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The Canadian truckers’ ‘freedom convoy’ disrupted life and blockaded borders. Did the protest succeed?

The trick, for activists, is to get authorities and other audiences to focus on their issues as well as their tactics.

- February 24, 2022

On Jan. 15, the Trudeau government put into effect a mandate that truckers crossing into Canada from the United States would have to show proof they’d been vaccinated against covid-19. Nearly 90 percent of Canadian truckers, and almost as high a proportion of Canadians, are vaccinated. Nevertheless, some Canadian drivers and their supporters took the new restriction as a provocation.

A week later, hundreds of truckers staged driving protests across the country, filling the highways in long lines heading toward parliament in Ottawa on Jan. 22. Along the way, they were periodically met by crowds of up to a few thousand people cheering them on. They staged an encampment on Parliament Hill, and planned blockades of border crossings.

Although at first the truckers claimed they were objecting to the vaccine mandates, a range of other causes claimed what some called the “freedom convoy,” as far-right groups and politicians attempted to raise money for the campaign and to speak for it. A collection of other flags and messages turned up in pictures and videos of the protest: In addition to the familiar Canadian maple leaf flag, observers could find flags representing the United States, including the Confederacy, Make America Great Again (MAGA), and sprinklings of Nazi paraphernalia. QAnon enthusiasts claimed allegiance with the convoy, all part of a larger unfolding plan. And support from the far right in the United States and around the world far outstripped support in Canada.

Ottawa police have now committed to clearing out the convoy’s protests outside the parliament. So what did the dramatic protest accomplish?

In short, the freedom convoy was a disruptive protest tactic expressing opposition to the government and its policies. Whether it will affect either will depend less on the creativity and commitment of the protesters and more on whether they reach the right audiences.

How disruption works

People protest when they’re dissatisfied with something; disruption is a way to get other people to pay attention. Generally they hope to capture the attention of authorities, journalists and the general public by doing such things as interrupting life’s daily routines, hammering on a missile nose cone, kidnapping a governor or yelling at a member of Congress in a public meeting. In general, larger groups command attention by virtue of their size, and can deploy less confrontational tactics, like marching in a park or carrying signs. Smaller groups get attention with more dramatic tactics, including blockades, sit-ins and even political violence.

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Disruptive protest works when it focuses broader attention on a group or a grievance. Protest actions are often popular only in retrospect. For instance, at the time, nearly three-quarters of Americans opposed the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech; those who supported it were roughly the same slice who supported such then-radical actions as the lunch counter protesters and Freedom Riders.

Nevertheless, 1960s civil rights protesters were able to draw attention to the cause with their soaring rhetoric, steadfast commitments to nonviolence, visible support from some politicians and celebrities, all contrasted with the televised brutality against them. Activists visibly suffered for their cause, resulting in landmark legislative achievements.

In a successful effort, attention to the disruptive tactic is accompanied by at least some attention to the protesters’ cause. More recently, the Occupy movement captured national attention in 2011 with encampments in hundreds of American cities. Occupy avoided issuing a central messaging strategy. But in my research, I’ve seen that its disruptive protests shifted public attention to issues of gross political and economic inequality, adding the “99 percent” as shorthand for the idea that the vast majority of Americans have been left out of prosperity while a few enjoy extreme wealth. Occupy gained public support for many elements of its cause — even as some observers were appalled by its tactics. It was one of the sources pushing the Democratic Party toward a greater focus on inequality. When activists and politicians talk about relieving student debt, that’s in part a result of Occupy, which raised the issue and built organizations to press it.

Similarly, the 2020 nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd focused public attention on racialized police violence, as seen in media reports, Google searches and Wikipedia pages visited, according to a forthcoming paper by social scientists Zackary Dunivin, Harry Yan, Jelani Ince and Fabio Rojas. Support for the cause grew initially, dropping as the media covered the few violent confrontations associated with the protests.

The trick for activists is to get authorities and other audiences to focus on their issues as well as their tactics.

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Did the truckers succeed?

Occupy lasted nearly three months and eventually included 600 encampments in the United States, and hundreds more globally. With far fewer protesters than the freedom convoy created much more disruption, threatening commerce as well as public order and provoking strong government action.

Canadians strongly opposed the freedom convoy in Canada; two-thirds supported Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declaration of emergency to clear out the protesters. Canadians generally supported their country’s strict public health mandates, which the truckers opposed. The freedom convoy’s tactics appear to have eclipsed attention to its cause. More significantly, 57 percent of Canadians believed that its real aim was to promote far right politics. Unlike the civil rights movement in 1963, the convoy cannot claim potential allies in government.

Thus far, the freedom convoy has found much stronger support south of the border in the United States. Former president Donald Trump supported the truckers. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) not only supported them but expressed hope that they might come to the United States and disrupt the Super Bowl. And the freedom convoy has inspired allied covid-mandate protesters around the world.

The key issue for protesters is whether street politics can connect with institutional politics. In Canada so far, conservative political leaderslike most truckers — have kept their distance.

Is U.S. democracy in danger?

A truckers’ convoy may now be en route to D.C. But in the United States, if supporters with 18-wheelers can find allies in office, things may be different.

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David S. Meyer (@davidsmeyer1), professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, Irvine, writes about social movements; his most recent book is How Social Movements (Sometimes) Matter (Wiley, 2021).