The Cost of Disobedience

When I was a teenager, I was shown how best to sit on the pavement as I was waiting to be arrested. The idea was to minimize harm as the police were carting me away.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of civil disobedience in the wake of the ongoing truckers’ protest that has paralyzed downtown Ottawa (and has spread to other locations. This demonstration goes outside my experience. 

It is not that I haven’t seen long lasting movements before. The Occupy movement, in vogue a decade ago, also featured encampments. In that case it was relatively easy for police to remove the demonstrators. Not so in now Ottawa.

None of the city’s contractors is willing to remove any of the 400 big rigs parked downtown. The Transit Commission owns two two trucks normally used for towing buses, but drivers of those have also passed on the assignment. So the trucks just sit there.

One of the understood ramifications fo social disobedience is the willingness to be arrested for the sake of the cause. I have no idea how the truckers would respond to an attempt to arrest them – no-one has tried in the two weeks their rigs have been parked downtown.  The impression I have is that few have even been ticketed for illegal parking.

Ontario has followed the City of Ottawa’s lead in declaring a state of emergency, in response to ongoing protests that have closed the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit. It has also taken legal steps to prevent the flow of donations to the truckers’ protest in Ottawa, though how effective that will be is questionable. Given that the organizers have raised far more money than they ever imagined possible, I’m not sure the lack of funds will be much of a deterrent.

Canada’s absentee Prime Minister in a press conference on Friday. As governments prepare to take action to end the protests (and indeed action started Saturday morning in Windsor), he reminded the protesters they could face severe criminal charges and financial penalties should their actions continue. He reminded them that in some cases a criminal conviction could result in people losing their ability to travel outside the country. To me the thought of travel restrictions might be a considerable deterrent for many people.

With civil disobedience, the understanding is that there might be a personal cost. If you believe your casue to be just, you don’t mind paying the penalty. I’m not sure if those protesting/occupying Ottawa have thought that through. Maybe, as the enter their third week in the city, some are starting to do so.

Given that the police took a hands-off approach at the outset of the protest, they now find themselves not knowing what to do. The chief of police has stated that there really is no policing solution. He’s not saying the police can’t do the job if necessary, but that it will be a lot more difficult.

If the police arrest all the protesters, there is still the issue of what to do about the trucks. My understanding is that the air brakes can be locked, making the vehicles difficult to tow. And with no tow truck available it will take a long time to get downtown Ottawa clear.

Some sort of negotuited solution still makes the most sense. As I have said from the outset, these people are hurting and just want to know that their voice is being heard. Maybe if some senior government politicians would spend some time listening, they might be willing to move on.

According to the polls, many Candians sympathize with their grievances while at the same time disagreeing with their actions. If, after having been heard, they then still refused to budge, they might find that their support had dried up.

It has been a long time, and I don’t remember the purpose of the demonstration where I learned how to protect myself while being arrested. Causes were different back in the 1970s. Whatever it was, the gathering was peaceful and the police didn’t get involved.

Most demonstrations in Canada are peaceful gatherings. Being a natural optimist, I am expecting a peaceful end to the situation in Ottawa. It would be nice if it was sooner rather than later.

2 comments

  1. Back in the 70s, we staged protests hoping to bring improvements in the lives of those who were unable to bring their plight to light. These protests are very self-serving, unlike the 70s.

    Mind you, if those protesters were First Nations, 2SLGBTQ+, blacks, homeless, or any other group seriously facing discrimination and/or harassment, they would have been cleared out of the streets of Ottawa forthwith, with as much violence as the authorities WANTED to use (not needed to use). But let a group of old white men (and their families) flout the law and suddenly our police and government officials are powerless.

    Suddenly I’m longing for the 70s.

    1. The 70s were indeed a simpler time, with seemingly less grey areas.

      My impression is that in recent years authoritis have been less restrictive on protests, but thta may be a false impression gained from media. Two years ago at this time there were railway blocades that lasted longer without intervention than the Ambassador Bridge blockade (which, for the record seems to me more mischief than political protest). And certainly social distancing wasn’t being enforced at BLM rallies duiring the pandemic – which is a small thing, but indicative of the permissiveness.

      Then again. police usually, in Canada anyway, would tend to lean towars non-confrontation and peaceful resolution of situations.

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