The People’s Convoy is dead. Less than a week after the trucker-based protest declared victory and was unceremoniously evicted from its headquarters at Maryland’s Hagerstown Speedway, splinter groups are continuing to keep the dream alive.
One of those splinters, calling itself the 1776 Restoration Movement, spent five hours driving to D.C. Wednesday to do a quick loop through downtown, cruising past various important spots but never stopping. They did slow traffic on the freeway down to a crawl as they left, to make sure they could gather all of their members after being once again separated in normal D.C. traffic. And just like last time, they were flipped off and, at least according to their own paranoid descriptions, hounded by Antifa members and Metro police.
There aren’t many protesters left, but the ones that are still trucking are radical to the core. Leader David Riddell aka “Santa” is an ardent Proud Boy member who spouted conspiracy theories at the morning meeting Wednesday, including that the U.S. had signed over its sovereignty to the World Health Organization just that morning.
Watching the 1776 Restoration Movement (it’s a mouthful, marketing is not Santa’s strong suit), I couldn’t help but think back to the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa that started this all back in late January.
While the Canadian movement certainly wasn’t successful in the sense that protesters accomplished their goals, it did get a lot more attention than the People’s Convoy. That protest got noticed by huge corporations and heads of state while the American version got a few hours and a photo op with the thirstiest of right-wing politicians.
The lack of mainstream coverage was a constant thorn in the People’s Convoy’s side. The Freedom Convoy got coverage from the New York Times, the BBC and the CBC while the American version got well, local outlets, myself, and Zachary Petrizzo from the Daily Beast. Titans of our craft though we may be, we are still far from the mainstream outlets the People’s Convoy were courting while simultaneously vilifying. You can even see it in Getty Images; there are photos of the Freedom Convoy protest straight up to the end, when police finally broke up the three-week long siege. The last time Getty sent a photographer to the People’s Convoy, however, was back in March.
So what happened to the People’s Convoy? I’m certainly no expert in geopolitics or right-wing movements, but I do know these two convoys pretty well. After spending way too much time thinking about these yahoos, I’ve come up with several factors that I think contributed to why the Canadian protest ended by being crushed by police while the American one fell apart.
There’s something to be said for originality. Ottawa police claimed they were lied to by Freedom Convoy organizers who told officers they’d only take over downtown Ottawa for the weekend. D.C. police would not be able to claim such child-like innocence. Not after the events in Ottawa and not after the tragic day of January 6 only a year prior. We knew what protest convoys were all about at that point.
Right before the break-up of the People’s Convoy there was talk of “sneaking in” semis to downtown, but both Ottawa and D.C. are probably two of the most well-guarded and surveilled places on the planet. Plus they broadcast this plan far and wide. There was no mystery about what they were trying to achieve.
Tamara Lich, one of the organizers of the Freedom Convoy and its spokesperson, had been very active in right-wing political activism and organizing for years beforehand. The impressive amount of money raised for the Freedom Convoy—over $10 million before GoFundMe shut them down—was due to her efforts. She took in an additional $8 million on the Christian clone site GiveSendGo. Lich was a powerhouse for the movement, and was known by right-wing protesters from the early days in the Wexit movement, which sought to separate western Canadian providences and territories into its own nation. BJ Dichter, who worked on the fundraising with Lich, ran for office in 2015 and made several (pretty racist) political speeches. These folks stayed as leaders for the Freedom Convoy until the very end, getting arrested on the day Ottawa police finally pushed protesters out for good.
Meanwhile, the People’s Convoy had a rotating cast of leaders and committee members, so it’s difficult to parse out exactly who did what and when. One organizer, Mike Landis, actually heads up a trucking lobbying group called United States Transportation Alliance. Indeed, due to the stated plans of the People’s Convoy to only loop the D.C., rather than shut it down, many participants worried this was all a lobbying stunt rather than a protest.
Brian Brase, the leader who actually met with Ted Cruz and other right-wing lawmakers, claims he was kicked out of the Convoy in the middle of the night while he slept. Brase owned Convoy’s website, and he cut it dead only after the convoy disbanded. It was hard for anyone in the People’s Convoy to trust anyone else, much less follow their lead into battle with feds. From the Daily Beast:
One trucker live-streaming his Hagerstown adventures took issue with the leadership. “There are a couple of guys grumbl[ing],” he said in a video uploaded Wednesday, likening the situation to “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
At a Monday group meeting conducted from the flatbed of a truck, disappointed truckers vented about lead organizer Brian Brase, adding that if they couldn’t take action at the moment, they should still do something, even if they have to “save it for last.”
That sentiment has foreboding undertones in Washington, and some truckers already suspect a Jan. 6 setup is playing out before their eyes.
Organizer Mike Landis accused right-wing conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl of being a “paid actor” attempting to sucker the Convoy into a trap, after Wohl urged them to act more boldly in D.C. while offering any trucker that does such $200.
Two Landis associates, owner-operators Allen and Bonnie Kelly of Pennsylvania, who have helped him organize previous D.C. convoys, also expressed baseless paranoia associated with the Jan. 6 rally—which they attended.
This chaos led to way fewer funds, though it’s unclear just how low the kitty got, as the donations counter on the now-defunct People’s Convoy website was stuck at $1.8 million for weeks.
You wouldn’t think a country as large and with as spread out a population as Canada would make things easier for convoying protesters, but you’d be wrong. Canada has a population of over 39 million mostly crowded along its southern border. Parallel to that border, and through every population center for 4,645 miles, runs the Trans Canadian highway system. The Freedom Convoy was able to utilize this freeway to its fullest extent, gathering thousands of supporters as it went. There was never any mystery of where you could meet up with the convoy. They were in the town west of you one day, then in your town, then east of you the next.
This momentum helped build up supporters, not the 250,000 organizers hilariously claimed, but definitely thousands, which lead to another serious difference between the two protests. America’s road system is much, much less direct. Our population is more spread out, and truckers had to travel through a lot of nothing to get to population centers. Below are just the freeways the feds plotted out and doesn’t account for state highways, turnpike and freeways:
That’s a glance at the downtown area of Ottawa where the majority of federal offices are located including Parliamentary Hill, the focus of the Canadian Freedom Convoy protests:
Compare that to the federal area of Washington D.C.
See the problem? Not only is there a much larger area to control in D.C., depending on if a protest is attempting to block off streets near the Capitol building or the National Mall, it takes an advanced degree and near prescience to even get around D.C. on a normal day. It doesn’t take several thousand geniuses to shut down a grid street pattern (there’s a reason “gridlock” is a thing and it happens every day in New York) plus Parliamentary Hill is also hemmed in by the Ottawa River at its back, while the National Mall and Capitol is totally surrounded by multiple entrance and exit routes. You’d need a critical mass of trucks and vehicles to successfully shut down the capital which, again, the People’s Convoy never gained. The layout of D.C. also contributed to the constant break up of the Convoy when members did get into town. They got lost, stuck behind red lights and had regular traffic filter in between protesting vehicles, breaking up any semblance of a Convoy.
The time of year should also be considered. The Freedom Convoy took over Ottawa in the winter when there were few tourists. Ottawa is way north, and the bitter cold keeps tourism down to the warmer months. D.C., however, has been filled with people since the National Cherry Blossom Festival in late March. More traffic, more headaches and more enforcement from cops is a disaster for a Convoy, especially a smaller one that can’t effectively shut down city streets.
Canada is certainly infected with a similar strain of COVID-19 denialism and anti-mask mandate yahoos, but it is also, like the U.S., a federalist system. Mandates and lockdown requirements were largely set at the province level, much like in the U.S., where individual states were mostly setting guidelines on the ground. It’s why the Freedom Convoy coalesced around truckers—international truckers were one of the few categories of workers required to get a COVID-19 vaccine in order to keep operating over the border. Of course, the U.S. government has a similar requirement, so lifting such a mandate would never have gotten unvaccinated drivers over the border.
Provinces largely followed the federal government’s guidelines and Canadians largely supported mandates, as did the vast majority of the country’s truck drivers. When the Freedom Convoy started, only 12,000 of the 120,000 truckers employed in Canada were unvaccinated.
The differences between the two countries responses to COVID-19 are really interesting. Premier Justin Trudeau didn’t get on national television to confuse the guidelines or make up things about the virus, as President Trump and the Republican party did.
The result? The U.S. has the highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rate of any western democratic nation, 3,023 per one million. In Canada, only 1,071 per million died of the virus. No wonder they largely supported the mandates. From a recent Time article comparing the two nations COVID-19 responses:
In comparing the two countries, the starting point must be the different response at the highest levels of government. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in March 2020, “I’m going to make sure that we continue to follow all the recommendations of public health officers particularly around stay-at-home whenever possible and self-isolation and social distancing”. This message was reinforced by Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, who in March delivered a message urging solidarity, declaring “We need to act now, and act together.”
In the U.S., President Trump in striking contrast declared that he would not be wearing a mask, saying “I don’t think I will be doing it…I just don’t see it”. And instead of reinforcing the messages of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other leading public health officials, Trump actively undermined them, declaring in reference to stay-at-home orders in some states, “I think elements of what they’ve done are just too tough.” Not content with undercutting his top public health advisers, President Trump further undermined public confidence in science by suggesting “cures” for COVID-19, including at one point ingesting bleach and taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug that research confirmed had no efficacy as a COVD-19 treatment.
In the U.S., if you lived in a fairly conservative state or area, restrictions, lockdowns and mask mandates weren’t taken seriously or were rarely enforced if they were put in place at all. While fewer Canadians were angered by the lockdowns the severity of the Canadian response inflamed that anger even further, enough to get masses of people moving towards the capital.
Want to get attention? Shutting down trade at the busiest border crossing in North America will certainly do it. You’ll have the CEOs of powerful companies, governors and country leaders saying your movement’s name out loud and in front of cameras. The Freedom Convoy closed an important route crossing between Alberta-Montana border that proved quite a headache, but nothing compared to the pain of shutting down the Ambassador Bridge between Michigan and Ontario. That bridge is responsible for a quarter of the trade between the U.S. and its second-largest trading partner—some $500 million worth each day. The seven-day shutdown had a ripple effect across both economies, making the already rising cost of goods spike higher.
I just can’t see an American convoy doing something similar. Number one, they’d have had to come to Detroit and I don’t think that any of them were brave enough to visit what many Americans consider the armpit of the country (though some of us like to call it home, sweet home.) But also, hurting capitalism? Raising prices? You’re going to lose a lot of support in conservative America if folks start running out of toilet paper because of your protest’s antics. Shutting down border crossings would also require additional vehicles and bodies, which the People’s Convoy never had.
Imagine how much protesting you can get done when your health insurance isn’t tied to your job! Canada has an extensive welfare system that supports its whole populace. Here’s a taste of what Canadians enjoy, via the Canada Encyclopedia:
The major welfare state programs include Social Assistance, the Canada Child Tax Benefit, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, Employment Insurance, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plan, Workers’ Compensation, public education, medicare, social housing and social services.
Because of this extensive socialized medicine, Canadians on the whole are healthier than Americans. They’re better able to spend three weeks sitting in traffic and marching in below freezing temperatures. As noted in Time,
Lacking a system of universal healthcare and plagued by unusually high levels of class and racial inequality, Americans are more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions associated with death from COVID. Americans have an obesity rate of 42 percent versus 27 percent for Canadians and a diabetes rate of 9.4 percent versus 7.3 percent for Canadians. Overall, the health of Canadians is superior and they live longer lives, with an average life expectancy of 82.2 years compared to 78.3 years in the U.S.
Canadians are also guaranteed at least two weeks vacation every year, with three weeks after 5 consecutive years with the same employer and a whole month after 10 years with the same employer. Things aren’t perfect in Canada (no country is perfect) but there’s much more room for engaging in such activity than in the U.S. But even if you can’t get time off to drive to Ottawa, you can confidently tell your employer to take their job and shove it without putting your or your family’s actual lives at risk. The vast majority of Americans could not get away with leaving their jobs for almost 90 days on the road, and the 1776 Restoration Movement went beyond that.