge, I will push back. But this makes you think twice about what is going on.”
“I am glad they have taken the time to let their heads cool off, and not press charges,” Slaton said. Either one could have faced vehicle code violations, or possible charges of disorderly conduct, harassment, or ethnic intimidation.
He said the woman, whom he had also spoken with, “just wants to put this whole thing behind her. It has done enough damage to both parties.
Slaton said state police considers the road rage incident a closed case, but continue to investigate those threats that were made against Rodgers and his family. “You can’t just threaten people based on a 30-second news clip.”