Civil disobedience is important. That’s not what the Freedom Convoy is.

The keys to breaking the law for a political goal are (1) you’re prepared to take the consequences and (2) you’ve made the justice of your cause clear enough that there’s wide public support, and the authorities—cops, mayors etc.—have to worry about suppressing you for fear of offending their electorates. .

 

I confess I’m a sucker for people going into the streets. It hooks me every time and renews my faith. In what? Democracy. (“The streets belong to the people!”)

Voting is such thin gruel. Then you belt up again for years. And it’s secret, so it keeps politics compartmentalized inside individuals. It’s anti-social!

When my kid was small, I took him to a G20 protest. He didn’t get the point and was reluctant. But when we arrived, he got it. There were people we knew; it was festive, collective and funny. (UNDERCOVER COPS FOR PEACE!) Just being there transformed who we were as citizens. I could go on and on.

There’s also something about acting directly. Years ago, during the campaign against South African apartheid, Stan Persky wrote about buying a bottle of South African brandy in Vancouver and smashing it on the store floor. He called it exhilarating.

I’m aware that Hitler’s brownshirts went into the streets, from the 1923 Munich Putsch to Kristallnacht in 1938—as did the Ku Klux Klan and the Jan. 6 rioters in D.C. Going into the streets can be for good or ill, like almost any public act. A lot depends on who might be manipulating it surreptitiously. Still, I can’t help feeling that frisson of real democracy, or a touch of its breeze.

It’s also possible the actors will learn something from misguided actions. It’s in concrete practise that understanding advances. When I worked as an organizer in the textile industry, union leader Kent Rowley used to encourage well-meaning but naive leftists to infiltrate factories to try and organize workers. “They might learn something,” he said, “beyond their ideology and rhetoric.” One can hope that a few of the idiots interviewed in the cabs of their trucks (“We are here for freedom!”) could hear the loonie drop.

Idiots? Of course. I’m not totally blinded by my infatuation with going into the streets. “We’re here till they end the mandates!” But why would “they”? Or the inane notions in their loopy “Memorandum of Understanding” about how change happens and government works: they meet with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and then run the country together.

But what they really don’t get is civil disobedience, which this action falls under. The keys to breaking the law for a political goal are (1) you’re prepared to take the consequences and (2) you’ve made the justice of your cause clear enough that there’s wide public support, and the authorities—cops, mayors etc.—have to worry about suppressing you for fear of offending their electorates. It depends on an implicit moral appeal to the population, which leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. factored in, in advance. That’s an actual strategy.

These folks are intellectually rather more limited. It’s as if they realize there’s a thing called protest, but their notion is vague and ill-formed. If you think you’re in the right, you just stay put till everyone surrenders. It’s basically infantile: I want what I want, when I want it. “The fastest way to get us out of the nation’s capital, is to call your elected representatives and end all C-19 mandates,” wrote a “senior convoy leader.” That’s a fantasy, not a strategy.

IMO, the Ottawa police know these principles of civil disobedience, and took their time till public opinion developed vigorously against protesters—then began moving carefully, with arrests and tickets. This, BTW, has little in common with the Jan. 6 riots in D.C., which surely inspired the tiny minds occupying Ottawa now.

The problem there wasn’t so much the rioters, who’ve been arrested. It’s that a mainstream party, the Republicans, backed them and used them to advance their own fortunes. It’s part of the establishment there that’s the deep danger, not the mob. Here, the Conservatives are courting the occupiers, but indecisively so far.

Why? Because the overall political culture of Canada isn’t—certainly not yet and maybe not at all—receptive to that stuff.


 

This column first appeared in the Toronto Star.

RICK SALUTIN
is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[