3. 3. 2022
The Cops Always Face Towards Us
Being in downtown Ottawa last month meant breathing in putrid exhaust, trying to tune out the cacophony of blaring truck horns, and dodging gaggles of flag-waving convoy supporters as they screamed “FREEDOM” back and forth. “Canada’s most boring city” had suddenly become the subject of international attention. Photos of Nazi and Confederate flags spread on social media and in the news, prompting widespread denunciation across party lines. Liberal commentators expressed shock and horror at this supposed affront to Canadian democracy and values.
In reality, of course, white supremacy is foundational to the settler-colonial project that is Canada. The growth of far-right movements is an inevitability in a country whose very existence is inherently at odds with Indigenous life, sovereignty, and well-being. The Ottawa occupation is just the newest iteration within an ongoing trend of far-right escalation that the white settler population was, by and large, content to ignore up until now.
Years of counterdemos and cops’ gauntleted fists
Through much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Heritage Front and other neo-Nazis terrorized Ontario communities. The new group Anti-Racist Action came together to disrupt their organizing and confront them in the streets. Following the Heritage Front’s disbandment around 2005 and a subsequent lull in organized white-supremacist activity, another far-right surge began in 2011, Islamophobic groups clashing violently with a new generation of antifascists. Not long after then, men’s rights activists attempted to establish a presence on university campuses, and again, communities pushed back. Though fewer and further between, these cascading mobilizations allowed the far right to build the groundwork for what would come next.
While far-right organizing’s true genesis in Ontario (and across Canada) long predates the past decade, and can’t be separated from the history of colonialism on this continent, its recent intensification can be traced to two sets of seemingly unrelated events in late 2016. They centred upon patriarchal ideology pushed on university campuses and the perceived “Islamicization” of Western countries, dynamics that had been building over the previous half-decade. In September 2016, a previously obscure psychologist and University of Toronto professor named Jordan Peterson posted a YouTube video claiming that Bill C-16 – a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that would include gender identity and expression among its protected categories – was an attack on freedom of expression. In response, trans community members organized a protest, which Lauren Southern, then of the far-right outlet Rebel Media, attended to disrupt. At the Peterson-supported “U of T Rally for Free Speech” six days later, violence erupted as reactionaries attacked trans people and their supporters. This and subsequent clashes helped to catapult Peterson, Southern, and their cohort into the international infamy they now enjoy.
The second of the two events that paved the way for today’s far-right resurgence in Canada came roughly two months later: Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s introduction of M-103, a non-binding Parliamentary motion condemning Islamophobia. South of the border, Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign was vilifying Muslims, which had the effect of rousing Canada’s white supremacists. Though initially Khalid’s motion received little attention, the Québec City mosque massacre on January 27, 2017, brought it much greater visibility and support. By March, white supremacists across Canada were rallying against it, claiming that Muslims were invading the West. Older far-right groups like the Jewish Defence League, a Zionist organization, saw a revived level of activity, their members standing side by side with new groups like the Soldiers of Odin, their shared Islamophobia uniting them across their political differences. Far-right personalities like Sandra Solomon, who recently reappeared on Parliament Hill after a period of quiet, first gained visibility around that time. Amidst these organized fascist displays, communities coalesced into anti-racist and anti-fascist networks to fight back.
Between 2017 and 2019, Ontario cities often became sites of monthly or even weekly far-right demonstrations and anti-fascist counterdemos. Specifically, Toronto, Ottawa, London, St. Catharines, Hamilton, and Niagara saw repeated and sometimes regular gatherings. Their attendees could number anywhere from one or two Yellow Vesters to hundreds of anti-LGBT street preachers. Our side, similarly, ranged from single to triple digits depending on the day. I focus on Ontario because of my own involvement in mobilizations in that province, but similar confrontations were happening all over the country.
In Toronto, most of these faceoffs played out at the intersection of University Avenue and Armoury Street, behind Nathan Phillips Square. Generally, they followed a pattern that became somewhat predictable as the same faces on both sides returned month after month. Toronto police would come in early to set up metal barricades, fencing off a protective pig pen. The fascists would then gather there, waving their signs and giving their speeches while a wall of police separated them from a bloc of militant antifascists. On the better-publicized days, there might be a crowd of non-militants further off behind that bloc, likewise there to reject white supremacy but less able or willing to be injured or arrested. In this way, attendees could guess at the demo’s risk level in advance and act accordingly.
Violence happened in two main ways. Sometimes, a fascist would wander away from their uniformed protectors, towards the bloc, and a fight would break out. More often, the bloc would link up arm-in-arm and move in to prevent a white supremacist march from taking the streets. Then, police would attempt to break through those lines, ramming their bikes and gauntleted fists into people’s bodies to make way for their far-right friends. Nothing more vividly illustrates how “cops and Klan go hand in hand” than bracing yourself for whatever might come next as you stand beside your comrades, staring down those lines and lines of cops who always face towards you, and who sometimes outnumber even the white supremacists waiting for them to act.
University and Armoury was far from the only site of these demonstrations. Across cities in Ontario, though, most followed a similar configuration of cornered fascists hiding behind cops, some officers proudly sporting thin blue line patches as they shook hands and made nice with the fascists. Where comrades suffered more serious injuries, police were almost always the perpetrators. I suspect that every single regular attendee of these counterdemos lives with some level of trauma to do with the police, even if not with the fascists themselves. On multiple occasions, I spent hours in the ER with a friend or stranger after they were assaulted by one or the other. The 52 Division police station became a familiar venue, too, as we convened again and again over those months for jail support. It was routine for our comrades to be arrested and charged, sometimes on the flimsiest of pretences, while the cops rarely laid a hand on the other side.
Among the bloc, there was never any ambiguity about whose side the police were on. On one occasion in Toronto, an officer grabbed someone’s pride flag and proceeded to beat another antifascist with it – an incredible microcosm of the relationship between the police and liberation movements. Their purpose was always to interrupt anti-fascist organizing, and they happily carried that out, brutalizing our people and saddling them with charges. Sometimes their tactics were as straightforward as punching or kicking anyone within an arm’s length. Bicycles, an especially effective weapon and shield at once, allowed the police to control space and shove people back; a bike cop once knocked an antifascist down a flight of stairs. Police horses, whose violent arrival at the end of the Ottawa occupation outraged the far right, were typical sights.
We had chants for those occasions, get those animals off those horses repeating as their riders spurred them directly into crowds. Disregard for human life was on full display in such moments; once, a cop on horseback kicked a low-vision person who was using a mobility device and unable to get out of the way fast enough. Arrestees would sometimes be deliberately boxed into vans for hours during extreme summer heat, or cuffed so tightly that they required medical attention afterwards, or threatened with sexual assault. Injuries that stemmed obviously from being tackled, heads smashed into the ground, were ignored in detention. Nonviolence never kept anyone safe; officers’ attacks were, in most instances, preceded by little more than antifascists simply standing in the fascists’ path.
Arrests, even hours-long detentions, did not always result in charges. Catch-and-releases were an intimidation and surveillance tactic through which police could collect antifascists’ personal information. Charges actually laid were almost invariably baseless and diverted or dropped by the Crown down the line, though there were a few findings of guilt and at least one brief prison sentence. The point was rarely to secure convictions, but rather to strike fear in people and consume years of their time, resources, and energy. Criminal mischief and obstruction were by far the most common charges, but police also relished in inflating mild interactions into serious offences, or sometimes just outright making shit up. The classic example: police attacking someone unprovoked, then calling the altercation “assault on an officer.” When in the hands of the left, umbrellas, flagpoles, and wooden handles on protest signs were confiscated as potential weapons. Just bringing one, or wearing mundane accessories like padded gloves, could and did lead to every combination of weapons, assault, and assault with a weapon charges. Avoiding physical contact was not enough to escape a legal battle; police claimed that even blowing an air horn could be assault.
Release conditions were another favoured way to curb the left’s ability to organize. Held in isolation in station cells, arrestees would be urged to sign off on release conditions that would limit their ability to communicate with friends and comrades and attend demonstrations, and guarantee convictions if they were arrested again. Though tempting to accept in the moment, those conditions could have disastrous long-term impacts on people who might, for instance, live or attend school with their co-defendants.
Over these last years of struggles, we have seen white supremacist movements veer further and further to the right. With each internal split, factions have become more violent and explicitly genocidal. Twice now in Ontario, on April 23, 2018, in Toronto, and June 6, 2021, in London, these same political currents of misogyny and Islamophobia have culminated in horrific mass murders. Though their perpetrators were never, to the public’s knowledge, part of any organized fascist group, they shared not only motivations but also tactics. Vehicles have increasingly become a rallying symbol and weapon of choice for reactionaries. Within this context, the anti-mandate movement’s embrace of truck convoys as the means for their message is no coincidence. Far from being a spontaneous mass movement, the “Freedom Convoy” was brought together by long-time fixtures of established far-right political ecosystems.
Through the pandemic, existing far-right networks found fertile new grounds for recruitment among COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. Complicating matters is the presence in the anti-mandate movement of people genuinely struggling with the failures of the state’s pandemic response, as well as “QAnon casualties” and other sometimes vulnerable people taken in by bizarre conspiratorial cults. Compared to, say, a protest against M-103, the right’s new pet issue has attracted a much broader base of supporters, including some who even, against all evidence, sincerely believe that the convoy is only about COVID-19 mandates. At the same time, concerns about virus transmission and other factors led much of the left to forgo directly countering the sometimes thousands-strong anti-lockdown and anti-mandate demonstrations that have popped up throughout the last two years. Consequently, Ontario antifascists have had little opportunity or impetus thus far to examine the applicability of yesterday’s tactics to the new pandemic world.
Tactics that evolve as our enemies do
The situation in Ottawa this last month has been described as an occupation and a siege. While sometimes accompanied by liberal hyperbole – and though we should remain mindful of the fact that Ottawa itself is an illegitimate occupation of Algonquin land – both of these terms are accurate. Geographically, numerically, and logistically, the convoy’s scale set it apart from any far-right demonstration in Ontario in recent memory. For weeks on end, convoy vehicles blockaded not only all of Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa, but also the surrounding residential neighbourhoods. Residents of the Centretown area were subjected to injurious levels of noise day and night. Truck exhaust ruined the air quality, making it near-impossible for many people with respiratory conditions to breathe at home. Personal support workers were unable to reach those they care for, leaving some disabled people physically unable to meet their most basic needs. Constant harassment and violence forced grocery stores and shopping centres to close, leaving service workers without income and, sometimes, residents with no way to feed themselves. Every day of the occupation, I heard new accounts of everything from threats and slurs to physical assaults.
Past white-supremacist mobilizations in Ontario, like the United We Roll convoy to Ottawa in 2019, have frequently been held back by their own disorganization. Antifascists must not underestimate this new movement on that basis. Though plagued by infighting, the 2022 convoy was far more deliberate and strategic than many people have given it credit for, able to control the terrain of entire neighbourhoods. On some of the most heavily occupied residential streets, it moved with the clock: lines of trucks rolling in and out at the same set times, day after day, as though carefully coordinated. Convoy members stayed dispersed, spread too far across the city to be pushed out in a single direct confrontation, even if we could vastly outnumber them. Over at their Coventry Road supply centre, they set up the infrastructure for a long-term stay. They carried out designated roles there: guarding the site against unwanted visitors, and operating sophisticated supply chains to transport gas and other materials. Until February 17th, all of this activity was facilitated by the police, who not only stood by and watched it all happen but at times actively offered their support. Declarations of allegiance from individual cops emboldened the most violent elements of the occupation, some of whom even retaliated against fed-up residents with an arson attempt on an apartment building.
Against these horrors, Ottawa residents – both new to the left and more experienced – rallied together to defend their communities. Mutual aid networks sprang up to support people where governments had failed. Almost overnight, community members who may have never before been to a protest became anti-fascist researchers, monitoring convoy communication networks. Individuals bravely placed themselves in front of trucks, only to be removed by the same police who had helped the convoy take over the streets. Seeing the state enable the occupation, people who’d been invested in the existence of the police began to question them. The now-famous blockade at Billings Bridge was actually one of at least three mobilizations that had been planned independently for the same day and time. The success at Billings Bridge drew people originally at those other actions, while other residents took inspiration and blocked vehicles elsewhere in the city.
While we should celebrate these spontaneous actions and the potential they reveal, there are necessary conversations still to be had about refusing the colonial state and embracing a diversity of tactics. Too much of the resistance to the convoy, especially on the part of very newly politicized people outside the existing Ottawa left, was couched in the language of reclaiming the flag and the city, oblivious to or outright contemptuous of Algonquin peoples’ calls to recognize how Ottawa itself is a white-supremacist occupation. Reactions to the police at Billings Bridge ranged from furious yelling at them and calls to defund them to thank yous and offers of snacks. At an earlier rally, aggressive officers shoved two women of colour down onto the pavement; a crowd of white faces looked on without the slightest sign of concern, as though nothing had even happened.
The history of organizing against the far right shows the danger that the police pose to any of us who fight fascism. Even when the cops appear momentarily to target our enemies, the spectre of state repression looms over us too, always possible, always a threat. As white supremacist movements grow ever bolder and more sophisticated, the state’s enforcers have made it clear whose side they’re on. Let’s consider how our tactics can evolve to thwart these ever-changing menaces.
Author’s note: This piece came together through conversations with valued comrades, and I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge and recollections that they shared. At the same time, I speak only for myself in my reflections on these events. While I attempt to go over the recent past, this is by no means intended to be a comprehensive historical account of antifascism in Ontario. And finally – all of my love and solidarity, always, with everyone who defends our communities against the fascist scourge, and all of those who came before us.
D.G. is a settler antifascist from the Greater Toronto Area, now based in so-called Ottawa.