‘Freedom Convoy’ Not What it Claims to Be
A protest against vaccine mandates is growing with a little help from our adversaries.
Because I follow a handful of Canadian-based professors on Twitter, I have been following the recent protests whereby people driving big rig trucks have been clogging bridges and roads, ostensibly in protest of vaccination requirements, out of the corner of my eye. Recent revelations make it rather clear that the protests aren’t organic.
NYT (“Despite Court Order, Canada Protesters Are Still Blocking Key Border Bridge“):
Hours after a court ordered demonstrators to stop blocking access to the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, protesters were still there late Friday night, but in lesser numbers. Police officers were standing by but had made no move to clear the area of demonstrators.
The injunction from Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court was meant to open a way for traffic to move freely across the bridge, which carries roughly a third of U.S.-Canada trade, and which has been blocked for days by protesters.
The court ruling, which took effect at 7 p.m., was part of a flurry of legal activity Friday as officials struggled to contain protests that began in Ottawa two weeks ago, when loosely organized groups of truck drivers and others converged on the capital to protest vaccination requirements for truckers entering Canada. The demonstrations have swelled into a broader battle cry, largely from right-wing groups, against pandemic restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic.
The protesters have blocked roads leading to the U.S. border at four points — Windsor; Sarnia, Ontario; Emerson, Manitoba; and Coutts, Alberta.
Earlier in the day, Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, declared the state of emergency for the province, and the police in Ottawa braced for thousands of protesters to arrive for a third consecutive weekend.
If protesters do not leave peacefully, “there will be consequences, and they will be severe,” Mr. Ford said, adding, “Your right to make a political statement does not outweigh the right of thousands of workers to make a living.”
He said the maximum penalty for noncompliance with provincial orders would be $100,000 and a year in prison, plus potentially the revocation of personal and commercial licenses.
Mr. Trudeau weighed in on the crisis on Friday, saying that the best outcome would be for the protesters to “decide for themselves that they’ve been heard, that they have expressed their frustrations and disagreements, and that it is now time to go home.”
But because they haven’t done so, there will be “an increasingly robust police intervention,” Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa. He added, “This blockade of our economy that is hurting Canadians countrywide, Canadians who have been impacted by these blockades — this conflict must end.”
Automakers have been particularly affected by the partial shutdown of the Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor and Detroit. Trucks cross it thousands of times a day carrying $300 million worth of goods, about a third of which are related to the auto industry. The blockades have left carmakers short of crucial parts, forcing companies to shut down some plants from Ontario to Alabama on Friday.
The Teamsters union — which represents 15,000 long-haul truck drivers in Canada, but generally not the ones protesting — denounced the blockade, which threatens thousands of jobs.
WaPo (“State of emergency kicks in as Ottawa braces for third straight weekend of ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests“):
Canada’s capital was bracing Saturday for an influx of anti-government and anti-vaccine mandate protesters for a third straight weekend, while demonstrators partially blocking a vital U.S.-Canada border crossing defied an injunction ordering them to leave.
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly told reporters Friday that intelligence suggested the total number of trucks and demonstrators would be similar to that of last weekend, when about 5,000 people and 1,000 trucks flooded the city.
“Our message to you is: Do not come,” he said. “And if you do commit unlawful acts, there will be consequences.”
It was one of several warnings issued Friday to protesters of the self-styled “Freedom Convoy,” which has paralyzed the capital city. Protesters have blockaded several U.S.-Canada border crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge, a key trade corridor linking Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, and inspired similar protests abroad.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has previously ruled out mobilizing the military to break up the protesters, on Friday vowed an “increasingly robust police intervention,” adding: “Everything is on the table, because this unlawful activity has to end, and it will end.”
None of this seemed to perturb the protesters, who have also targeted border crossings in Manitoba and Alberta, as well as Sarnia in Ontario. As the court deadline passed at 7 p.m. Friday, the number of protesters diminished at the Ambassador Bridge, but many chose to defy the order, chanting “freedom,” waving flags, singing the national anthem and voting among themselves to stay put.
The convoy started as a protest against U.S. and Canadian rules requiring truckers crossing the border to be fully vaccinated. But it has grown into a broader movement against pandemic restrictions — which are mostly imposed by the provinces — and the Trudeau government.
Officials have noted that 90 percent of Canadian truck drivers are fully vaccinated. The Canadian Trucking Alliance, a main industry group, has distanced itself from the protests. Many of the key organizers are not truckers but figures in fringe extremist and anti-government groups. Some protesters have flown Confederate flags or flags with swastikas on them, while some Ottawa residents say they’ve been intimidated, subjected to racist vitriol and harassed for wearing masks.
Protesters have tapped into broader pandemic fatigue and benefited in part from foreign support. Trudeau said Friday after a call with President Biden that at least 50 percent of fundraising for the convoy on some websites has originated from the United States.
Right-wing political figures in the United States continued to express support for the Canadian demonstrators. “Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in our country,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in an interview with the conservative website Daily Signal. He added: “I hope the truckers do come to America.”
Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) chimed in on Friday in a tweet that criticized vaccine mandates and Trudeau, who has called the protests unlawful. “You know what’s unlawful? Forcing private businesses close their doors,” said the lawmaker, who also incorrectly referred to the vaccines as “experimental.” (Coronavirus vaccine shots that have completed clinical trials and been approved by regulators are not experimental.)
NBC News (“As U.S. ‘trucker convoy’ picks up momentum, foreign meddling adds to fray“):
There is growing momentum in the U.S. anti-vaccination community to conduct rallies similar to Canada’s “Freedom Convoy” that has paralyzed Ottawa, Ontario, and the effort is receiving a boost from a familiar source: overseas content mills.
Some Facebook groups that have promoted American “trucker convoys” similar to demonstrations that have clogged roads in Ottawa are being run by fake accounts tied to content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and several other countries, Facebook officials told NBC News on Friday.
The groups have popped up as extremism researchers have begun to warn that many anti-vaccine and conspiracy-driven communities in the U.S. are quickly pivoting to embrace and promote the idea of disruptive convoys.
Researchers at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy first noted that large pro-Trump groups had been changing their names to go with convoy-related themes earlier this week. Grid News reported on Friday that one major trucker convoy Facebook group was being run by a Bangladesh content farm.
Many of the groups have changed names multiple times, going from those that tap hot-button political issues such as support for former President Donald Trump or opposition to vaccine mandates, to names with keywords like “trucker,” “freedom” and “convoy.” Facebook allows groups on its platforms to change names but tracks the changes in each page’s “about” section.
The motivations of the people behind the content mills are not clear, but Joan Donovan, director of the Shorenstein Center, said the pattern fits existing efforts to make money off U.S. political divisions.
“In some ways, it’s normal political activity,” Donovan said. “In other ways, we have to look at how some of the engagement online is fake but can be a way to mobilize more people.”
“When we see really effective disinformation campaigns, it’s when the financial and political motives align,” she added.
The groups frequently directed users away from Facebook toward websites that sold pro-Trump and anti-vaccine merchandise, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said. The spokesperson noted that the majority of the content posted in these groups came from real accounts and that the company has removed the groups tied to foreign content mills.
“Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against Meta’s policies,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “However, we have removed multiple groups and Pages for repeatedly violating our policies prohibiting QAnon content and those run by spammers in different countries around the world. We continue to monitor the situation and take action.”
The whole thing is bizarre. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a person whose vaccination status poses a lower threat to society than a dude riding by himself in the cabin of a giant truck for twelve hours a day ferrying car parts. On the other, some 10.34 billion doses of the various COVID vaccines have been administered at this point; that people are still wigging out about safety makes no sense.
Regardless, free people have a right to protest government mandates they disagree with. They do not, however, have a right to block thoroughfares and stop their fellow citizens from exercising their rights to travel and engage in commerce. Truckers banding together to refuse to haul cargo until the requirement is rescinded is peaceful protest. This is simply criminal conduct.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp is angry about it.
Since January 28, Canada’s capital city of Ottawa has been under siege by a convoy of angry truckers — a two-week running protest that has drawn support from right-wing extremists in Canada and abroad.
The so-called “freedom convoy” is nominally protesting a vaccine mandate for truckers, implemented in mid-January on both sides of the US-Canada border. But the demonstrations have swiftly ballooned into a broader far-right movement, with some demonstrators waving Confederate and Nazi flags. Protester demands include an end to all Covid-19 restrictions in Canada and the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
We do need to be careful in these characterizations. Some number of crazies will naturally attempt to glom onto any significant protest movement. While organizers have some responsibility to disassociate themselves, there’s only so much one can do.
Still, Max Fischer reports for NYT, it certainly seems like more than that.
The truck convoy protests in Ottawa and several provincial capitals represent an unexpected show of strength for the far right and populist right factions at their helm.
Those movements have, in years past, not made nearly as many inroads to the mainstream as their American and European counterparts have.
It is too soon to say, political experts caution, whether this indicates that the right-wing populist wave has now fully arrived in Canada.
But the protests’ sudden surge, coming amid a wider backlash to pandemic-related restrictions, illuminates the far right’s unique and potentially changing role in Canadian political and cultural life, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing it.
“The biggest misconception about this, even within Canada, is that extremists have infiltrated the movement,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security official in Canada who now teaches at Carleton University.
In reality, she added, “this was an extremist movement that got mainstream attention.”
The organizers are mostly fringe activists, rather than truck drivers, an overwhelming majority of whom are vaccinated.
Back to Beauchamp:
The demonstrators, which have included as many as 8,000 people at their peak, have terrorized Ottawa: blockading streets, harassing citizens, forcing business closures, and honking their extremely loud horns all night. Ottawa police, who have proven some combination of unwilling and unable to restore order, have even set up a special hotline to deal with a deluge of alleged hate crimes stemming from the protests. In the first week of February, it received over 200 calls.
Civil disobedience always entails law-breaking of some magnitude. But I fully agree that this is simply beyond the pale.