Can the left learn from the Canada Freedom Convoy?

A woman writes a message of support on a truck as protests against coronavirus vaccine mandates continue in Ottawa, Canada, February 13, 2022.

Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For more than two For the past few weeks, protests against Covid-19 public health mandates have occupied Ottawa, Canada’s capital, under the banner of the “Freedom Convoy”. Could any anti-authoritarian liberation struggle worthy of the name have such stamina; if only those who fight against racial capitalism could take a city and hold it, putting the power of the state on their backs.

The right, of course, lacks some of the ingrained obstacles that the left faces — above all, the police, whose levity so far has been key to the ability of right-wing-led protesters to set up camp before the Canadian Parliament. Videos even show cops offering words of Support to protesters. On more than one occasion, cops pushed counter-protesters away from truck convoys joining the blockade.

In contrast, Indigenous land defenders from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have faced constant police brutality in recent years when they attempted to use blockades to halt pipeline construction. Which is not to say that the left wants the police on its side: Left-led, Black and Indigenous-led liberation movements cannot, and would not, seek understanding from the police forces that oppress them.

However, the left has other lessons to learn from the occupations and blockades in Ottawa – lessons that in no way involve supporting state power or embracing protesters as potential allies of the working class. and anti-authoritarian. Instead, the left should seek to use the same disruptive power displayed in these protests, but only on its own terms.

A protester poses with a police notice distributed as truckers continue their protest against Covid-19 warrants, in Ottawa February 16, 2022. - The notice warns protesters to leave the area and stop blocking the streets where they could be arrested.  (Photo by Ed JONES/AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

A protester shows a police department statement released as truckers continue their protest against public health mandates in Ottawa, Canada, February 16, 2022.

Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

A threesome fight

The relative leniency with which the police greeted the demonstrators in the convoy may be coming to an end. Ottawa’s police chief was ousted this week amid criticism over his inaction against the convoy. And on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a national public order emergency — the first time a Canadian government has taken such a step in half a century — to remove occupation and allied blockades along the Canadian border. The emergency ordinance gives the federal government extraordinary powers, including public meeting rights and helps prevent anyone suspected of participating in the protest from using financial institutions.

The left has nothing to support in the invocation of these repressive powers. These same measures will be used to stifle the movements we support. Poor, marginalized and racialized communities are already summarily arrested, deported, surveilled and excluded from the economy.

And the Canadian state does not demonstrate a single will to repress right-wing movements; rather we see the Trudeau government being forced into a corner, having ceded ground to these protesters that no leftist anti-racist protesters would be allowed.

We need not join liberal calls for police and state intervention to oppose the occupation and the copycat convoys it inspires. Instead, we can support counter-protesters pushing back convoys as an anti-fascist response to the presence of far-right forces within them.

Likewise, we might find sympathy for the people of Ottawa who understandably want a return to peace in their normally calm city, rattled at night by the horns of occupation trucks and late-night music. Yet the problem with the occupation is not that it is disruptive – blocking key points of the flow of capital is a strategy to adopt.

The same tactical logic inspired the Arab Spring, the European market movements in 2010 and the Occupy encampments the following year; taking over entire swathes of urban space is not an invention of the convoy of truckers. The ability of truckers to hold a downtown core for weeks in a powerful country like Canada is nevertheless noteworthy.

These dynamics encapsulate how the danger, as always, lies not in learning the lessons of right-wing protests, but in learning the wrong ones.

A protester dances with a sign during a protest by truckers against Covid-19 pandemic health rules and the Trudeau government, in front of Canada's Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario on February 13, 2022. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters in front of Parliament dance with signs during a protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and the Trudeau government in Ottawa, Canada, February 13, 2022.

Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Misconceptions of “freedom”

It is true that Canadian protesters are not uniformly white or all committed to Trumpian white nationalism; there are participants who saw an opportunity, albeit catalyzed by a pathetic anti-mandate movement, to protest against the Trudeau government and its neoliberal policies.

One could squint and see the potential for anti-authoritarian affinities to be found. Squint that hard, though, and you might find your eyes are closed. We cannot ignore the white supremacist notion of self-reliance that underpins the movement, which is not an afterthought that could be exorcised to reveal a workers’ movement based on solidarity.

Needless to say, there is nothing healthy about the individualistic rejection of masks and vaccines. Historian Taylor Dysart in The Washington Post rightly characterized these truckers’ notion of “freedom” – the ability to move freely and potentially spread disease on occupied Indigenous lands in the United States and Canada – as the “freedom” of the colonialist settlers.

Settler colonialism was evident in the offensive abuse of Indigenous ceremonies by the occupiers – which Indigenous groups have condemned – and in the way protesters in the convoy ignore calls from Indigenous communities for an end to this occupation on lands already busy.

The “Freedom Convoy” is also not a challenge to the violent border regimes of the United States and Canada, even though it began in protest against border policy requiring truckers to be vaccinated to cross between the United States. and Canada. A number of the movement’s leaders have openly expressed racist and anti-immigrant sentiments and have been involved in far-right organizing.

Anti-warrant protesters are not fighting for anyone’s freedom of movement, but their own.

PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 01: Tear gas surrounds protesters as they clash with riot police during a 'yellow vests' demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe on December 1, 2018 in Paris, France.  The third gathering of

Tear gas surrounds protesters as they clash with police during a demonstration of yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on December 1, 2018.

Photo: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Example of yellow vests

A useful comparison might be drawn with the yellow vests movement, which exploded on the streets of France in late 2018. The protests were initially in response to fuel tax hikes by ur-neoliberal French President Emmanuel Macron – a a supposedly green measure that actually puts an extraordinary financial burden on the working class while refusing to challenge big business. The protests erupted into a widespread uprising against the French status quo of austerity and economic injustice.

Under the aegis of the yellow vests, fascist elements were also pushing for tough immigration policies, while anti-fascist leftists took to the streets against the police and capitalist institutions. The movement contained deep internal conflicts and left-wing participants were faced with the question of whether it was worth trying to combat the racist and fascist elements of the uprisings within the movement. Many, however, found the alternative – allowing far-right forces to lead and control the revolutionary moment – ​​unacceptable.

Could the same logic also apply to anti-state protests in Canada and beyond today? Should the left refuse to cede the terrain of anti-state dissent and traffic struggles to right-wing conspiracy theorists?

Any meaningful response to the Freedom Convoy occupations and blockades must take effect in totally anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist terms.

The difference between the current blockades and the yellow vests is that the “freedom convoys” are not only incidentally rich in far-right elements; the notion of autonomy that drives the movement is essentially white supremacist and individualist. Notably, too, the American right’s support for the blockades is only anti-state insofar as the state is not Trumpian. And it bears remembering that when Canada saw its own Yellow Vest movement emerge in response to that of France, it was explicitly right-wing and anti-immigrant; the current blockages are part of this heritage.

If there is a legacy linked to the gilets jaunes to be carried towards more liberating goals than those of the Ottawa occupations, one could recall the gilets noirs instead. This huge collective of undocumented immigrants in France carried out major protest actions in 2019, notably by occupying a terminal at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport in direct resistance to Air France’s role as “official deporter of the French state”. The movement has also understood the importance of striking at major points of circulation: places of free circulation of capital and brutal limits to the circulation of people.

Like the black vest response to the yellow vests, any meaningful response to the Freedom Convoy occupations and blockades must take effect in totally anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist terms. On this side of the Atlantic, the way has already been blazed – and not by anti-mandate protesters. Indigenous land and water defenders from Standing Rock to the Wet’suwet’en territories have shown us what it is like to struggle against capitalist circulation in the service of collective rather than individual freedom.

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