OTTAWA — Police succeeded Saturday in taking back control of downtown Ottawa from the "Freedom Convoy" truckers, methodically forcing out the anti-mandate protesters who occupied the city for three weeks.
Police formed lines and pushed forward a few feet at a time starting in the morning, shoving back protesters and then towing the cars and trucks that clogged city streets. No one was killed or seriously injured, police said. Protesters tried desperately to “hold the line” and push police back, but sapped by defections and freezing cold temperatures, they were overwhelmed. Several protesters were pepper-sprayed and 170 were arrested as of Saturday afternoon.
By midday Saturday, protest leaders had thrown up the white flag figuratively and literally — organizer Pat King told his followers, quite wrongly, that waving a white flag meant they could not be arrested under international law. Another organizer, Tom Marazzo, held a press conference where he accused the police of brutality and excessive force, but also said truckers were willingly leaving the city.
“The vast majority of the truckers do want to withdraw, but it is an individual choice for any trucker,” said Marazzo.
It’s a shockingly fast collapse for the one-of-a-kind protest that for weeks was defined by how immovable it seemed. Just days ago, the overwhelming sentiment among the convoy was that the protesters were winning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would soon be forced out of office, and all vaccine mandates would end.
But police abandoned their hands-off approach and brought in reinforcements from across Ontario and Quebec starting Thursday. By Friday, they formed lines to move through the streets of Ottawa, retaking territory bit by bit. Sights of police shattering truck windows convinced many demonstrators to leave while they still could.
Spencer Bautz, a trucker from Saskatchewan, said earlier in the week that the warnings of arrests were merely scare tactics. By Saturday morning, staring down an incoming line of armored police, he had made a different calculation. “I’m going to hold the line as absolutely long as I can,” he said. “But my truck’s better off outside the city than smashed and dragged into some hole.”
Those who left willingly are not necessarily going to escape legal action. Interim Ottawa police Chief Steve Bell said police will spend months pursuing charges. “If you were involved in this protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges, absolutely. This investigation will go on for months to come,” he said.
Private tow truck drivers played a key role in removing protest vehicles. When Trudeau declared a state of emergency Monday and granted the government sweeping new powers, one measure he specified was directing tow truck drivers to remove vehicles, for compensation. Protesters had been openly bragging about how tow truck companies did not want to work against the protests.
On Saturday, a line of tow trucks moved steadily into the downtown core, with identifying markers covered and drivers wearing yellow face masks to hide their identity.
Protesters reacted to the end of their encampment with a mix of anger and acceptance. There was widespread shock that police were cracking down, despite days of repeated warnings that the officers would take extraordinary action to end the occupation that has debilitated the city. Many accused the police of unnecessary violence. “We’ve only been peaceful for the last three weeks. This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” said Andrea, a protester who was walking the site with her pet pigeon Little Cloud on her shoulder.
Some were optimistic, saying that the demonstration has brought grassroots energy and widespread attention to their cause.
Cities around the world will look to analyze Ottawa’s successes and mistakes as groups opposed to lockdowns and mandates look to emulate the Freedom Convoy. There have been copycat rallies in places like France, New Zealand, and Australia. In the United States, an American version of the convoy is planning to make its way to Washington, DC.
For many Ottawa residents, this moment couldn’t have come too soon. Exasperated locals had started physically pushing back, blocking convoy vehicles from entering the city.
As police work to lay charges against protesters, they will also come under strict scrutiny for how they handled the situation. Though this weekend’s operations were a clear success, many in Ottawa are demanding to know why hundreds of trucks were allowed into the downtown core to begin with. Some politicians are calling for the street in front of the parliament buildings to be permanently cut off to traffic.
Ottawa, a capital city of a million people, is largely populated by government workers and often described with adjectives like “sleepy.” Residents sometimes bristle at that characterization, but many were stunned to see the eyes of the world fixated on the dance parties, hot tub hangouts, and thousands of tons of chrome and steel clogging their downtown with apparent impunity.
Some residents lined up behind a new slogan: “Make Ottawa boring again.”