The tricky business of policing protests
Canadian trucker demonstrations showcase the necessary balancing act for police
For nearly three weeks, thousands of demonstrators in semitrucks and other vehicles have crowded the streets of Ottawa, the Canadian capital, to protest pandemic restrictions, including a vaccine mandate for cross-border truck drivers. Truckers and other protesters with the Freedom Convoy at times forced the closures of multiple border crossings. Canada reopened the Ambassador Bridge, an important trade conduit between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Mich., on Sunday after protesters blocked it for nearly a week.
While the bridge blockades temporarily disrupted important shipping routes, protesters in Ottawa occupied public spaces and honked truck horns throughout the day and night. On Tuesday, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly resigned amid criticism that he had done too little to end the demonstration.
Whether in Canada or the United States, police walk a delicate line between respecting the democratic freedoms of protesters and enforcing the law against those who disrupt the lives of local residents. While citizens have the right to make their voices heard, they don’t have the right to break laws, and police must decide when to enforce the law and when to allow protesters to vent. It can be a tricky balance.
In Ottawa, where Mayor Jim Watson has declared a state of emergency, some residents said they were afraid to leave their homes and could’t sleep due to horns blaring all night. On Feb. 9, the Ottawa Police Service notified demonstrators, “It is a criminal offense to obstruct, interrupt or interfere with the lawful use, enjoyment, or operation of property.” The police deployed all available officers to put an end to what it called an “unlawful occupation” downtown and to protect neighborhoods. Last weekend, 4,000 protesters continued to occupy the city, but authorities so far have allowed the demonstration to continue. In an effort to choke the supply of food and other goods, police cleared and fenced a downtown park where protesters had erected a makeshift kitchen.
Police may arrest anyone they believe is ignoring a recent court order against honking horns in the city. That included an 87-year-old man pulled over and roughly handcuffed for honking his horn in support. Authorities have warned that anyone supplying the trucks with fuel could also face charges.
“Freedom of expression” and “peaceful assembly” are protected under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of speech and the right of people “peaceably to assemble.” Former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman called policing protests “one of the most difficult jobs a police officer can do.” He said there is a “fine line” between a legitimate protest and a riot, and often a demonstration doesn’t fit neatly into one category. As an example, he pointed to last year’s Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of people stormed the U.S. Capitol while thousands of others had come to Washington that day simply because they wanted the government to hear them.
Meeko Spainhower, a police officer in Omaha, Neb., described the Ottawa protests as “nothing compared to two summers ago.” He remembers sitting in roll call when the story broke: A white police officer in Minneapolis had killed George Floyd, a black man. The next Friday, while at a bar watching protests on a TV, his phone buzzed with news that he would have to help police local demonstrations. The department briefed Spainhower and his fellow officers on how to engage demonstrators: Peaceful protesters could say what they wanted—they were yelling at the uniform, not at him specifically. But when protesters broke the law, they would face its full weight.
During the protests, Spainhower worked 12-hour shifts for 17 days straight. He said he could barely breathe through the thick haze of tear gas and pepper ball fumes. People threw water bottles at his cruiser. Some busted car windows. SWAT officers trained their rifles on a man with a shotgun while Spainhower tackled him. Officers charged the protesters with “refusal to leave” and loaded arrestees on city buses.
Police have the right to get involved once protesters shut down highways or disrupt businesses to the point where they cannot operate, said James Dudley, who retired from the San Francisco Police Department as deputy chief of the patrol bureau after serving for 32 years. The department monitored about 800 protests or demonstrations every year: labor disputes, anti-war rallies, anti-police protests, and more. Officers completed 8 to 20 hours of training on the First Amendment, the rights of protesters, and the duty of police to be impartial on the scene.
Now Dudley lectures on criminal justice for San Francisco State University. He argued that everyone is entitled to their First Amendment right to protest, but once they commit a crime, it ceases to be a First Amendment issue.
Dennis Brown, a former commissioner for Forsyth County, Ga., noted that protesters sometimes bait police into acting a certain way and crossing the line. To keep the situation peaceful, police often allow protesters to “walk the line” until they clearly break a law or violate someone else’s constitutional rights.
Back up north, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday took a more aggressive posture. He invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act, giving the police broader power to ban blockades, tow away trucks, freeze truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts, and suspend insurance on truckers’ rigs. But it’s unclear if that will be enough to deter the Freedom Convoy protesters.
“Our issues are not … with the city residents. Our issues are with the federal government,” said protest organizer Tom Mazzaro in a video posted on YouTube before Trudeau’s announcement. “We have a legal right to be here as Canadian citizens.” Mazarro claimed the convoy had been cooperating with city officials to relieve pressure on law enforcement and residents, shoveling snow, cleaning up garbage, feeding the homeless, and helping with medical emergencies.
But he added, “We are prepared to be arrested peacefully.”
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