With far fewer people than the Occupy movement a decade ago, a group of Canadian truckers has been far more successful in disrupting politics and life as usual in a much shorter span. Starting with a moving blockade, the truckers stalled traffic, particularly at border bridges, and eventually staging a sort of occupation of Ottawa–or at least a part of it.
The truckers have already shown at least one way that a small group of committed people can command international attention for their cause.
The point of disruptive protest–when there is a point–is to draw attention to the cause. For the truckers and their supporters, it was mandatory Covid vaccination to cross the border–at least initially. More generally, they framed their resistance as standing up for FREEDOM. The broader frame makes sense, since a vast majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and Canadians support vaccination–and get vaccinated–much more than their neighbors to the South.
But the convoy upstaged the grievance in fairly short order–a risk of all disruptive protest. A colorful and confrontational, maybe damaging event, makes message control much more difficult. When public attention focused on the truckers, all sorts of people tried to crowd into the spotlight and press their own messages. Very far right Canadian politicians like Tamara Lich, mostly out of office, jumped to support the truckers, making more institutional conservatives wary about endorsing the cause. Critics were quick to find and project the Confederate and Nazi flags that somehow turned up at trucker actions. QAnon enthusiasts penciled the convoy into their plans, all part of a larger unfolding plan. And support from the far right in the United States and even globally far outstripped support in Canada.
The message control problem is hardly peculiar to the truckers. Occupy, hamstrung by hyperdemocratic governance, consolidated around some images and phrases (The 99%) and a tactic, rather than a detailed program, and certainly inspired some unsavory figures claiming allegiance. But the broad message–protesting against growing political and economic inequality–came across–and spread globally.
The anti-vaccine mandate freedom agenda is even less clear–at least so far–at least to me. It’s not clear that the truckers want to sign onto the libertarian or neo-nationalist agendas would-be allies are foisting upon them. At least partly for this reason, the Convoy has been far more popular in the United States, where even institutional Republicans have signed onto their version of the cause. Reliably hypocritical Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) lauded the truckers, wishing that their protest might spread to American cities, and maybe even disrupt the Super Bowl. He enthusiastically coded the convoy as an expression of the time-honored practice of civil disobedience against injustice.
A decade ago, unsurprisingly, Paul was an unsparing critic of Occupy. Occupy tactics never enjoyed the support of most Americans, but for a while their causes did. And the Occupations were able to stand for just about three months because they were, after all, far less disruptive.
Canadian politicians were, up until just about now, reluctant to deploy state power against the truckers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is wrestling with his own public support problems, and wanted to avoid the convoy becoming a partisan issue. Intentional or not, Trudeau’s slow burn allowed public sentiment–at least in Canada–to turn overwhelmingly against the truckers. Notably, the very conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford followed public sentiment and turned strongly against the truckers, declaring a state of emergency, and ordering them to go home. Canadian police forces are beginning to clean out the blockades–with strong public support.
As the cost of protest increases, the Freedom Convoy drivers and their supporters will have to weigh their well-being against their cause. The police are likely to be far more harsh elsewhere as the campaign spreads internationally. In the United States, for example, the drivers will come up against American police, who can confiscate their trucks.
I think the key issue for protesters, virtually always, is the extent of connection between the streets and institutional politics. In Canada, institutional conservatives won’t carry water for the protesters….at least not yet.
Note: Here’s some writing that helped me think about the Freedom convoy:
Lesley Wood writes about the sort of freedom the truckers convoy supports. (It’s ugly.)
Howard Ramos posted a useful Twitter thread on the connections between the convoy and other far right movements, and what it all means.
Sid Tarrow examines the links between the truckers and the American far right.