Truculent truckers have driven several governments to distraction in recent weeks. In Canada, they blocked bridges to the US and laid siege to the capital, Ottawa. In New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, truckers and other demonstrators, inspired by the Canadian protesters, blocked the square in front of the country’s parliament as well as several city streets.
This new wave of “freedom convoy” protests, fueled initially by opposition to coronavirus restrictions, has since spread to France, Australia and the US.
Governments and law-enforcement agencies have responded with a range of tactics but ending the protests is proving difficult. In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at first described the truckers as a fringe minority. But one survey reported that one-third of Canadians support the protesters, even as they were creating havoc for Ottawa residents and for factories on both sides of the US-Canada border.
The Ottawa police tried a “surge and contain” strategy by arresting a few people, issuing tickets and traffic notices, and seizing fuel being brought to the truckers. This approach, the city’s police chief said, significantly reduced the number of trucks and protesters. But it has not been successful enough.
On Feb. 6, the mayor of Ottawa declared a state of emergency and police subsequently used a court injunction to begin clearing the Ambassador Bridge connecting Ontario with the US. But the protests have continued and on Feb. 15 the police chief resigned.
In Wellington, as in Ottawa, the protesters were initially permitted to have their say but after a week of escalating disorder the authorities adopted various measures in an effort to disperse them. The speaker of the House of Representatives turned on water sprinklers on the lawn where protesters were assembled, and then played Barry Manilow songs and the Macarena on a 15-minute loop. Still, many of the protesters remained.
French authorities took a more robust approach, banning the “convoi de la liberte” from Paris. On Feb. 11, the police deployed more than 7,000 officers to tollbooths and other key sites around the city, along with bulldozers and water cannon to break up potential blockades. By the following day, 337 people had been fined and several dozen arrested. But the cat-and-mouse game between protesters and the police continues.
The protests have three features that make them particularly difficult to manage. Firstly, there are myriad grievances among the protesters. Clearly, repeated government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions have led to widespread exhaustion and exasperation. This was evident in Europe in late 2021 when the introduction of new lockdown phases and restrictions because of the spread of the Omicron variant triggered immediate, large-scale demonstrations in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Croatia and Italy.
But the current trucker-inspired protests have snowballed quickly to include groups with a multitude of complaints and demands.
The protests in Canada were sparked by a new government mandate requiring unvaccinated truckers to quarantine after returning from the US. Within days, the truckers were joined by an assortment of political groups and were being egged on by some opposition parties.
Similarly, in New Zealand what started as a protest against vaccine mandates rapidly expanded to include truckers, fundamentalist Christian leader Brian Tamaki’s Freedoms and Rights Coalition, and an online conspiracy-theory channel. Banners carries by protesters highlighted a range of issues, including COVID-19, censorship and indigenous rights.
A second feature of the protests is the inspiration and support they receive from abroad. Paradoxically, nationalist anti-globalizers are encouraging movements in other countries. In 2021, for example, right-wing US groups were fueling anti-vaccine protests in Australia. And US politicians, including former President Donald Trump, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, show little restraint in urging-on protesters elsewhere in the world.
Funding for the protests is global, too. The crowdfunding platform GoFundMe transferred an initial 1 million Canadian dollars ($785,000) to the protesters in Canada before it suspended payments and refunded donations following police reports of violence. GiveSendGo, a US Christian crowdfunding site, has reportedly raised more than $8 million for the protesters and insists it will distribute the money despite a Canadian court order prohibiting it from doing so.
Trudeau has also raised concerns about callers in the US flooding emergency phone lines in Ottawa, and the presence of US citizens in the blockades.
In New Zealand, where some protesters are flying Canadian and Trump flags outside the parliament, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the anti-vaccine-mandate demonstrations as an unprecedented “imported” phenomenon.
A final complicating factor is that the protests lack any clear leadership or organization, which leaves governments and police with no negotiating partners. The Teamsters union, which represents 15,000 long-haul truck drivers in Canada, has denounced the Ottawa blockade. Amid chaotic scenes in Wellington, meanwhile, Tamaki’s coalition reportedly left the protests when they saw white supremacists joining the ranks but subsequently returned.
Despite these obstacles, some conflict-management lessons are worth applying.
For starters, civic leaders would do well to avoid defining the issues at stake in a maximalist way. Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, arguably was guilty of this when he wrote in a recent heartfelt commentary that “the goals of the leadership of the so-called freedom convoy were clear from the start: to remove from power the government that Canadians elected less than six months ago.”
The authorities should instead focus on the narrower common goals among protesters, such as those concerning specific aspects of COVID-19 mandates. With this in mind, they should seek out the protesters who are championing those issues and pursue dialogue with them.
Amid calls to deploy the military, governments need to think both tactically and strategically about how best to uphold the rule of law. Troops should not be used. Instead, officials should consult the playbook used by the UK to address violent protests in 2011: Courts were kept open 24 hours a day so that the police could enforce every infraction in real time. Tactically, opportunistic protesters were dissuaded. Strategically, public support for the rule of law was strengthened.
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