Convoys and Cops: the Vancouver Experience
On Saturday March 5 another far-right vehicle convoy invaded downtown Vancouver with horns honking and flags waving. Around 50 vehicles with around 100 individual supporters of Stand United touted conspiracy theories and railed against “Fake News” outside the CBC headquarters. It was smaller than previous convoys as the movement appears to be split. A larger convoy of around 100 vehicles left Langley at 9:30 am – an hour earlier – but headed east to the “Trans-Canada Freedom Chain” apparently organized through a private Facebook group called “Freedom Chain 2002” (sic).
Convoy organizer James Davison is a firearms enthusiast and has predicted civil war if he doesn’t get his way. He might claim “prediction” is not the same as “advocating for” but this is a distinction without a difference. Furthermore, his associations and use of the code word “Patriots” in his social media posts clearly marks him as part of the neo-fascist cabal leading this movement.
He posted on his Facebook page the night of March 4: “We as always have the support of our Vancouver Police Department so do not be concerned about that at all my patriots!” and he was not wrong. The convoy was given a Vancouver Police Department motorcycle escort to CBC headquarters where the police blocked the road for them. That after threatening counter-protestors with arrest if they blocked the convoy!
Now, the VPD often provide traffic control services for all kinds of protest marches but this came after Mayor Kennedy Stewart had issued a firm warning regarding the previous convoy incursion a month earlier: "Vancouver doesn’t want you here" he asserted. His statement concluded: “Hate has no place in our city. We all have to stand together against hate in all its forms, including when it targets frontline and healthcare workers."
The VPD monitors social media for upcoming protests – and perhaps other purposes – so it is reasonable to expect they are well aware that these convoys are not your normal protest or solidarity event. Rather, they are mobilizations organized and led by far-right agitators with a propensity to violent threats and even actions. One could understand the VPD being present to protect the public from the convoy participants but it was clear to witnesses that the focus of the Vancouver police was assisting and protecting the convoy from the public!
This follows a long-standing pattern of VPD bias in favour of the far-right. In March 2017 members of the neo-Nazi Soldiers of Odin attempted to attack organizers and speakers – including MP Jenny Kwan – at an anti-racist rally at Victory Square while the police initially looked on. Video Here. Fortunately, a volunteer community security group had responded to a frantic call and arrived on the scene before the attack began and were able to repel the assault. It is debatable whether the VPD finally intervened to stop the attack or rescue the SOO members. The neo-fascists were temporarily detained, chatting amiably with the VPD officers and smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk, then released without charges just as the rally wound up, putting rally participants, including many women of colour, at extreme risk.
This VPD practice was repeated a few months later following the neo-Nazi tiki torch parade and subsequent murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. A planned anti-immigration and Islamophobic event at City Hall was prevented by over 4000 Vancouverites filling the grounds and surrounding streets with messages of peace, tolerance and solidarity. The VPD incident commander threatened to arrest the anti-racist organizers, mostly high school teachers, if they brought in just one vehicle pulling a trailer with a portable stage and sound equipment. (A far cry from the 50 or more pick-ups and SUV’s escorted into the city on Saturday.)
This again put the many prominent speakers at risk from agitators or provocateurs. These included then mayor Gregor Robertson, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, faith leaders. With sight lines obscured and no clear separation from the large crowd, protection duties once again fell on a volunteer security team. The mayor – who was also chair of the Police Board - and the CBC crew covering the event apparently shared the expectation that the large VPD presence was of no value to their personal security; they both arrived with private bodyguards hired for the occasion.
And they weren’t wrong. The VPD stayed on the far fringes of the gathering and devoted all their efforts to protecting the handful of troublemakers who showed up to bait the entirely peaceful crowd with racist and anti-immigrant signs and arguments. This is consistent with numerous analyses of police response – or lack of – to the recent “Freedom Convoys”; including the three-week long occupation of Ottawa accommodated and even supported by that city’s police department. Just as the border blockades were left in place for many days before the RCMP was forced-by government at the call of Canadians-to act. It is clear we have an institutional problem with policing in this city and this country, not just a few “bad apples” such as those who actually donated funds to the convoy movement.
The VPD, and other police forces, defend their actions as respecting Charter Rights to assembly and free speech. They have on other occasions provided traffic assistance to climate justice, Indigenous solidarity and other protest marches and even temporary civil disobedience informed street blockages. However, they are clearly friendlier and more accommodating towards these aggressive, far-right, white supremacist demonstrations, which traumatize vulnerable community members and have a much higher threat of violence from gun enthusiasts who threaten civil war if they don’t get their way.
Since we cannot rely on the police to protect our communities and institutions from far-right intimidation, harassment and actual violence what is to be done? We can not just ignore these convoys - or whatever other form they evolve into – and hope they go away as the pandemic fades. The fact that protests are continuing even as public health mandates are relaxed is a signal that these organizations with authoritarianism and fascism at their base will not go away as the threat from the COVID virus recedes.
The organizers and influencers of this movement have long histories of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic activity preceding the pandemic. When it ends, they no doubt will return to targeting whatever ethnic or religious group, sexual orientations or genders fits their hate-filled purposes. Now however, they will do so with a mass of cult-like followers several orders of magnitude larger than before.