The so-called freedom convoy, which began in January 2022 to challenge vaccination requirements for truckers crossing the Canada-United States border, is a fascinating specimen for the sociology of law enforcement. At a time of growing fatigue over social distancing and other COVID-19 measures, the protests quickly escalated.
Some protesters have been observed bearing Nazi symbols. There have been reports of harassment of residents and violence against passersby, Trump 2024 signage and possible hate crimes.
These concerns fit into the criminal activities of right-wing groups identified in a report submitted to Public Safety Canada, and have led to questions about whose freedoms the protesters are fighting for.
Broader social issues
Law enforcement — or lack thereof — has been highlighted as an issue: the comparison has been made between police response to the “freedom convoy” and how protests by Indigenous and Black people have been handled.
Responding to how police handled a related trucker border protest at Coutts, Alta., a statement released by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation noted that:
If the blockade in Coutts consisted of Indigenous people, there would have been arrests and charges laid; instead, the Coutts blockade is being allowed to continue, even though it has at times become violent… It is important to recognize the disparity between how Indigenous and non-Indigenous protests are approached by our government. It is shocking to see this blatant disparity
The differences in intervention tactics are glaring. However, it is a mistake to consider this primarily or exclusively a law enforcement problem — the superficial law enforcement paralysis speaks to broader issues in our society.
More than a policing matter
The response to the “freedom convoy” offers a glimpse into the underbelly of the criminal justice system. The enforcement of law and order involves significant degrees of discretion. The favourable or unfavourable discretionary use of power goes beyond policing — it exists throughout the judicial system.
The prosecution of participants in the U.S. Capitol attack has been fraught with professional lenience that questions the notion of equality before the law.
Beryl Howell, chief judge of the federal court in Washington, was unsparing in her critique of the “disconnect” between the gravity of the actions of the offenders and the tepid charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. She described the situation as “muddled” and “almost schizophrenic,” asking “Is it the government’s view that the members of the mob that engaged in the Capitol attack on January 6 were simply trespassers?”
The “freedom convoy” protesters have been able to draw on a level of political capital that most people who take to the streets to fight for their rights rarely have.
Former Conservative party leader Erin O'Toole met with some of the protesting truckers before being ousted. CTV reported that his interim successor, Candice Bergen, ‘pushed’ O'Toole to show support for the “freedom convoy” protest, arguing there were “good people on both sides.” It was an unoriginal statement, but emblematic of the thinking at the highest echelons of the Conservative Party.
Bergen also told MPs that she thought the “issue should be turned into a problem for the prime minister,” a polarizing statement in advance of an election.
The truckers and their anger may be used as a catalyst for electoral mobilization, and their protest is being approached with greater circumspection. Bergen and other MPs and MLAs who have voiced their support are aware of the social and political value of the protesters.
The “freedom convoy” is well resourced. Organizers raised approximately $10 million within days on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe before their account was frozen. Despite being blocked by GoFundMe, the “freedom convoy” was still raising “thousands of dollars per minute” on GiveSendGo, another fundraising site.
The continuing influx of cash suggests the “freedom convoy” goes beyond some fringe elements of society. For perspective, consider that in 2021, the NDP in Alberta raised $6.2 million in 2021, its highest fundraising ever, while the United Conservatives generated $3.8 million.
The “freedom convoy” is a money-generating machinery that rivals several established political parties. Such serious cash means organizers can mobilize effectively and provide supplies to prolong the protest. This wears out law enforcement capacity.
On Oct. 21, 2021, a group of RCMP officers known as the “Mounties for Freedom” wrote an open letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on their opposition to vaccination mandates. The officers noted that they were “not against vaccinations, but as law enforcement officers, we cannot in good conscience willingly participate in enforcing mandates that we believe go against the best interests of the people we protect.”
They also noted being concerned about “the science,” and argued that their “constitutionally-protected freedoms precede the government.”
In other words, some officers would presumably participate in the “freedom convoy.”
The U.S. Capitol attack involved almost 30 off-duty police officers from 12 police departments. Some defendants charged in the attacks claimed that “they thought they were free to enter the Capitol because law enforcement authorities either didn’t stop them from coming in or never told them they were not allowed to be there.”
This has added to broader concerns over right-wing extremist infiltration of law enforcement and the military in the U.S. and Canada. A declassified 2020 report by Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre notes that far-right groups such as the Proud Boys are “actively recruiting” serving and retired members of the police and military.
Research shows that how police respond to protesters reflects a combination of subjective and objective risk calculations.
The “freedom convoy” provides a lesson in the politics of law enforcement. Right-wing groups increasingly pose serious threats to society and need to be recognized and treated as such.
The police — although they may not take direction from elected officials — take cues from political leaders. The reach and disruption of the “freedom convoy” represents a political choice of inaction by elected leaders and chiefs of police. The officers on the streets likely would have acted swiftly and decisively if they had been properly directed long before the trucks arrived.
It matters who is protesting and the social and political position they occupy. Although the “freedom convoy” has been treated lightly to date, other groups contemplating street demonstrations in the near future should be warned: Don’t try this at home.