‘Freedom Convoy’ Not What it Claims to Be

A protest against vaccine mandates is growing with a little help from our adversaries.

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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.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Economics and Business, First Amendment
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    There’s a new hashtag that applies to these losers: Clownvoy. I think it’s great and should be used as often as possible.

    There was a comedian on Kimmel (I think?) a couple of years ago who addressed the Canadians are nice issue; no quotes because this is a summary, but I’d love to remember the guy’s name: Canadians aren’t any nicer than any other nationality in the world. What Canadians are is polite, and if you really want to get up in a Canadian’s grill, really set him off, then violate what he considers to be basic social norms. Canadians can really get steamed over that.

    I think what the Clownvoy is doing falls into that category of social violation, and my Canadian wife agrees in triplicate. Pissing on the National War Memorial, dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and soiling the statue of Terry Fox – pretty much the greatest hero Canada has (google his name) – are 3 for 3 in terms of anti-social behavior.

    8
  2. Gavin says:

    Always important to understand for context — The actual truckers’ organization of Canada does not support this. Trucker vaccination rates are the same as the country population as a whole.

    American truckers do not support these protests.

    And don’t forget the first night of the protests they barged in and took food from a homeless shelter. Winning hearts and minds, you might say..

    12
  3. Jon says:

    Interesting additional information, via TPM, discussing those who may be trying to hijack things.

    2
  4. Scott F. says:

    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 hand, the dude is going to hop out of his truck to buy gas at a crowded truck-stop in one state, then later drop into a busy diner hundreds of miles away, then later buy supplies at a convenience store in another state. Wouldn’t one expect unvaccinated truck drivers to be vectors for spread of the virus?

    20
  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    The anti-vax hysteria is not about the vaccine, that’s just a rallying cry because they can’t say what really upsets them: Blacks, browns, gays, trans, feminists, academics and a modern world that sees them as people temporarily employed while we wait for autonomous trucks. They’re red-faced, angry toddlers demanding attention by lying down in the aisle of Target and crying.

    The Canadian government has handled this intelligently, waiting until these people be-clown themselves to such a degree that all sympathy is lost. Now a few will go to jail, a bunch will lose their jobs, and the rest will go back to impotent grumbling as modernity rolls relentlessly over them.

    22
  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Jon: Thanks. That’s a must read.

    We talk about possible civil war. If it comes, it won’t be Texas seceding for the third time, it’ll look a lot like this.

    2
  7. charon says:

    @Scott F.:

    They don’t always sleep in their cabs, either, many truck stops have beds, showers etc. for them to take a break.

    4
  8. Joe says:

    As I understand the basic complaint of the anti-mask, anti-lockdown crows is that the government is ruining peoples’ ability to make a living and go on about their lives. So creating a protest that is designed to block peoples’ ability to make a living and go on about their lives seems a little misdirected, or so it seems to me.

    10
  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Joe:

    So creating a protest that is designed to block peoples’ ability to make a living and go on about their lives seems a little misdirected, or so it seems to me.

    I don’t know the trucking business, but from what I see they aren’t paid very well here, and I doubt it’s much different in Canada. But somehow they can afford to take themselves and their rigs off the road for a few weeks? And are they their rigs? I would have thought some of the trucks and many of the trailers would be corporate property. Don’t they want their stuff back?

    5
  10. Mikey says:

    @Joe:

    As I understand the basic complaint of the anti-mask, anti-lockdown crows is that the government is ruining peoples’ ability to make a living and go on about their lives.

    It seems that way, but in reality their complaint is the government is telling them they live in a society and that means respecting the rights of other people. But since their capacity for empathy stopped developing before they got out of diapers, this makes them angry. The whole “no masks, no mandates” blather is just a pretext for “I am the only person who matters and everyone else can fuck off.”

    12
  11. MarkedMan says:

    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.

    I can’t speak for coronavirus specifically, but it has been known for decades that disease transmission follows truck routes all over the world. Truckers stop in virtually every business in every town in the US and all over the world. They interact with receiving clerks, shipping clerks, diner staff, service station staff, hotel staff and every kind of prostitute you can imagine and some you can’t. You may want to examine your idea that everyone in public health is an idiot and knows nothing about truckers as disease vectors.

    10
  12. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: @MarkedMan: Fair enough. Yet, oddly, the government dropped the requirement the Canadian drivers going back and forth cross the border be vaccinated–it only applies to US truckers now.

    1
  13. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: ?!? That story is a month old. So these guys are in Ottawa demanding the Canadian government stop doing something it never did?

    3
  14. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Joe: It follows the logic of protest, to wit: Activists seeking to heighten awareness of the dangerous trains travelling through Whatcom County, WA, USA did so by sabotaging the rail system in such a way as to stop a hazmat train in the county in the middle of the night. Save the people by endangering them.

    The logic is do the most dramatic thing possible to drive news coverage. Also, for the “truckers”, I think there are some who wish to portray democracies as weak and ineffective. We are in the midst of an ideological battle with authoritarians.

    2
  15. senyordave says:

    Thank God we have Rand Paul as the voice of reason:
    “I hope the truckers do come to America, and I hope they clog up cities,” Paul told the conservative Daily Signal in an interview Thursday.
    Starting to understand why Rand Paul’s neighbor kicked the crap out of him. Too bad they didn’t have crowdfunding back then, I would have thrown a few bucks to his neighbor.
    Maybe Rand Paul can have a heart attack while in DC but be unable to get to a hospital because he got his wish and the city was clogged.

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  16. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @senyordave:
    Vaguely remember seeing a news blerp the other day about people saying the clownvoy needs to move to the area around the Super Bowl site and “f that mother up.” Oh goodie, that’ll go over swell, Barney!

    2
  17. CSK says:

    @Flat Earth Luddite:
    Yeah, that should go over really well with all the SB fans. Rand Paul says he’s all for” it.

    1
  18. Gustopher says:

    We do need to be careful in these characterizations [nazi flags and confederate flags]. 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.

    When you see a Nazi, you punch a Nazi. That’s one of the most basic rules of a polite society.

    If you have weak knuckles, and a few Nazis try to join your protest, you surround them, shout at them, and push them out of your group.

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  19. Gustopher says:
  20. Gustopher says:

    I am disenheartened that the truck in the photograph still has headlights. Does no one in Ottawa have a ball peen hammer?

    “I’m going to disrupt a city by blocking traffic with a vehicle that is my livelihood” seems like a poor decision to make, at least in a world where counter protesters exist.

    The Proud Boys like to have truck trains through Portland to terrorize the residents, but they’re small trucks (pickup trucks) and they bring enough people to provide adequate defense, and they try to keep moving.

    2
  21. mattbernius says:

    When all of this is said and done, it will be worth comparing Right-Wing Media’s reaction to these protests to BLM from the summer of 2020. Paul Krugman had a provocative twitter thread yesterday where he wondered what the economic impact of these protests will be and how that will square against the economic impact of the riots that occurred around a limited number of BLM protests.

    Likewise, after spending weeks blaming empty shelves on Biden, there seems to be little concern about how these protests are fitting into goods not being available in Canada or the US.

    Finally, Sean Hannity and other media figures have begun to warn that it would be a mistake to use police to crack down on these protesters (and if things get violent it will be on the police and governments for forcing the situation). This is in stark contrast to what we saw in 2020.

    4
  22. Scott says:

    @Gustopher: There’s that Christian nationalism threat that I talked about earlier in the week.

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/thursdays-forum-86/#comment-2678747

    1
  23. Scott says:

    @mattbernius:

    The same people who are supporting the truckers were the ones pushing state laws about blocking traffic.

    New legislation aims to offer protection to drivers who hit protesters that are performing road-blocking maneuvers

    6
  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Scott F.: You simply must be mistaken about that whole getting out of the truck thing. I’m sure that these are men and women who eat in their truck, go to the toilet in their trucks, and have their shipping documents taped to the outside in weather-proof bags so they don’t even exit the trucks on delivery. Many people are saying that truckers live for months at a time with no actual human contact at all.

    3
  25. DK says:

    @Scott: Maybe because they know they’re really supporting fringe radical right extremists, not truckers?

    Same people who — along with fringe left anarchists and general neighborhood trash/opportunists — hijacked some BLM protests to incite riots and destruction.

    They’ve been at this clownery for the better part of two years. It’s not about truckers just like it wasn’t about BLM. It’s about wingnut crazies who need to be stopped.

    4
  26. dazedandconfused says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Long haulers tend to be oddly and relentlessly chatty when they hit our dock. It’s a lonely job. It’s no surprise a lot of them wind up listening to a lot of talk radio.

    6
  27. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Gustopher:
    Or the lesson I learned in 7th grade. Never use a closed hand on a closed mind. Use a stick. Vigorously.

    3
  28. Matt Bernius says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    I do wonder to what degree podcasts may ultimately become a buffer for right wing radio for long haul drivers.

  29. Moosebreath says:

    “‘Freedom Convoy’ Not What it Claims to Be”

    You mean that this may be a protest movement that didn’t arise spontaneously, but was paid for by rich right-wing folks, like the Tea Party or the Brooks Brothers Riot? You think?

    2
  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: Yeah. I saw that phenomenon during the 15 years I worked in warehousing–a lot of that time in receiving and inventory control. And truckers listening to talk radio a lot wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Probably podcasts, too, these days.

  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Matt Bernius: Might ultimately become? We may already be there. Lots of trucks are connected to whatever homes they claim by wifi these days if I understand things correctly.

  32. Mimai says:

    These sorts of things are real-life Thematic Apperception Tests.

    1
  33. @gVOR08:

    I would have thought some of the trucks and many of the trailers would be corporate property. Don’t they want their stuff back?

    I suspect that this is largely a protest from “petit-burgeois” truckers (self-employed, owning is own truck), or perhaps even from trucking companies, not from the “proletarian” truckers.

  34. Les says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You’re not seriously turning this into a race issue. Do you even realize how diverse the industry is. A quarter of the truckers that deliver to our plant are Sikh. Minorities flock to the industry because it pays well and you don’t need an education. Female drivers are commonplace. I have a friend of mine who drives team with his wife. Husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend tandems are very common for long haul.

  35. Les says:

    @DK: @Moosebreath: They honestly didn’t know how much support it would receive. It just spiraled because people are fed up with the economic situation and the destructive impact restrictions have had on kids especially. Covid has been mishandled worldwide. Based on the data, we know now that without a doubt, the cure has proven worse than the disease and we have destroyed our nations to boot.

  36. Les says:

    There is no fringe. Ethnic minorities make up much of the industry. Sikh and East Indian truckers regularly deliver to our plant. One guy out of the thousands showed up with a Nazi flag and the truckers kicked him out. Two guys showed up with Confederate flags and the truckers kicked them out. That is not what they’re about but it is what the media propaganda focused on. Did you know that 90% of truckers are vaccinated?

    Here’s local Ottawa residents interviewing truckers and what ‘they’ actually think based on their observations (not what politicians and their supporting media think). https://fb.watch/bdCP_oibt1/