On Sunday, the Ambassador Bridge on the US-Canada border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, was reopened after a weeklong protest, in which a handful of right-wing fanatics had been blocking the bridge and holding up some $355 million in goods in protest against a vaccine mandate for the trucking industry.
These events show that when law enforcement is genuinely needed to quash a far-right insurgency, it is timid and reluctant to do anything — a dangerous precedent to set indeed.
Protesters had taken over another nearby crossing into Sarnia, and one in Alberta, as well. As a result, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis and Honda idled some six Canadian car factories for several days, with knock-on effects creating even more snarls in supply chains. With one of Canada’s major cities paralyzed, and three key economic arteries between it and the world’s mightiest empire clogged, a severe shortage of new cars has been jacking up inflation and thus tanking President Joe Biden’s approval rating.
But these protests are just the visible part of a larger right-wing occupation movement, and indicative of a worrying anti-government trend. And equally as worrying is how law enforcement on both sides of the border have responded.
Ottawa was terrorized for nearly two weeks by a few hundred protesters honking horns day and night, waving Nazi flags, harassing passers-by, and in one case, allegedly attempting to burn down an apartment building.
Canadian police finally cleared off Ambassador Bridge after the blockaders challenged a court order to disperse. But throughout this process, law enforcement in both countries were astoundingly timid in their responses. Canadian cops had been walking on eggshells; we “are taking a diplomatic approach,” the Windsor police chief told reporters. Meanwhile, Ottawa police tried to coax the city occupiers out by cutting off their fuel and getting an injunction against honking horns instead of arresting them. As for US law enforcement, there was no sign that the country’s gigantic security apparatus would crack down on the demonstration.
These events show that when law enforcement is genuinely needed to quash a far-right insurgency, it is timid and reluctant to do anything — a dangerous precedent to set indeed. Because these blockades are very likely just the start.
To be clear, as I have previously written, in the US there definitely is far too much money spent on cops and courts, far too little spent on welfare benefits and social services that actually prevent crime, and far too little accountability for abusive cops. American police and jails are de facto charged with warehousing the social dysfunction caused by extreme inequality rather than actually doing much to control crime. But as we saw in Ottawa and Windsor, a democratic government does at least need some kind of armed service just in case some deranged violent minority tries to impose its will by force.
The problem in the United States, and it seems in Canada as well, is that police simply can’t bring themselves to believe that far-right groups can be “real” criminals.” When faced with right-wing lawbreakers, police (who are overwhelmingly conservative) tend to either sympathize with their demands or helplessly legitimize their grievances. The law enforcement response to the situation along the Canadian border smacked strongly of what happened with the Capitol Police before and during the attempted putsch on Jan. 6, when the agency brass failed to sufficiently mobilize despite obvious warnings and some of the officers fraternized with the rioters (though most of the rank-and-file did do their jobs as best they could, to be fair).
The problem in the United States, and it seems in Canada as well, is that police simply can’t bring themselves to believe that far-right groups can be “real” criminals.”
It scarcely needs to be mentioned that police do not grant such deference to nonwhite or leftist protest movements. For instance, when Native American groups temporarily blocked a key Canadian highway some years back over a land dispute, heavily armed SWAT teams were ready within hours to storm in and arrest them, which, unsurprisingly, turned out to not be necessary as they opened the road up after one day. In the US, Black Lives Matter protests that were almost entirely peaceful were constantly confronted with psychotic police violence. Black activists generally got the worst of it, but a substantial number of white people were savagely attacked as well. The “J20” group that protested Donald Trump’s inauguration were persecuted for years by the Department of Justice with ludicrous charges carrying decades in prison (most of which were eventually dropped).
It’s important to be clear about what the goals were here. These “truckers” (many of the participants are not actually truck drivers) are not Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. Their main explicit demand was an end to vaccine mandates and mask rules. They want this monstrous goal, which as a matter of basic biology would make the pandemic worse, imposed over the wishes of a large majority of Americans and a huge majority of Canadians. The extreme right can’t win an election, so they are effectively taking the auto industry and the global supply chain hostage to get what they want.
It would be hard to imagine a more legitimate use of state authority to resist this demand — not with a massacre, of course, but with firm action to reopen traffic and take the culprits into custody. Not only would it be protecting the health of the public (including Canadian truck drivers themselves, who are overwhelmingly vaccinated and not participating in the protest) and reopening the flow of vital goods and services, but it would also set a salutary example. If these groups get away with this, the far right will be emboldened, and will very likely attempt similar attacks and protests again and again all over Canada and the US Fox News is already trying its level best to whip up an identical “convoy” to disrupt American highways and cities.
But for that to avoid more disruptions like this, law enforcement is apparently going to need some serious changes. If these agencies can’t protect society from the deranged aggression of a right-wing fringe, they need to be rebuilt from the ground up so they can.