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Trucker protest in Ottawa can only be defused by policing, experts say


If police look impotent, it emboldens protesters, according to Candyce Kelshall, president of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies

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Police may have missed their opportunity to prevent the paralytic grip downtown Ottawa is in — but there still plenty of ways to dial it down, experts say.

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Police are the only ones who can defuse the convoy protest peacefully, said Candyce Kelshall, the president of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies in Vancouver.

“Protest is legal. Breaking the law makes it illegal. If police look impotent, that’s the way they are perceived,” said Kelshall. “It emboldens people.”

On Thursday, Ottawa’s police chief Peter Sloly announced measures that include the deployment of 150 additional officers to protect downtown neighbourhoods. Earlier, in the face of growing frustration, Sloly said all options were on the table, including calling in the military.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is not considering using the military. One has to be “very, very cautious before deploying the military in situations engaging Canadians. It is not something that anyone should enter into lightly,” said Trudeau.

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Any non-policing response to the demonstration would be “catastrophic,” said Kelshall, who researches violent transnational movements. “The minute you say it’s beyond policing, people will be ready to fight,” she said.

“It must be the police. They have the ability to get out there and start talking to people.”

The problem should be handled as a “population-centric” problem, she said. Police have tools such as fines and warnings and the ability to order vehicles be towed. More of these tools need to be used, but not in an aggressive way.

Above all the law must be upheld, said Kelshall. “Protest is legal if it’s legal. If it’s illegal, you lose your moral authority.”

On the other hand, if the military are introduced into the equation, then the response becomes “enemy-centric,” she said. It will flip a switch in the more extremist parts of the movement and reinforce beliefs that the government if attacking its own citizens and is  therefore not legitimate.

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“If we bring in soldiers and tanks, the sentiment will spin into ‘We have to protect ourselves.’”

Experts say police have a range of tools at their disposal in dealing with the protesters downtown, including not allowing them to refuel their vehicles.
Experts say police have a range of tools at their disposal in dealing with the protesters downtown, including not allowing them to refuel their vehicles. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

Police should have treated the convoy the same way they treat Canada Day or Ottawa Race Weekend or any other event that draws crowds and used tools already at their disposal to prevent vehicle congestion downtown, said Jeffrey Monaghan, an assistant professor of criminology at Carleton University and expert on security governance, policing, and surveillance.

“I’m befuddled how they allowed the trucks to enter the core. You don’t need a PhD in criminology to know that police can cordon off traffic,” he said. “The police have all kinds of mechanisms to turn the screws and reshift how a protest is framed.”

The first mechanism is mobility restrictions for any additional vehicles that come in for the weekend. But police can also stop protesters from bringing in fuel.

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“If people run out of diesel, you can offer them a tow,” he said. “Let winter work its magic. Starve the protest of its resources.”

Police can also have checkpoints to prevent alcohol from entering the protest area.

“This is not a complicated policing situation. It’s all within regular police powers,” said Monaghan.

Both Monaghan and Kelshall agree that authorities are running out of time before the weekend, when more protesters are expected. Vehicles can be used to threaten people, and they can be used as a weapon. They have to go.

But there is still time to dial down the heat, said Monaghan. Declaring the protest illegal would change the tenor of the event, he said. People who are not strict adherents would likely leave very quickly, he said.

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Kelshall, who follows extremist movements on social media, notes that the toxicity on these channels is increasing.

The protest was never about vaccine mandates, but about the well-being and identity of a group of people who identify as dominant and privileged, with entrenched rights, she said. The protest may appear, from the outside, to be disorganized. For those on the inside, there is a sense of belonging.

“If you allow protesters to be in the echo chamber, then the group sentiment moves to the extreme edges,” Kelshall said.

Where there’s online toxicity, there will be real-world violence, she warns, noting that there have already been numerous reports of “soft violence” — intimidation, harassment of those who wear masks and protesters and vehicles carrying Confederate flags.

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“We are looking at an escalation of violence happening in slow motion.”

Criminologist Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said the movement started out as one set of concerns and has snowballed into a broadly-based coalition that now includes conspiracy theorists and anti-statists.

Now, there is word of rallies in other cities, which may siphon off some would-be protesters who may have considered coming to Ottawa for the weekend.

“If police do crack down, there is the possibility of a backlash,” said Perry. “If there had been a show of firm resolve, maybe people would have gone home.”

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