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Vanessa Dorimain stands in Strathcona Park in Ottawa on Feb. 18.Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

The protest ended abruptly at 3:30 a.m. when officers entered the encampment, announcing through a loudspeaker that protesters had to leave immediately or face arrest. Vanessa Dorimain was pushed to the ground from behind by an Ottawa Police officer and cuffed.

Ms. Dorimain was there as part of a November 2020 anti-police demonstration led by Indigenous and Black organizers in downtown Ottawa that called for many changes, including freezing the Ottawa Police budget and removing police from schools and contested Indigenous territories. The group had blocked off an intersection for 36 hours and although they’d secured a meeting for the next day with members of the city’s police services board, officers arrived in the middle of the night, while protesters were sleeping in tents, to dismantle the blockade, arresting a dozen of them. It was a year before the charges were dropped.

Just 15 months after her arrest, Ms. Dorimain watched a radically different police response to the convoy protest that took over Ottawa in February, when hundreds of mostly white protesters set up encampments downtown, causing massive disruption. Police presence was largely hands-off and even, in some cases, friendly towards the convoy protesters, many of whom expressed white supremacist views, displayed confederate and Nazi flags, and harassed residents for simply walking outside while wearing a mask. Before the major law enforcement crackdown that began in mid-February, some officers stood by while protesters carried jerry cans of fuel past them, others directed them on where to set up their encampment, and others still posed for selfies and shared words of support with those who had come to the capital to protest.

But when the police eventually moved in to shut down the protest, Ms. Dorimain did not celebrate that action. In spite of her strong opposition to the racist and xenophobic politics on display at the convoy protest, she didn’t want the same force that had been used against her to be applied yet again. Instead, she hoped fellow Ottawans would wake up to what she and other activists had long argued: Police should never be the way out of crisis.

The police crackdown – which involved armoured vehicles and riot gear – came in the wake of the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, a dramatic action that earned scrutiny across the political spectrum and prompted concerns about civil liberty infringements.

“Today’s extreme measure is tomorrow’s normal measure is the future not-enough measure,” said El Jones, a writer, Black scholar and activist who chaired a police board subcommittee tasked with defining what it would mean to defund the police in Halifax. “We have to be very, very critical of the use of state force.”

The defund movement – which seeks to reduce police budgets and reallocate funding to things like mental health services and affordable housing – is at a crossroads, and organizers have watched what has unfolded in Ottawa, Windsor and Coutts, Alta. with a mix of optimism, cynicism and resignation. Though it was Ottawa Police officers who eventually cleared the downtown blockades, the slowness of their response and growing frustration among residents provoked the question among people who might not have considered it before of whether the force deserved the biggest chunk of the city’s budget.

And when, in the absence of what they deemed adequate police protection, Ottawans mobilized to care for and protect each other, the reality of a viable alternative to police seemed to many less like an optimistic fantasy and more like a real possibility. But as the memory of the early days of the protest fades, some activists express concern that a broader call for defunding and de-tasking will fade as well.

Two weeks in the life of Ottawans trapped by the convoy’s chaos

Opinion: The convoy protests are an opportunity to talk about what defunding the police actually means

In the summer of 2020, the police murder of George Floyd brought millions of people around the world to the streets demanding accountability, and “defund” entered the popular lexicon. Citizens, corporations and the media reflected on the ways in which police had used their massive budgets to harass, brutalize, card and arrest a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people. But it was also a time for activists to highlight how they underserved poor neighbourhoods and had failed to protect racialized people, sex workers, and members of the LGBTQ population.

Yet as the months wore on, the broad enthusiasm for the cause evaporated. Public opinion polls in the U.S. showed support for Black Lives Matter peaked in the summer of 2020 among non-Black people, then steadily declined. Ms. Dorimain saw this play out on the ground as an organizer – while a Black Lives Matter march after George Floyd’s death brought out thousands of her neighbours, other demonstrations seeking justice for Black and Indigenous people in Ottawa in the year and a half that followed drew much smaller crowds.

“People in this city don’t show up for Black people,” she said. “They don’t show up for Black people who have been murdered, or who experienced violence by police, in the same way that they show up for people in the US or that they show up for themselves.”

Last year, cities from Calgary to Winnipeg to Montreal to Halifax approved municipal budgets that allocated more funding to the police than ever before.

The defund movement wasn’t just about slashing police budgets, but also about redistributing those duties and dollars to other institutions and government departments – it would have been an enormous undertaking and governments seemed to lack the political will to see it through.

Then, in January, the convoy arrived. The first three weeks of protests renewed the broader conversations about the role and function of police. Many in Ottawa expressed frustration and fear over the lack of police protection and action, and the sense that the police were not protecting their communities from the disruptive and threatening behaviour of the convoy protesters. Still others rallied around the hashtag #defundottawapolice and found creative ways to protect their communities.

On Feb. 18, things took a dramatic turn. The federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act prompted police to conduct more than 170 arrests, a move widely celebrated. The City of Ottawa has estimated the cost of responding to the protests was more than $30 million.

When police appeared to be lenient with the mostly white protesters that descended on Ottawa in late January, it was in keeping with Robin Browne’s understanding of policing as an institution meant to protect the interests of white people and their property above all else. He says in many ways, their mild response to protesters has been the best ad campaign for defunding the police.

For many Ottawans, particularly white and affluent people, the convoy protest was the first time they felt frightened in their own neighbourhoods and abandoned by police. Many felt like officers were protecting a largely white group of “intruders” instead of them.

In early February, Catherine McKenney, an Ottawa city councillor, told The Globe and Mail how threatened their constituents were by the protesters and how frustrated constituents were that it took police in the city a week to request more officers.

“It was violent and people were being terrorized by the noise and just by the presence of very large trucks and very threatening behaviour,” Mx. McKenney said. “Residents downtown were abandoned until [a week after protesters arrived in the city].”

In North America, the movement to defund, de-task and abolish police began with Black and Indigenous people. They are the groups that have had disproportionately high interactions with law enforcement, whose defences of land and whose demonstrations for civil rights have historically been met with overzealous and sometimes deadly force.

“Unlike many people, Black people weren’t surprised by the Ottawa Police Service’s response to the convoy. We see them acting exactly as expected,” says Mr. Browne, co-founder of Ottawa’s 613-819 Black Hub. He, and many Black people across the country, have long felt their safety and security are not a priority and that the police cannot be relied upon to protect them.

He and other organizers suggested some police were lenient because they were allied with the convoy protesters’ cause. One of the many advocacy groups that supported the protests was Police On Guard, an organization made up of active and retired police officers and members of the military. The Ontario Provincial Police is currently investigating some of its officers who appeared to have donated to a fund to support the convoy protest. In the last month, all members of the Ottawa Police Services board who were in place before the protests began have left the board. Three of them, who resigned this week, were provincial appointees, including Robert Swaita, who is alleged to have attended the protests.

This perceived alliance was precisely why Amanda Wilson, an organizer with Ottawa’s Punch Up Collective, tried to direct her neighbours away from calling on police to clear Ottawa’s streets. The enemy of their enemy wasn’t their friend – this was a three-way fight, she explained to members of the collective, whom she described as mostly white, middle-class people.

She said she understood the impulse to call, but, she said, “if the most problematic element of this convoy is the white supremacist element, the fascist authoritarian component, then why would we look to institutions that themselves are supportive and tolerant of those same tendencies?”

Julius Haag, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said the way the protest was managed by Ottawa police was something police services around the world were watching closely.

“I don’t see a future where there are not very difficult questions to be asked and answered about the lead-up to these events, how the police comported themselves in these events, and not just in Ottawa,” he said.

In February, Peter Sloly, the Ottawa Police Service’s Black chief, abruptly resigned after weeks of criticism of his leadership, both internally and externally. Some police reformers shared their hopes at the time of his appointment in 2019 that he would address the systemic racism in the OPS, but it soon became clear he didn’t always have the support of rank and file.

After Mr. Sloly outed systemic racism in his own force in September 2020 in an Ottawa Citizen op-ed, the head of the city’s police union published an open letter that said, “The Chief has failed the leadership test. A sense of hope with a change of command has withered.”

Ms. Dorimain worries that because Chief Sloly’s leadership was characterized as more progressive or pacifist than his predecessors’, some are making him the scapegoat for police inaction during the first three weeks of protests. She worried the same people crying out “defund the police” would, upon seeing officers ticketing and arresting protesters, “fall back in line” and no longer call for defunding or abolishing the force.

Questions about the disparities in police response to different protests will “feed into discussion about defunding, de-tasking, about the nature and extent of police services in Canada. What is their mandate? What are they effective at doing? What can many communities, particularly racialized communities, expect from the police?” Dr. Haag said.

Jeffrey Monaghan, a criminologist at Carleton University, says even after life in downtown Ottawa returns to normal, the stark contrast between how police responded to the convoy protesters and how they have responded to Indigenous land defenders or Black Lives Matter activists can’t be ignored.

In Coutts, Alta., RCMP arrested 13 people in February involved with blocking the Canada-U.S. border as part of the convoy protests and seized a large cache of weapons, including long guns, hand guns, ammunition and body armour. They said they had known about the threat days earlier.

While the threat of escalation to deadly violence was how the RCMP justified holding off on the raid for days, police have frequently used that same rationale to justify the use of strong, sometimes lethal, force against Black and Indigenous people.

What happened in Coutts “is really illustrative of the real deeply entrenched white privilege in policing culture,” said Dr. Monaghan.

The day after Ottawa police began clearing the streets of protesters, Latjor Tuel was shot and killed by police in Calgary. The family of Mr. Tuel, a former child soldier from South Sudan, said he was suffering from PTSD when he was killed and should have been approached by a mental health team rather than armed police. In a press conference, Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld said, “As long as the person is in possession of weapons, and there isn’t a productive dialogue that can actually lead toward the person relinquishing those, that’s a very significant crisis situation.”

In 1995, the Ontario Provincial Police sent a riot squad in to Ipperwash Provincial Park to confront a group of Indigenous land defenders the day after they had set up barricades as part of a protest over land the federal government had taken from them. Dudley George, one of the land defenders who was unarmed, was shot and killed. More recently, police have greeted land defenders with force in Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en territories in B.C. and in Mohawk territory in Ontario.

“There’s just so many contradictions,” said Dr. Monaghan. He said police will need to account for why they are often so quick to use riot squads and military-style attacks when responding to Indigenous land defenders, but took a much slower, more submissive approach to the convoy for weeks.

While police eventually did roll out a major operation to remove vehicles and arrest protesters, many residents had learned in the three preceding weeks that they could not count on the Ottawa Police Service to protect them. And in that despair and frustration, they were given an opportunity to imagine living without police, points out Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi, co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition.

“What does it look like for us to be able to protect our own community, resource our own community, support our own community? Be the answer to the problems that are brought up to our community?” they asked.

The examples were plentiful.

A class action lawsuit, in which a fed-up 21-year-old resident of downtown Ottawa was the plaintiff, was filed against protest organizers, which prompted an injunction on the incessant honking that had become the inescapable backdrop to the protest for weeks.

On a weekend in mid-February, hundreds of counter-protesters formed a human blockade at the corner of Riverside Drive and Bank Street in Ottawa, preventing convoy traffic from turning onto Bank Street. One by one, they forced several vehicles to remove “Freedom Convoy” stickers and flags from their vehicles, and turn over jerry cans of fuel.

Group chats sprang up so residents fearful of harassment could arrange for a buddy system to walk safely downtown or pick up groceries. Through mutual aid, funds were collected and distributed to those who lost work shifts due to disruption from the protests.

Defunding, Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi said, has to be thought of as a community-based way of solving problems. “We’re creating policies, we’re creating budgets, we’re creating what we expected the state to have created in a crisis situation.”

“I think the longer we stay inside these systems, the harder it is for people to dream outside them,” they said.

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