D.C. should not be treated as a playground for political grievances

Despite their low turnout, members of the Canadian-inspired, vehicle-based “Freedom Convoys” that arrived in the D.C. area ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday deserve to be called what they are: “outside agitators.” Though it has a long and complicated history, “outside agitator” perfectly captures the underlying actions and attitudes of protestors traveling to D.C. from across the country. Their goal? To “squeeze,” “choke” and “swallow” D.C., as one Pennsylvania protestor put it, by blocking traffic on the Beltway as part of a wide ranging anti-government demonstration. 

The Freedom Convoys are another round of inconvenient and even dangerous protests about everything from vaccine mandates to the thoroughly debunked QAnon conspiracy. The convoys’ original end point, D.C., is no coincidence: as the seat of the nation’s government, the District bears a symbolic importance for the various groups that come and go like clockwork. But these out-of-state, big-rig based protests go beyond typical anti-government demonstrations. They are the latest in a series of movements that intentionally disregard the well-being of the city’s residents. If these truckers – and anyone else – want to exercise their rights in the District, they ought to do so responsibly and with respect to its residents. D.C. deserves more than to be treated as a playground for the political grievances of others. 

The Canadian protests that inspired their American counterparts arose from opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers and general frustration with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The American Freedom Convoys have grafted this grab bag of political grievances onto American politics, targeting President Joe Biden and D.C. rather than Trudeau and Ottawa. The convoys are a mixture of disparate and decentralized groups coming from across the country. One group, the “people’s convoy,” is coming from California, while another convoy containing a single trucker came from Pennsylvania. Despite their different origins, the convoys generally share a conservative mission that certain politicians and pundits have praised. 

Unlike their Canadian counterparts that brought Ottawa to a standstill, closed stretches of highway across the country and shut down the Ambassador Bridge border crossing with the United States, the American Freedom Convoys cannot even enter D.C. itself. This is because the District has gone as far as to activate the National Guard and block off streets to monitor and minimize the truckers’ movements. Some protestors have rerouted, aiming to obstruct traffic on the already car-logged Beltway

Yet the more successful Canadian convoys demonstrate what protestors might have replicated in the District. Reports of noise disturbances and noxious vehicle exhaust in Ottawa are bad enough, but protesting truckers and their supporters allegedly harassed and intimidated residents. In Canada, demonstrators’ opposition to the seat of their government morphed into physical and verbal violence against Ottawans. The potential for that violence to play out in D.C., and the philosophy underpinning it, is far more worrying than the actual demonstrations. 

Conflating residents’ identities as people with the symbolically charged seat of government they inhabit is a dangerous game. These protestors have an understanding of political activism in which residents of the nation’s capital are fair game for everything from inconveniences to outright intimidation. These truckers’ grievances may lie with the federal government, but I sincerely doubt they’ll contain themselves to targeting Capitol Hill or the White House. Whether traffic delays or uncomfortable confrontations, commuters, day-trippers and college students like me will suffer the consequences of protestors’ actions simply by being in D.C. 

Intentionally or not, these protestors’ opposition to the national government includes a marked hostility to the District and its residents. This mirrors participants at recent protests who have flaunted the city’s mask mandate on Metro en route to a rally on the National Mall, instigated racist violence in the city and forever marred the District in an attempt to overthrow the nation’s government. 

There’s little recourse for District residents but shared outrage and utter disbelief, like the viral exchange between Peter Tracey and Shawntia Humphries, as they watched unmasked, unruly protestors on Jan. 6 stream back home on Metro or dissipate through the city’s streets. Unlike the outside agitators who showed up to storm the Capitol, District residents don’t have the option to return home, because this is their home.

Gabrielle Doyle, a Capitol Hill resident, said that the District was “suddenly sprung into a militarized zone, and that’s not an exaggeration,” in an interview with DCist about her experiences after Jan. 6. 

This is not a question of what these protesting truckers believe, but how they and their ideological cohort behave. Would you tolerate a hypothetical semi-truck parked outside Kogan Plaza, flanked by a crowd of aggressive, disrespectful protestors heckling you with inane political arguments, constant noise and offensive insults? 

This is about the responsibilities that come with living in a democratic society, not the right to destructively roam through the nation’s capital unhindered. I believe that the District and its residents are too important to simply be a venue where anyone, regardless of the harm they cause, can exercise their right to free speech. 

Residents cannot, and should not, have to tolerate openly dangerous demonstrations that spill over into their neighborhoods, homes and businesses. If the Freedom Convoys want to preserve liberty, save America and restore unity in an intense period of national division, they can and should do one simple thing: turn around.

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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