Will anyone see the police the same way after the trucker convoy protests?

“The cops have been nothing but friendly to us.”

In the same way that the pandemic exposed the many flaws in our badly funded healthcare system, trucker convoy protests and the inadequate, often extremely disparate police response that followed have exposed the double standards in police treatment of protesting minorities in Canada.

Many Canadians long resistant to the idea that police officers paid to serve and protect us all could possibly discriminate against some, while protecting only a few, have now been forced to acknowledge this reality. This collective awakening has been a strange, and perhaps unexpected, fallout of these convoy protests.  

White privilege protects

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Will anyone see the police the same way after the trucker convoy protests?

When some of us called out white privilege right from the get-go and pointed to the unwillingness of police forces to engage in any meaningful arrests or enforcement of the law with convoy protesters, we were criticized for “making it about race.” When I pointed out the all-white groups of representatives claiming to “speak” for the trucking industry, an industry with an incredible amount of diversity, some accused me of race baiting.

“What does this have to do with the colour of their skin?” were routine questions asked by the predictably all-white brigade who, of course, “never see colour” and always accuse those pointing out discrimination of “engaging in identity politics,” because they’re unable to recognize their own defence of a social order that benefits them.

For those who’ve been paying attention to racism, systemic racism and routine racial profiling by police, what was unfolding across the country was not surprising. The usual dynamics were now amplified and simultaneously broadcast across the country, suddenly visible for all to see. In addition, suddenly a lot of white residents held hostage in their own homes, afraid to go out, faced with police inaction, finally understood what it’s like to be let down by the people supposed to respond to their calls for help. This is something minority communities have  known only too well — and for far too long.

For weeks, ordinary, law-abiding Canadians watched with increasing incredulity as convoy members harassed, intimidated and disrupted people’s lives in Ottawa with no interference by the police. They watched as protesters stockpiled cans of gas and propane tanks near the Hill, held block parties at all hours of the day and night with no consideration for the people living and trying to sleep nearby. They watched as convoy members brought in BBQs and saunas and built karaoke stages, all while yelling about their loss of freedom. They watched as drunken people urinated on the War Memorial, honked their horns and set off fireworks around the clock, blocked access to ambulances and tried to pull the masks off passersby with no consequences, as if they were above the law — and they knew it.

Whose side are police on exactly?

They watched as police officers posed for pictures with protesters, gave them high-fives and thumbs up, laughed with them, told them they understood where “they were coming from.” They watched as police politely, and almost regretfully, told protesters that they now had to pack up and leave because an injunction had been issued against them. Groups of ordinary citizens counter-protesting had to come out of their homes and physically block access to convoy trucks for the latter to turn around, because paid police officers couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. They watched as police recommended, then asked, then pleaded, then warned, then gingerly moved in on the blockades, as if afraid to upset them in any way. 

Police show trucker convoy protesters how they really feel in Coutts, Alberta

It took police six entire days to finally apply zero tolerance at the Canadian border blockade at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario. After an injunction was finally issued making the blockade illegal, Canadians watched while OPP and the RCMP waited all night before moving in, giving protesters a full 12 hours to pack their stuff and go. After countless warnings had been issued, and police finally moved in, protesters weren’t rushed, they weren’t manhandled, they weren’t pepper-sprayed or beaten. They were simply warned to “go home,” the way you yell at drunken stragglers at a Super Bowl tailgate party in a parking lot, not people issuing death threats against elected officials and shutting down major arteries and vital cross-border traffic. 

Canadians watched police officers being firmer with journalists covering the event than the protesters themselves. And the protesters? The ones who blocked a major bridge and cost Canadian taxpayers millions in policing operations and lost trade? They were able to leave the Ambassador Bridge without incurring a single parking ticket. Some protesters even attempted to arrest the officers and were “rebuffed.” Can you imagine a non-white protester attempting a move like that against a police officer and there being zero violence? The few people police arrested were the ones who insisted on staying. They were charged with… mischief. If that’s not white privilege I don’t know what is. 

While this was unfolding, some of us pointed out the stark differences in how police treat Indigenous land defenders peacefully protesting against the destruction of old-growth forests in Fairy Creek, those who defended ancient burial grounds in Oka from being converted into a golf course, Black Lives Matter protesters, Quebec’s Maple Spring protests — where young students and journalists were pepper sprayed and violently kettled as if those marching for a cap on rising student fees were somehow dangerous — and, how homeless encampments are routinely cleared out by police, all brute force and impatience. And suddenly some started connecting the dots.

A wake-up call for many 

Police inaction at convoy protests has given many average, white, middle-class Canadians — those who reject or don’t understand the reasoning behind social movements like BLM, and who insist this world is a meritocracy and law and order always prevail — an opportunity to reassess some of their long-held beliefs. Many are now coming to the creeping, unsettling perhaps, realization that maybe, just maybe, what minorities have been saying all along about unequal and discriminatory treatment by police has in fact some basis in truth. 

Close to three weeks of protests and, despite recorded threats against political leaders, hate crimes and major disruption, nowhere have I seen any pepper spray, rubber bullets or even a single baton being used by police. I’m not advocating for their use — I’m merely pointing out their absence. 

As the days go by, and public anger increases at the convoy, there will undoubtedly be more arrests and government employing more drastic legal and policing measures to establish order and peace. But it’s been practically impossible for anyone who followed the media coverage these past three weeks not to have noticed the double standards in how police have treated convoy members. 

Systemic racism operates with or without intention and with or without awareness. You often don’t realize you’re operating with bias. It’s why a primarily white police force will still often be rougher on minorities and quicker to react against them, while being more lenient with people who look like them, act like them, perceiving them as harmless. “These people aren’t bad or evil,” they think, “these folks are just tired, frustrated and worried.” They justify their behaviour and minimize their actions.

Maybe Defund the Police means something after all

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Will anyone see the police the same way after the trucker convoy protests?

Watching the double standards play out across the country, video after video, news report after news report, has been eye-opening for many who need to believe in the myth of meritocracy and a sense of equal justice. If people were beaten or arrested at BLM protests it’s because “they did something to provoke it,” they “had it coming,” these people insisted. Watching now as white folks draped in the Canadian flag cause major disruption, disobey police directives and blatantly break the law with zero consequences for weeks has been like watching the blinds lift in a dark room. 

What this will mean in the long run, I don’t know. But I think it will fundamentally shake many people’s belief in the lie of equal status for all Canadians. I think it’s opened people’s eyes to the fact that systemic racism and police brutality are very real — but only for some. The lack of police action has made many Canadians question these convictions in a way that they haven’t been able to do before. 

Suddenly, Defund Police and Reform Police are more than just rallying cries or “irrational” buzzwords for a segment of the population that thought these statements too radical, too woke, too left of centre, too fringe.

Suddenly, many understand what advocates were saying and why. And that, perhaps, there was truth here and a problem so deep-seated and systemic it can no longer be ignored. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.