Rishi Maharaj: Collective anger is justified; a police riot is not
Ottawans are right to be frustrated by the freedom convoy, but calls to state-sanctioned violence are misguided
By: Rishi Maharaj
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” anti-vaccine mandate protest reached Ottawa on Friday, January 28. The next day they rallied on Parliament Hill with a crowd estimated in the thousands. It has been all downhill from there.
Not content with the already unsympathetic view most Canadians hold of the unvaccinated, protesters proceeded to trod on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and accessorize a statue of Terry Fox with placards of slogans. There were enough swastikas around that one managed to appear in the background of a Conservative MP’s ill-advised TV hit. Confederate flags were spotted — and reportedly asked to leave by other protestors. If an anti-vaccine mandate protest was already unlikely to strike a chord with the broad majority of Canadians, this group seemed intent on somehow making themselves even more objectionable.
There were also acts of harassment, intimidation and violence. In one instance, an ambulance was pelted with rocks and racial slurs were shouted at paramedics. Staff at a soup kitchen were harassed into providing free meals.
The combined effect of protestors parking semi-trucks and police closing streets caused massive traffic disruptions. Many businesses in affected areas of the city chose not to open.
After several days of honking horns and snarled traffic, it was clear that tempers had frayed.
By Sunday, people were questioning the lack of police response with some asking for the protest to be brought to an end by force.
But here’s the problem: as disgusting as what I’ve described above is, none of it justifies an overwhelming and indiscriminate police response.
I’ll grant that this is easier to say 4,000 km away from the sight of protesters using your lawn as an open toilet. Ottawans are no doubt experiencing frustration and anger, and that is perfectly understandable. Having a veritable who’s-who of deplorables turn up in your city to protest in favour of their irresponsible choices during a pandemic is not something you’re expected to be happy about.
Yes, there have been acts of violence. This shouldn’t be ignored. But those acts appear to be isolated, involving perhaps a few dozen of thousands of protesters. The ways that the protesters writ large have gotten on our collective nerves are mostly inconveniences. The behaviour I’ve seen cited most often in favour of sending in the riot squads is the disruption of traffic and closure of businesses. Constant honking is keeping people up at night, which certainly isn’t making anyone more tolerant. Public transit has been disrupted. On the whole, the impact to the city does not seem dissimilar to that of the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto: a massive pain in the butt for everyone who lives there.
What is different this time around is that our grievances with these particular protesters didn’t start last week. Our frustration is buttressed by two years of pent-up anger from a pandemic that has been prolonged and worsened by the refusal of these exact people to roll up their sleeves and be vaccinated. To many they are the virus itself, personified.
Making matters worse, there’s clear evidence of involvement of white supremacists and other equally unsavoury types. Even those among us who might normally go in for a pragmatic “good people misguidedly associated with a bad cause” view are understandably troubled by the implications of a mass mobilization of extremists. Days after the anniversary of the deadly Quebec City mosque attack, extremism is not something we have the luxury of taking lightly.
But as understandable as the collective anger towards the protesters may be, the desire to see them charged en masse by riot police is not. Nor does the distasteful nature of the cause being advanced justify clearing the streets. And the limited extent of violent acts suggests that police have less invasive means for dealing with those specific occurrences than carting off the whole crowd.
Protest is meant to be inconvenient. This isn’t one of those protests outside some foreign embassy that you walk by on a daily basis, barely looking up from your phone. The policies that you and I have willingly imposed on the unvaccinated, justified though they may have been, are what is being protested. We are the target and it is supposed to feel uncomfortable. Targeted disruption is a time-honoured protest tactic precisely because it provides a lever for a relatively small group to put their cause front and centre in a way that can’t be easily ignored. It’s a tactic that is either available to everyone or no one.
The unvaccinated have chosen a path where their own preferences are put ahead of the needs of society. The rest of us would only be doing the same if we allow our anger and frustration to rationalize the kind of indiscriminate police deployment that we have too often seen other protest movements met with. Allowing the right to protest to be circumscribed by our desire to go about daily life without disruption risks an important pillar of society that is already under threat.
A dramatic police crackdown on the “Freedom Convoy'' isn't going to do one single thing to address the ills of the anti vax movement. Like it or not, this fringe of society is here to stay. We would be better served by keeping our focus on effective, proven measures to reduce the risks posed by COVID-19 than by charging in with batons.
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