Sometimes democracy forgets to wear deodorant

Let’s have a frank talk about protest movements and the freedom convoy, shall we?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/02/2022 (185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Let’s have a frank talk about protest movements and the freedom convoy, shall we?

You may not like the inconvenience or noise, but protest is an important part of democracy. Even protests that are unruly and highly disruptive — in other words, where laws are broken in the commission of the protest — are important expressions of democratic principle.

As a result, law breaking does not, in and of itself, delegitimize a protest.

When protesters break a law, it’s a calculated risk to bring attention to an idea. Many genuinely legitimate protest movements have involved property damage and other illegalities.

Many genuinely legitimate protest movements have involved property damage and other illegalities.

And while we’re at it, let’s remember that property damage is not violence. It is the act of defacing or destroying something — not someone. As we saw just over a year ago in Washington, D.C., a protest is still a protest until it becomes a violent insurrection. And then, it’s no longer a protest.

With these principles in mind, it’s hard to support the recent hysterics originating from the mayors of Ottawa and Winnipeg, both of whom have demanded police end the protests by force. Sorry, but the convoys have not done anything yet that requires an armed response to remove them from their encampments.

That said, even though we should all have an equal right to protest, there is a point at which protests start to lose their legitimacy.

Protest movements have a responsibility to ensure their causes are not overshadowed by their tactics or ugly, underlying ideology. And the risk of a protest becoming delegitimized is high; most protests are defined by their weakest links and most extreme actions, even if they don’t represent the gross majority of people involved.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES
Protesters block the entrance to the Manitoba Legislative building on Broadway Avenue last week.

The dilemma posed by the freedom convoy is not necessarily what they have done to date. But what many Canadians fear it might mean in the future.

Some convoy participants displayed Nazi and Confederate flags, universal symbols of hate. A geometric symbol with origins in antisemitism was marked in the snow outside Manitoba’s Legislative Building. In Ottawa, downtown residents have been harassed by protesters, some of whom have spewed venom at local business owners, people of colour and those wearing masks.

Are these incidents the work of outliers, or a reflection of what this protest is really all about? In this instance, there are very real concerns that the protest is really just a Trojan Horse for some really ugly ideas.

B.J. Dichter, one of the two people who founded the now-disabled GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the convoy, has a long record of hateful comments about “political Islamists.” At a 2019 People’s Party of Canada convention, Dichter ranted on about how “Islamist entryism and the adaptation of political Islam is rotting away our society like syphilis.”

There are very real concerns that the protest is really just a Trojan Horse for some really ugly ideas.

Patrick King, another convoy opinion leader, circulated toxic comments on social media about “the depopulation of the Caucasian race.” Jason LaFace, another organizer for the convoy in Ontario, has authored numerous racist and homophobic comments and images, some of which feature the insignia of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigration movement first started in Finland.

The inconvenient truth here is that the convoy, and the People’s Party of Canada with which it is so closely associated, are not being infiltrated by extreme views; they are forums for extreme views.

At their cores, both the protest and the party embrace rabid libertarianism, an ideology that effortlessly embraces racism and white supremacy. Notwithstanding that truth, the convoy organizers have gone to hilarious lengths to keep the “extremists-are-outliers” fantasy alive.

I’ll admit to chuckling a bit when convoy organizers announced an internal network to report and expel extremists from their ranks. I’m a bit skeptical that rabid libertarians of any discipline will flood a snitch line to rat out extremists within the convoy. But I could be wrong.

PATRICK DOYLE / THE CANADIAN PRESS
A police member stands in front of trucks blocking downtown streets in Ottawa Wednesday.

All of this brings us back to a discussion about protest movements, legitimacy and — perhaps most important — effectiveness.

The freedom convoy is not illegitimate because it is disrupting life around Parliament Hill or the Manitoba legislature by blocking traffic and honking horns. However, it’s also not destined to be effective.

Most Canadians see the convoy for what it really is: a thinly veiled marketing campaign for toxic ideologies that conflate perverse theories of personal freedom with a twisted definition of democracy.

Refusing to be vaccinated is not an act of freedom. It’s selfishness in the face of an existential threat.

But as silly and stupid as all that is, it does not erase their right to protest.

The freedom convoy and all of its potential for intolerance and hate should be treated as a legitimate form of protest. Right up until it is not.

I have memorized a monologue uttered by actor Michael Douglas in the 1995 film, The American President. Douglas’s character, President Andrew Shepherd, is losing an election to a toxic populist. He finally goes on the attack at a news conference at which he discusses principles of freedom and democracy.

“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing centre stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

The freedom convoy and all of its potential for intolerance and hate should be treated as a legitimate form of protest. Right up until it is not.

The value of this convoy is a reminder of something many of us already knew: democracy is most definitely a bitch.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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