Opinion – Paul Krugman: When ‘freedom’ means the right to destroy

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On Sunday (13), Canadian police finally dispersed anti-vaccination protesters blocking the Ambassador Bridge, between Detroit (USA) and Windsor (Canada), an important trade route through which more than US$300 million normally passes. 5 billion) in daily international trade. Other bridges remain closed, and part of Ottawa, the Canadian capital, is still occupied.

The Canadian authorities’ hesitation in the face of this disruption was alarming in American eyes. Also alarming, though not really surprising, was the use of economic hooliganism and intimidation by much of the American right — especially people who criticized the demonstrations in favor of racial justice. What we’re seeing here is an object lesson in what some people really mean when they talk about “law and order.”

Let’s talk about what’s happening in Canada and why I call it vandalism.

The “Freedom Train” was publicized as a reaction from truck drivers irritated by the mandatory vaccination against Covid-19. In reality, there don’t seem to be many truckers among the protesters on the bridge (about 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated). Last week, a Bloomberg reporter saw just three trailers among the vehicles blocking the Ambassador Bridge, which were mostly pickup trucks and private cars; photos taken on Saturday also show very few commercial trucks.

The Teamsters union, which represents many truckers on both sides of the border, denounced the blockade.

So this is not an uprising from the truckers’ base. It’s more like slow-motion January 6th, a disruption caused by a relatively small number of activists, many of them right-wing extremists. At their peak, the demonstrations in Ottawa reportedly only involved around 8,000 people, while numbers elsewhere were much smaller.

Despite their small numbers, however, the protesters are inflicting a remarkable amount of economic damage. The economies of the United States and Canada are closely integrated. In particular, the US manufacturing industry, especially but not just the automobile industry, has a constant flow of parts between factories on both sides of the border. As a result, the interruption of this flow disrupted the industry, forcing production cuts and even the closure of factories.

The blockade of the Ambassador Bridge has also generated large overhead costs as trucks are diverted to secondary routes and forced to wait in long lines on alternate bridges.

Any attempt to put a figure on the economic costs of the lockdown is misleading and speculative. However, it is not difficult to reach figures like US$ 300 million (R$ 1.5 billion) or more per day; combine that with the disruption in Ottawa, and the “truck drivers” protests may have already inflicted economic damage of a few billion dollars.

It’s an interesting number because it roughly parallels the insurance industry’s estimates of the total losses associated with the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd — protests that appear to have involved more than 15 million people.

This comparison will no doubt come as a surprise to those who get their news from the right-wing media, which has portrayed the movement as an orgy of looting and arson. I still get emails from people who believe that much of New York City has been reduced to smoldering ruins. In fact, the demonstrations were remarkably non-violent; there was vandalism in a few cases, but it was relatively rare, and the damage was small considering the massive size of the protests.

In contrast, causing economic damage was and is simply what the protests in Canada are about — because blocking flows of essential goods, threatening people’s livelihoods, is just as destructive as breaking a store window. And unlike, for example, a strike against a particular company, this damage fell indiscriminately to anyone who had the misfortune to depend on free trade.

And for what purpose? The Black Lives Matter demonstrations were a reaction to the killing of innocent people by the police; what is happening in Canada is apparently about rejecting public health measures designed to save lives. Of course, even this is mostly an excuse: it’s actually an attempt to exploit pandemic fatigue to bolster the usual culture war agenda.

As one might expect, the American right is loving this. People who have portrayed peaceful protests against police killings as an existential threat are delighted at the spectacle of right-wing activists breaking the law and destroying wealth. Fox News devoted many hours to glowing coverage of the lockdowns and occupations. Senator Rand Paul, who has called Black Lives Matter activists a “crazed mob,” called for Canadian-style protests to “congest cities” across the United States, specifically saying he expected to see truckers disrupting the football championship final, the Super Bowl (they didn’t).

I suppose the reopening of the Ambassador Bridge is the beginning of a broader crackdown on destructive protests. But I hope we don’t forget this moment — and in particular that we remember it the next time a politician or media figure speaks of “law and order.”

Recent events have confirmed what many suspected: the right is perfectly comfortable, indeed enthusiastic, with illegal acts and disorder, as long as they serve the ends of the right.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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