Interview with the Punch Up Collective
Whenever there are major and/or unusual protest actions anywhere on the political spectrum in the news, I always take note—at least in passing. Because throughout my adult life, alongside my work as a journalist, artist, and sometime educator (plus a long series of low-paid contingent jobs in between the few still-low-paid better jobs), I have been involved in left-wing protests small and large. Both as a participant and as an organizer. Here in the US and abroad.
As the global political situation gets more chaotic, due to a growing array of crises that I have written about week to week for many years, there are more numerous and varied protests of all kinds. Which is as it should be since protests, whether the targets of such human responses like it or not, are part of the political process—irrespective of the type of power structure they take place in.
Yet mainstream news media organizations, owned by major corporations and generally craven servants of the rich and powerful as they are, really don’t know how to cover protests. Or know implicitly that they’re not supposed to cover them properly or at all. Or are taught to think of them as non-events by their higher-ups. Or are simply ordered not to cover them. All of which might explain why most of their coverage of protests against governments, political parties, the military, the intelligence services, various kinds of police forces, the rich, the corporations, and allied major think tanks, NGOs, and foundations—beyond reporting (though not consistently) the fact of their taking place—is often aimed at asking the representatives of such elite institutions and the praetorians that guard them how best to make said protests go away.
This is especially true during more, shall we say, strident protests than most American corporate reporters are used to covering (at least domestically). As with the so-called “insurrection” at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—which was more militant than many protests in DC historically, but (sorry, jumped-up Democrats looking to make political hay while the sun shines) was not the most serious action ever taken by members of the public against the seat of federal government.
And with the recent Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa, Canada. Which, like the Capitol protest, was led by or at least involved hard-right political organizations. In both cases, we have seen two fascinating responses from national governments. Initially, relative to preparations to thwart even the smallest left-wing protests at the two capitals, both governments basically let the right-wingers do exactly as they pleased.
That was certainly my analysis of the US Capitol protest as it was occurring, having demonstrated outside and inside the same building on numerous occasions myself. I remember thinking: If we on the left tried to do something similar, the feds—constantly infiltrating our organizations as they do—would have interdicted people identified as leaders in their home towns and arrested them before they even started traveling. They would have also, as they absolutely did as recently as the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests in DC, surrounded the Capitol with a cordon sanitaire of Capitol Police, US Park Police, DC Police, National Guard, Federal Bureau of Prisons riot control officers, and likely military and intelligence units be they uniformed or undercover. All heavily armed and ready to use dangerous crowd-control weapons or even shoot to kill to prevent anyone that showed up to protest from getting anywhere near the building—let alone disrupt a Congressional session.
The same is true, I thought a few weeks back, of Ottawa and the Canadian federal, provincial, and local governments. Where state oppression is always dished out with abandon against protests major and minor by the left, as it is here.
Eventually, however, both governments got around to putting down the protests. Mostly after the fact with the Jan. 6 protest, once the Democrats came to power later that month and started arresting participants … with the important exception of the very real fights between some Capitol Police officers and some protestors during the fracas—and the killing of protestor Ashli Babbitt by Capitol Police Lieutenant Michael Byrd. But during the fact, if quite belatedly, with the Freedom Convoy protestors when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the first Canadian leader to use a law (which he revoked as I was writing this) that gave his federal government vast powers to stop that protest. And stop it they did by fair means (asking protestors nicely to leave) and foul (deputizing tow truck companies to drag off many of the trucks that were a main feature of the protest, freezing protestors’ bank accounts, and arresting protestors for what amounted to protected speech activities).
While this was going on, I read, watched, and listened to everything I could find about the Ottawa protest (which my new Canadian friends, as you’ll read below, call an occupation … an appellation I have been trying to avoid using to describe it considering the very left-wing politics of the last political movement to use that term). With a particular eye to figuring out how Ottawa residents (who were clearly being badly and often unfairly inconvenienced, and sometimes terrorized, by the protestors) and different factions of the Canadian left wing were responding. Which is how I happened upon an episode of the It’s Going Down podcast that featured an interview with the Ottawa anarchist group Punch Up Collective that I thought was excellent. Here, I thought, are experienced activists with politics similar to mine … we should chat.
So, I asked the Punch Up folks if they were willing to be interviewed about their encounters with the Freedom Convoy as experienced anarchist political activists on the ground in Ottawa, and was gratified when they agreed to answer the several questions I had for them. Read on to check out their enlightening comments.
In the lead-up to the Ottawa Freedom Convoy protest, did you realize how much of a cause célèbre it was going to become?
No, we definitely underestimated what the Convoy would become and what kind of action they were planning to take. There have been fascist, far-right mobilizations in recent years in Ottawa, including an attempt at a similar convoy-style action in 2019, but they’ve been pretty small and mostly confined to protests on Parliament Hill that wrap-up and leave after a few hours. For one thing, we were probably mistakenly thinking of it as just another protest, instead of what it actually was: a deliberate occupation of the city. As a community, we didn’t grasp the scale of what was about to happen, and so we weren’t prepared to respond and confront the convoy in any significant way as it arrived.
Would you describe the protest as right wing or hard right wing overall or more of an ideological mishmash? Was it really led by actual truckers? Were the protestors mainly truckers, white, male, Evangelical, etc.?
Most of the key organizers and public figures associated with the convoy occupation are involved with a variety of far-right movements, including white supremacist organizations, but the majority of participants probably wouldn’t describe themselves as white supremacists or racists. While there were definitely some isolated displays of hate symbols, like confederate flags, swastikas, and transphobic signs, that wasn’t the overt public image of the majority of the occupation. On the other hand, the Ottawa Police Service received nearly 500 hate crime reports during the occupation, and there were many instances of people being targeted due to their perceived race, or gender, or sexuality by individuals involved in the convoy. What’s concerning is the way far-right organizers used the convoy and occupation as a way to normalize their politics and pull in people in to their networks, and that these acts of violence and hate weren’t rejected by the vast majority of participants.
They were ideologically diverse in some ways, but the main currents were right wing, nationalist, and authoritarian. On the surface, the convoy occupation tried hard to make it about vaccine mandates and an undefined call to protect “freedom.” But even a brief stroll through the occupation would expose you to just about any conspiracy theory you can think of, from QAnon, to 5G, to calls for the government to be overthrown by the Queen, and so on.
Certainly there were truckers participating in the convoy and subsequent occupation (hard to miss the big rigs blocking the streets), but none of the self-described leaders were truckers, and many participants had no connection to the trucking industry whatsoever. Most of the participants were white men, though definitely a strong contingent of white women, and a lot of folks brought their children with them. There were maybe 400 vehicles in total occupying the downtown core at the height of the occupation. The vast majority of these were smaller personal vehicles, like pickup trucks and cars.
Co-opting the label of truckers is particularly frustrating given that actual truckers, especially those who don’t own their own rigs, have spoken out against poor working conditions and safety concerns within the industry. For a lot of truckers, the vaccine mandate is not a big concern, but we’re focused on that instead of other important issues they are facing.
Describe what the protest was like on the ground once it was established. How did the protesters treat Ottawa residents day-to-day? Did they treat different kinds of residents differently?
Calling it a protest doesn’t accurately capture the degree to which these folks set up shop. In addition to the main encampment downtown, which fully blocked a number of major streets, the convoy set up at least three logistics depots outside of the downtown core, and another one just outside the city limits. These depots served as collecting and distribution points for supplies like food and fuel, which would then be shipped downtown in smaller vehicles. The occupation was logistically impressive: people had access to warm food, shelter, programming for their kids, organized activities, internal security, and fuel for their vehicles. They set up saunas, a hot tub, even a big screen TV and sound system for dance parties.
For the residents of Ottawa, the experience of the occupation was pretty awful. The occupiers took over streets and neighbourhoods, terrorized people, and made it impossible for residents to live their lives. The occupation was incredibly loud, with consistent horn honking throughout the day and night, at decibel levels high enough to cause permanent hearing loss. Streets were full of diesel fumes that spewed from trucks and other vehicles idling all day. Fireworks were set off regularly in densely populated areas, there was an attempted arson of an apartment building, and another group of protesters handcuffed the front doors of an apartment building in what may have been an aborted second attempted arson. There was verbal harassment, threats of violence, and physical assaults, with much of it directed at racialized people or individuals wearing masks. The situation was particularly difficult for disabled residents.
The occupiers also launched some deliberate attacks on the residents of Ottawa. They deliberately overloaded the local 911 emergency line by spamming it with calls. They forced the two downtown grocery stores to close for a day by storming them without wearing masks and refusing to leave. There were several instances of convoy occupiers driving past schools and yelling at children about masks and vaccines.
Were the protesters’ demands consistent throughout their occupation or did they change over time?
In many ways their demands were inconsistent from the start. The “anti-vaccine mandate” and “anti-lockdown” demands were largely a cover used to further anti-government, right-wing ideologies of personal liberty and privilege at the expense of collective care and well-being. As the occupation went on, discourse shifted more to critique of the government’s covid response as a whole, and more explicit calls for the removal of the government. What started as supposedly a protest against vaccine mandates for truckers quickly shifted to a protest against any and all pandemic restrictions and health measures, to calling for the removal of the current federal government.
Was the treatment of the protest by the police, military, intelligence services, and government officials at various levels different than the way than similar left-wing and BIPOC protests have been treated by those same forces—like the pipeline and railway protests in the Canadian context or the Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests in the US and internationally (including in Ottawa). If so, how?
In so many ways, yes. It’s difficult to overstate the difference in how the police responded to this protest and occupation compared to other protests and direct actions from the left. Allowing them to set up shop in the first place, not issuing any tickets/by-law infractions in the first three weeks, offering them a city-owned parking lot to use as a staging ground and supply depot, allowing protestors to construct wooden structures, allowing them to store large amounts of fuel and continually bring in new fuel supplies, taking selfies with protestors, waiting 22 days before making any attempts to shut them down, the list goes on and on.
There were hundreds of instances of harassment, threats of violence, physical assaults, an attempted arson – and yet police were unwilling to intervene. We’re not arguing for police intervention, but their hands-off approach says a lot.
Compared to other actions that were much smaller for a much shorter period of time, that have been met with considerably more force and violence. For example, back in Nov of 2020, a small group of largely BIPOC protesters blocked a downtown intersection to protest the acquittal of a white cop who killed a Black man, Abdirahman Abdi. They were initially promised a meeting with the Ottawa Police Services Board. Instead, the police raided the blockade, arresting 12 people. At a large march in support of Wet’suwet’en land defenders a couple years back police snipers were seen on the roofs of government buildings.
Do you agree with the Trudeau government’s use of the Emergencies Act to shut down the protest? Please provide any context in your answer that you think Americans need to understand (like Trudeau’s daddy’s use of the War Measures Act on left-wing Québécois revolutionaries during the October Crisis of 1970).
No, we don’t agree at all with the use of the Emergencies Act. Nothing good comes from increasing the power and authority of the cops and the state.
The Emergencies Act was created in the late 80s to replace the War Measures Act. Both Acts are designed to give extraordinary powers to the federal government to respond to a national crisis situation. This is the first time the Emergencies Act has been used, and was ostensibly implemented in response to not just the convoy occupation in Ottawa but also to several Canada-US border crossing blockades with similar aims to the occupation in Ottawa.
We can’t speak for other regions that saw similar protests but, here in Ottawa, the city and the cops did absolutely nothing for more than 20 days to try and stop the protest and occupation. Their inaction helped create the crisis. Nothing they’ve done since the implementation of the Emergencies Act couldn’t have been done earlier.
To the degree the protestors had clear goals, do you feel they achieved any of those goals?
Their main tactical goal was to create a logistics nightmare for downtown Ottawa—in that sense they were successful. If we focus on the vaccine mandates and pandemic health measures, no we don’t think they achieved their goals. The vaccine mandate for federally regulated industries (which includes trucking) is still in effect, and most provincial governments were already planning to ease most other public health measures in the coming weeks and months. However, if the goal was to bolster and strengthen right-wing, racist, fascist organizing in Canada, then in some ways, they were probably successful. Individuals who participated in the protest and occupation met a whole bunch of new people, made new connections, were exposed to perspectives and ideologies that they will take with them long after the occupation ends. For those of us committed to challenging these movements, we need to understand these current mobilizations as just one manifestation in a broader long-term effort.
If you believe that the broad left needed to oppose the protest, what do you think the best way to do that was? The New Democratic Party (which I would describe to Americans left-wingers as “what DSA would look like in a government with a vestigial parliamentary system”) strategy of seemingly aligning with capitalist state power to shut it down from above? Or by essentially out-protesting the protest? And how much was the latter strategy attempted by elements of the left (and I’m including anarchists in the left, but obviously you don’t have to accept that) and by the Ottawa population at large?
As a general starting point, yes we believe it’s important, and necessary, to directly confront the far right. At the same time, we, like many in Ottawa, struggled with what an effective response could be in the first days after the Convoy arrived. It was difficult to hear some folks advocate for strong police intervention. We understand it was a genuinely scary situation for lots of people, but looking to racist and authoritarian institutions like the state or the cops to respond to racist and authoritarian protests makes no sense and only serves to further entrench these harmful politics. Resistance and confrontation can come in many different forms—it doesn’t just have to be a large march that tries to “out-protest the protest.” There are lots of strategically effective actions folks can take, depending on your own capacity and risk level. In Ottawa we saw various mutual aid networks spring up to help folks get groceries and essential supplies, and provide walking buddies. People started putting up posters around downtown and Centretown voicing their opposition, there were smaller counter-protests and a large march. One weekend morning saw four autonomous counter-blockades set up across town to prevent further Convoy protesters from joining the downtown occupation. One counter-blockage in particular had hundreds of residents come out, holding the intersection all day, only eventually allowing the vehicles to leave if they turned around, removed any pro-convoy flags and decals and surrendered any fuel they were carrying.
Did the protestors develop any innovative tactics that might be of use to the left (or just anarchists)?
Maybe setting up bouncy castles and hot tubs? Their sense of entitlement to take-up public space—in some ways their audacity was impressive—they did things we would never even try to do. It’s difficult at this point to parse out what might have been innovative tactics from those things that only worked because of the complacency (or complicity) of the police and state authorities. We’ll be reflecting on this for quite some time.
The Punch Up Collective is based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on unceded Algonquin land. More info at punchupcollective.org.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.