It’s been a pretty gross few days in Ottawa due to the anti-vaccine mandate protesters.
A homeless shelter was descended upon and someone was assaulted; large groups of the maskless roamed through a downtown shopping mall, harassing workers; hotels were jammed with the belligerent and unmasked; much of the downtown core was shut down, blocked to traffic; vaccine clinics had to be closed; and government services were still shuttered as of Monday.
The issues have gone beyond mere inconvenience. Downtown streets have been filled with drunken, aggressive protesters, huge vehicles circling endlessly while honking their horns, and swastikas, SS imagery, as well as militia and Confederate flags. Rocks were thrown at ambulances, and paramedics needed escorts through the city’s core.
But Ottawa’s police force seems to have discovered the value of de-escalation. There have not been mass arrests of protesters, riot police have been nowhere in sight and despite threatening a federal government that contains former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair in cabinet, no one has been kettled. Police haven’t charged in, blasting with pepper spray and swinging their truncheons. There has been no fusillade of rubber bullets. Ottawa’s police force has even admitted to this soft approach, writing on Twitter, “Police have avoided ticketing and towing vehicle (sic) so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators.”
Given how menacing many of the convoy protesters have been, there’s an obvious impulse to wonder why they’re being given such a gentle ride, in contrast to how protests for progressive causes are treated? And for some, the impulse goes further: to call for a police crackdown. One city councillor and the mayor have even proposed seeking legal action against the organizers of the convoy to appropriate some of the funds they’ve raised to pay for the costs the protests have incurred.
We shouldn’t give into these impulses, though. No matter how much disruption these protesters may have caused, setting a precedent where organizers are liable for the costs incurred by a city is a quick way to have police start handing out bills for tear gas. And mass demands to crack down on the convoy will only give police broader license to brutally clear homeless encampments, pro-Palestine rallies and protests against war. Begging the state to do violence, even against the most odious protesters, is still begging the state to do violence.
Police won’t take a hard line against the sort of protest we deem to be reactionary, but then use restraint on ones we believe are good. Quite the opposite, actually: police see any protest from the left as a call to arms, no matter how non-violent it may be, because these are the sorts of causes they were created to oppose. Police don’t see people marching for social justice and think, ‘Gosh, what a good cause, better be nice to these folks.’ Instead, they see a threat to the established order and break out the tear gas.
It should come as no surprise, then, that some police have been happy enough to pose with protesters in Ottawa, who are against collective action and for individual freedom from responsibility. These protesters are happy to fly the “Blues Lives Matter” flag, and the police are happy not to beat them to a pulp.
So, we shouldn’t demand that police crack down on the convoy. It’s not going to happen. Instead, we should call on the police to meet all protests with the level of restraint they’ve given in Ottawa.