Before dawn on January 30, Regina Anne Bateson, a resident of Ottawa, Canada, loaded her skis into her car and headed out to one of her favorite cross-country trails. She was looking forward to some solitude—she rarely encountered others at this time of day. But as she approached the trailhead, she came upon an odd sight: dozens of big-rig trucks lining the road, their idling motors piercing the stillness.
This was the start of an ongoing seizure of Canada’s capital by truckers and others in protest of vaccine and mask mandates. Over the next few weeks, Bateson watched the protests snowball into a full-scale occupation of Ottawa’s downtown core. Trucks have completely halted traffic and disrupted US-Canada border crossings crucial for commerce. Protesters in the city center have settled in, using mobile saunas to keep warm. Amid their barbecues and bouncy castles, some have displayed flags decorated with swastikas. One group allegedly tried to start a fire in the lobby of an apartment building. “It has spiraled and spiraled and spiraled into an attempt to overthrow the government,” Bateson says.
The unrest has been celebrated by right-wing US news outlets. “The regime media knows exactly what’s happening in Canada, and it scares the heck out of them,” Laura Ingraham declared on Fox News. “Freedom Convoy Triumphs as Canadian Mandates Fall,” a Breitbart headline crowed. Donald Trump, who praised the mob that ransacked the US Capitol based on his lie that the election was stolen, has also voiced support for the Ottawa convoy. So have Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans.
Heartened by the size and disruption of the Canada protest, activists in the United States are now planning their own domestic convoys. On Telegram, leaders of the California anti-vaccine group Freedom Angels Foundation are urging followers to create national and local convoys, and calling on those who can’t participate to donate supplies.
Telegram threads from Southern California planning groups obtained by Mother Jones show that these groups, like their Canadian counterparts, have attracted extremists, including prominent white nationalists. Parents are heavily involved, too, offering the use of family vehicles and enlisting their children for moral support.
On TikTok this week, Denise Aguilar, founder of Freedom Angels Foundation and the far-right women’s group Mamalitia, urged her followers to support a March 1 convoy in Washington, DC. “You don’t have to be a trucker,” she said. “We’re looking for mom vans, too!” She encourages people to host parties at local parks to collect supplies. “Have some music and get involved with your community,” she enthused. “Truckers make the world go round, and if anyone is going to put a stop to these mandates, it’s them—just watch what Canada’s doing.” She invited viewers to join her on Telegram to assist in her organizing efforts.
As of Thursday evening, the main organizing group on Telegram had more than 46,000 followers. Messages from that group and others provide a window into a movement of Americans increasingly willing to foment chaos in order to pressure the government to drop public health mandates. Some group hosts point to the Ottawa convoy as a model. “It’s critical that we understand why the Canadian protest is so effective, so we can do the same in the United States,” wrote the leader of a Los Angeles planning group. “It was not the convoy itself, but the occupation of Ottawa and the resultant economic and psychological effects on the Canadian government that is effective.”
He continued: “We Americans need to grow out of our tendency to prioritize “performative protest” and flashy stunts for social media clout, and instead focus on the systems and institutions responsible for our oppression and how to best disrupt them.”
Participants in the threads brainstorm ways to maximize the disruption. One member suggested recruiting local towing companies as allies. This would allow protestors to block access to government buildings using abandoned autos, knowing those vehicles wouldn’t be towed “until mandates r lifted,” he wrote.
Overtly racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic comments are a constant theme. One member explained the need to donate goods in person, rather than rely on crowdfunding platforms: “We don’t want to get caught in a GoFundMe situation where a Gay Jewish Canadian man held all the funds for the entire movement on an unsecured platform and almost fucked the supply lines for the whole movement.” Elsewhere, a participant complained about pornographic spam posts on the thread, citing “interracial pornography.”
Ryan Sanchez, the leader of the Los Angeles group who goes by the handle Culture War Criminal, is well known on other social platforms for his racist screeds and participation in violent rallies. Sanchez identifies as a member of the Groypers, an alt-right movement that supports white nationalist podcaster Nick Fuentes.
On his personal Telegram page, Sanchez describes himself as “a Catholic, a Nationalist…and pro-White.” Many of his posts are anti-Semitic. Referring to the takeover of a Texas synagogue that made headlines recently, he wrote, “Jews say nothing, or cheer when White people are persecuted or slaughtered, why should I give a damn about this hostage situation?” And when Canada’s Conservative Party introduced a bill to outlaw holocaust denial, he posted: “I don’t know about you, but I’m more concerned with supporting the 6 million trucks in the capital, rather than some event that happened like 100 years ago.”
The Telegram participants following marching orders from Sanchez often treat protest planning as a family affair. One offers her Suburban, which she says she uses to shuttle her kids around, to transport supplies. Others talk about having their kids write letters of support to the truckers. “I showed my boys the video of the trucker who shared the card and cookies donated by a family and they want to do the same,” one member wrote. “Please let me know how I can get them to the truckers.” Yet another bragged that she bought four cases of Girl Scout cookies to dole out to protesters. Elsewhere, members were sharing ideas for messaging, supply drives, and meet-ups. Joked one: “Add a little message to every Valentine’s Day card/gift being passed out in class, haha.”
The radicalization of parents online has been an ongoing theme throughout the pandemic. In 2020, I wrote about the Covid and QAnon conspiracies spreading through moms’ groups. More recently, parents in far-right groups have mobilized to oppose mask mandates, decry race-related teachings, and ban books they consider disturbing from schools. These groups, many of which call themselves “mama bears,” were widely credited with helping propel Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin to victory in Virginia.
A source who follows the convoy-organizing groups closely marveled at the way parents seemed to be in thrall to extremist leaders. “These people are PTA presidents, moms, everyday families,” the source said. “And they are working together with white nationalists.”
That same source has watched membership in the organizing groups explode since the Ottawa protests made headlines, swelling from hundreds to tens of thousands in some cases. “There is something different about this,” the source says. From the changing tone of the discourse, it seems like the organizers “really feel like this might be an end game, where there won’t be consequences because they really are successful.” There has also been talk of disrupting the Super Bowl and the upcoming State of the Union address.
When asked about police preparations for the planned protest in Washington, DC, a spokesperson responded simply that the department would “be monitoring, assessing and planning accordingly with our law enforcement partners.” On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement agencies that convoys in the coming weeks “could severely disrupt transportation, federal government, and law enforcement operations through gridlock and potential counterprotests.”
Despite the enthusiasm of the organizers, it’s not clear whether the protests will succeed, and at what scale. The Telegram messages suggest, beyond the mayhem organizers hope to inflict on DC, there could be smaller efforts at disruption elsewhere. Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which monitors extremist movements, says his institute so far hasn’t seen any indication that a US convoy is likely to rival the one in Ottawa.
Indeed, throughout the pandemic, opponents of public health measures have used such tactics to gain attention on a minor scale. Toward the start of the pandemic, participants in Michigan’s Operation Gridlock used vehicles to snarl traffic in Lansing. Last November, Freedom Angels Foundation organized a small truck protest on the Golden Gate Bridge. Both efforts lasted only a few hours. Nevertheless, the Ottawa protests are “opening the door to a much broader far-right moment that they can use to try to gain additional publicity,” Burghart says.
The convoys in Canada continue to grow, with protesters now blocking key points of entry into the United States. Bateson, in Ottawa, told me that downtown residents are increasingly scared to leave their homes. She is astounded by the convoy—not only because she has to contend daily with the disruptions and undercurrent of fear the protesters have brought to her city, but also because of her expertise. An assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, Bateson has studied insurrections, mostly in Latin America.
The use of trucks to intimidate people reminds her of occupations she has studied in other countries. “If there is a place that’s completely under rebel control, under the control of the narco trafficking group, they’re not in conflict with anyone at that moment—there isn’t actually violence happening, but they’re still ruling through coercion,” she says. “And that is, more or less the type of stalemate that’s developed in Ottawa.”
A few days ago, Bateson tried to take her son for a haircut and had to shield him as a pickup from the protest sped down the street and drove onto a sidewalk. “They’re armed with the vehicles. And that has really constrained [the police’s] response, it’s really been terrifying.”
On Thursday, meanwhile, the Telegram groups were brainstorming more protest sites. “We could go to Silicon Valley,” one member offered. “Each state can have a huge population go to each capital!” On his own page, Sanchez posted an impassioned plea for donations for the DC convoy. “Our country is in danger,” he wrote. “The only people who are going to save it are young men of action—who are radically and proudly Nationalist.”