In Ottawa Trucker Protests, a pressing question: where were the police?

OTTAWA — Just steps from Canada’s Parliament Buildings, a sprawling festival erupted on Saturday. DJs played music for crowds dancing at intersections, singers sang songs on a makeshift stage and trucks of protesters still blocked the streets, blowing their horns to cheers.

A day after the premier of Ontario, home to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, declared a state of emergency across the province and said anyone involved in the protest would face consequences” serious,” including fines of almost $100,000 or even jail time – nothing had changed. in the streets of the capital.

The few police officers in sight were quickly engulfed in overwhelming crowds of people, both to protest against government pandemic regulations and to enjoy the festive atmosphere after nearly two years of intermittent closures.

“They don’t have an easy job,” said Scott Spenser, 36, looking up from a concert of drums on Sparks Street as a phalanx of six officers marched past. “Let’s hope this all ends peacefully and they lift the warrants and we all get back to life.”

Throughout the day, Canadian police sought to clear numerous trucks blocking the Ambassador Bridge, a vital passage in Windsor, Ontario, connecting the United States and Canada. But there were still a few holdouts and traffic remained blocked for a fifth consecutive day.

And in Ottawa, the police stayed back, circulating in small numbers and apparently not issuing tickets or making arrests.

Two weeks after downtown Ottawa was transformed into a wild party, many Canadians are wondering how it all happened — why police apparently abandoned the country’s seat of power, without any discernible help, and how a ragtag group of truckers, anti-government activists, anti-vaccine agitators and people who were just fed up after two years of strict public health restrictions managed to not only outsmart them, but to take root more and more more and spread elsewhere.

“It’s January 6 in slow motion,” said Catherine McKenney, an Ottawa city councilor, who uses the pronouns they/them, referring to the January 6, 2021 mob assault on the United States Capitol. United. Mx. Kenney is calling for more police protection for downtown residents, who feel terrorized by passing vans delivering supplies to parked trucks. “But on January 7, 2021, Washington emptied out,” the adviser said. “Here they stayed.”

The answers will emerge in a post-mortem, but at first analysts link the police’s hands-off approach to two opposing factors: the weaknesses of local police forces in size and readiness, and the relative strength of the occupiers – in number. , but also in tactics, discipline, fundraising ability and logistics.

While the trucks themselves are the alleged cause, symbol and tool of the protest, only a few of the self-proclaimed leaders are actually truckers. Some are, in fact, former police officers and army veterans who many believe used their expertise to help organize the occupation.

“This is quite a sophisticated level of protesters,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said at a news conference Thursday. “They have the ability to lead a strong organization here, provincially and nationally, and we see that play out in real time.

Trucks began roaring through the city on January 28, spurred by new federal regulations requiring truckers crossing Canada from the United States to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. But the scope of their demands was broader, calling for the removal of all pandemic restrictions in Canada, and they called Parliament will be dissolved and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be removed from office.

Councilors briefed by police were told to expect an unusually large convoy which would be disruptive – and noisy – but most likely temporary.

“The general feeling at that time: by late Sunday or Monday, it would pass,” Mx said. McKenney said.

Instead, the trucks parked in tight groups along many downtown streets, including the graceful boulevard that passes the august Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court and the country’s political offices, including that of the Prime Minister. And they never left.

Police did not put up concrete barriers to keep trucks a safe distance from the legislature, nor did they ensure that the city center was not converted into a parking lot – until a few days later, and only to stop further expansion.

It was only then that everyone realized how a 30,000 pound tractor-trailer that a trucker could live in for days on the job could be converted into a strategic protest tool – huge and motionless, equipped with heating. and a bed, and with a built-in noisemaker that breaks your ears.

In some cases, truckers removed their tires and bled their brake lines to make their trucks unmovable, police said. And some heavy-duty towing companies have refused to work with police to remove the trucks, Mr Sloly said, because some have been threatened and others sympathize with truckers, who are their main customers.

It wasn’t just that the trucks were standing still. The police were also vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed.

“It had to do with a lack of imagination,” said Michael Kempa, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who studies policing across Canada. “It was outside of our experience frame because of this failure.”

Ottawa is a small city of about one million people and has a police force to match, with less than 1,500 officers. This amounts to one officer for every 667 inhabitants, a far cry from New York, with one officer for every 233 inhabitants.

A week into the occupation, police report they have moved their shifts, managing to put 150 officers on the streets in three of the worst-hit neighborhoods in one day and swearing in new officers feds sent to help.

At that time, Chief Sloly said, there were about 5,000 protesters settled in the heart of the city.

The mayor declared an emergency and Chief Sloly called for 1,800 more police. But still, there were too few officers to handle the crowd. As they attempted to make an arrest, some of his officers were overrun.

On Friday, Mr. Trudeau — whose name linked to a popular epithet has become the occupation’s unofficial slogan, written on knit beanies, hats, flags, handwritten signs and the side of a giant truck parked squarely outside the gates of Parliament – rejected calls to order the military to clear city streets or some of the border crossings into the United States that had been blocked by similar convoys.

During this period, money to support the convoy in Ottawa – largely from the United States – poured in. The organizers have held regular press conferences in hotel rooms, for media they deem trustworthy. They sent a lawyer to court to represent them in a nascent class action lawsuit.

And they organized themselves, setting up street captains who reported to the block captains. Together they distribute food and supplies to support protesters and, most importantly, deliver diesel to trucks in jerry cans. Since last weekend it has been deemed a crime, but it continues unabated.

Monday, when a local court imposed a 10-day sentence ban on honking, the more than 400 trucks barricading dozens of blocks suddenly fell silent — revealing both a deft communication network and remarkable discipline, said Regina Bateson, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University from Ottawa.

“They have received this incredible gift of time from the authorities here,” said Ms Bateson, who studies political violence, collective activism and populism. “With that weather, they bonded, they went out and partied together. This is actually important – this is how groups form cohesion.

She added: “It gives them the confidence to go into battle together.”

A 15-minute drive from downtown, one of the Occupation’s command centers has been set up in the parking lot of the stadium of the Ottawa Titans, a minor league baseball club.

Half a dozen large white tents were built, supplied with electricity and a heat pump. Inside one, cooks offer hot dogs and soup to dozens of people seated at tables, surrounded by donations of toothpaste, toilet paper and juice. In another, considered the office, volunteers check in to collect money or get their marching orders. A few whiteboards offer services not normally associated with protests – numbers for a mechanic, an electrician and a person with the keys to a cage of propane tanks in the back near piles of drink. Portable toilets and two saunas — their smoky chimneys — are nearby.

“It sounds like more than friends of truckers showing up in Ottawa,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University in Kingston. “These are people who were very determined, very organized, very well staffed and very well led.”

Some of the convoy leaders have military or police backgrounds which many analysts say helped shape their strategy and planning. The group’s self-proclaimed head of protective intelligence, Tom Quiggin, was an intelligence officer for the Canadian Army, Cabinet Office and Federal Police. Another was a former police officer in Ottawa with the Federal Emergency Response Team.

“They know exactly what tactics the police are going to use,” said Leuprecht, who studies national security, terrorism and international crime.

Two weeks after the first trucks arrived, some of the extra forces Chief Sloly had been calling for, from across Ontario, appeared on the streets, sometimes in large groups. But still, they remain vastly outnumbered and inactive. Groups of protesters roll jerry cans into train cars ahead of them, honk their trucks to the beat of music as people dance and stand squarely parked in the street.

Former military and police officers also issued public recruitment calls this week – for the convoy.

Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting from Ottawa.

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