Jen Gerson: The Backlash
If you don't see the peril here, well, all I can say is enjoy Prime Minister Pierre and all of the inevitable drama that the coming populist wave will entail.
Everyone is a hypocrite. Perhaps this is just a feature of human nature, and I should learn to be more compassionate toward hypocrisy — including my own. No one is consistent all the time, and we all go a little cross-eyed when we're angry.
In the last few weeks, I've watched lefties who once passionately defended the legitimacy of protests that included isolated cases of looting and rioting now look at the convoy occupying Ottawa and go full bug-eyed authoritarian; demanding the police they once wanted defunded roll in and crack heads G20-style.
And I've watched individuals who once railed against the Occupy protests react with gleeful abandon at the sight of loud, diesel-spewing trucks establishing permanent encampments throughout the downtown core of a major city.
Everyone is acting a little nuts.
Both left and right are engaging in a pointless game of tu quoque, cherry picking historical or hypothetical protests to make their tribe out to be the aggrieved victims of police inaction or police over-reaction through history.
None of this is productive. In the current moment, we have clear examples of foreign involvement; extreme elements in the U.S. are both promoting and even funding a standoff in the capital of a sovereign nation. And the longer the convoy continues this protest, the more likely the whole affair ends bloody, further ratcheting up the cycle of alienation and polarization that got us here in the first place. What a mess.
That said, I'm trying to be clear-eyed about the current scenario in Ottawa and at the various border crossings now clogged with cars and trucks. To start, I'm going to admit a few priors. One of the most implacable ideological differences between Line co-founder Matt Gurney and myself is a disagreement about the fundamental role of state action in citizens' lives. Nowhere is this divide more obvious than in matters of state-sanctioned violence. Gurney is more of a traditional law-and-order, national-security conservative type on these matters; I enjoy a more libertarian, anarchic bend. Governments, to my mind, are a necessary evil, but I don't trust them to be particularly good at solving complicated problems.
I recognize that this itchy ideology often chafes uncomfortably against reality. Of course, I don't believe that police should never act against protesters — particularly against protesters who block or damage critical infrastructure. (Yes, the border crossings at Coutts and Windsor qualify as critical infrastructure. I'm not sure the same metric can be applied to Wellington St.) You can't allow protests to set up permanent encampments in public spaces, as this fundamentally undermines the rule of law, citizen safety and the like. Rather, I simply believe that the standard by which the state ought to consider violent action against its own people is very high. It needs to be deeply reviewed, considered, and subject to serious accountability and oversight.
This is why I get incredibly uncomfortable when hot-blooded citizens and overwhelmed police chiefs use militarized language to describe what has, until now, been a generally non-violent protest. Blockade, siege, occupation. There's a clear attempt here to create a moral argument for a violent state response.
At the same time, I am not naïve about the protesters themselves. They are not politically sophisticated. They came to Ottawa under a clear mandate to overthrow a democratically elected government. They have some demonstrably banana crackers conspiratorial views about vaccines and politicians. They have been incredibly disruptive, blocking numerous roads for days and honking horns for hours. They have been disrespectful towards monuments, and at times boorish in their behaviour. There have been allegations of rock throwing at ambulances and assaults. There has also been a case of arson allegedly connected with the convoy (although I will withhold any judgement on that one until we get more information on the incident.)
From the protesters’ perspective, focusing on these isolated incidents is overwrought. Firstly, these guys have been more likely to be the victims of serious acts of violence than the perpetrators of same. The Freedom Convoy is not setting up a tyrannical blockade by their own lights, but rather an extended street protest-ey party, complete with DJs, bouncy castles, BBQ pits and saunas. They've organized camps for themselves, cleared the roads of snow and, by their own reports, ejected racist elements. The odd attendee waving a swastika or a Confederate flag has been booted (and, in fact, I've even heard some claim that these figures were agents provocateurs, consciously designed to turn public support from the protest as a whole. I obviously can't confirm this counter-point and it may very well be nonsense, but the possibility is worth considering.)
The end result of all of this is that the media — overwhelmingly focused on the most sensational elements of a story that they on some level hoped would morph into a Jan. 6 style insurrection — is presenting a version of reality that is wildly at odds with the protesters' own self conception. It's also not in line with people who have attended protests in other cities, and have reported to me that the vibe of these things is in fact mostly positive and welcoming. This further erodes trust in media, pushing a faction of the public further into information bubbles and away from mainstream reporting.
The problem here is that whether the protesters see it or not, they and their cause are being idolized — and even funded — by a far-right American fringe that has an agenda of its own. Our capital has been paralyzed by a few hundred long-haul trucks. Don't imagine that this situation is going unnoticed by our strategic enemies who will look at this protest as a model for future disruptions here and in other democratic countries. I have no doubt that a subsection of true lunatics and radicals are looking at Ottawa as an opportunity for a training run in street combat.
Ottawa police ought to be enforcing parking and noise bylaws — civil disobedience does not absolve protesters from legal consequences for illegal actions — and reports of police officers refusing to write tickets or even providing fuel to the truckers are obviously a problem.
But I think a hard-line response to this protest risks a very, very bad scenario. If you think our current state of polarization and civil unrest is bad now, how do you think it's going to look if the police storm in and leave a handful of dead truckers in the street to become martyrs of a country these people have already deemed tyrannical?
Meanwhile, these protesters don't see the real danger they are courting. If any of them are reading this: please go home. You have been heard. Your protest is now counter-productive. Vaccine mandates are unlikely to be repealed while you continue in the capital, and the longer you stay and more disruptive you become, the more you're going to lose the average Canadian.
Do I expect any protester to take up my advice? Well, no. Because, bluntly, nobody has any incentive to de-escalate.
According to an email obtained by the Globe and Mail earlier this week, interim Conservative party leader Candice Bergen advised the leader Erin O'Toole's senior caucus team against telling the truckers to go home.
"I don't think we should be asking them to go home," it read. "I understand the mood may shift soon. So we need to turn this into the PM's problem.” This is breathtakingly cynical, bad for the country, and also very obviously good politics.
Of course the Conservatives want the Liberals to eat the outcome.
I will note that the prime minister doesn't seem eager to de-escalate, either. No "understanding" from the Liberals for this crowd: they're a bunch of fringe deplorables with "unacceptable views." Did anyone expect a gentler tone after the last election? The Liberals only need the support of roughly 30 per cent of the population to govern, and that 30 per cent neatly aligns with the population who would love to see these truckers, the very personification of the anti-vax movement, get their heads cracked in, or at least hauled off in irons. This occupation is an opportunity for Trudeau. This is his "just watch me" moment. The prime minister isn't going to resign.
Lastly, the protesters themselves have no incentive to de-escalate. They're swimming in cash and having a grand old time.
The cops are clearly overwhelmed, and the federal government is trapped in the fetal position of stun-fucked stasis. All in all, I have no easy, pithy take. We can't let the convoy take up the capital indefinitely. They aren't going to get what they want. And there's no easy way to remove them without making everything worse.
Finally, what I will note here is a bit more fundamental. In our coverage of the banal, we avoid the deeper currents of this unrest. The tiny spark that lit this protest was created by a vaccine mandate that would affect only a small percentage of unvaccinated cross- border truckers. Before the convoy was ever a glimmer in the alt-right's eye, entirely reasonable, non-partisan experts warned that this mandate was a bad idea. It risked adding more uncertainty into an already fragile system for no obvious benefit. It would make no meaningful impact on the spread of Omicron. In short, it was always pure pandemic posturing.
This is the problem.
The evil, blockading, racist, conspiracy-minded, problematic truckers and the uncouth blue collar populists are the ones arguing that it's time for dystopian forever-pandemic restrictions to end; that schools should be open and that my kids should be enjoying a normal childhood.
By comparison, the scientific and public health experts and their adjacent angels of COVID light, who have not been wrong once during this pandemic — just ask them! — are adding or defending increasingly nonsensical and theatrical restrictions just as the rest of the world (and even officials at the World Health Organization) are treating COVID as endemic, lifting lockdowns and returning to normal life. No jurisdiction save Alberta is offering the public the promise true pandemic exit plan — which is what we need to ease the deeper tension of this crisis.
(Although I also give partial credit to federal chief public health officer Theresa Tam for acknowledging that the status quo is untenable, and that we need to look for a more sustainable approach to managing COVID going forward. Backbench Liberal MP Joel Lightbound also found his spine on Tuesday and criticized the government’s divisive rhetoric and approach.)
If you don't see the peril here, well, all I can say is enjoy Prime Minister Pierre and all of the inevitable drama that the coming populist wave will entail. Because the backlash is here, and it's a hell of a thing to watch.
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