I am running late to get to my friend’s 40th birthday celebration because, half a block from my house, I turned around to get a mask. I hadn’t been planning to wear a mask outdoors, but there are small groups of people – maskless and decked out with Canadian flags – gathered in clusters on the downtown streets. Lots of them. I did NOT want to mistaken for part of that group, so I ran back in and found my Ruth Bader Ginsberg mask, the one that says “NOT FRAGILE LIKE A FLOWER: FRAGILE LIKE A BOMB.” Now, properly attired and clearly indicating my position in this stand-off, I hurry towards my friend’s house.
The day is cold and sunny with a beautiful high blue sky. The crisp air would redden my cheeks had I not put on my mask. I thrust my gloved hands deep into my pockets and walk. I haven’t walked more than one block to the west of my house in almost three weeks, not since the “protests” began. The people I’m passing do not look like my neighbors. They are, to a person, white, though our neighborhood is home to people of many races. Along with the Canadian flags, they have black flags that say F*** Trudeau – only without the asterix. My neighbors tend to politely step to the side as others pass, making sure to offer each other space so that we can safely walk outdoors without masks. Not these people. On the streets, pickup trucks drive by and honk. The visitors shout and wave back.
Today feels almost like Canada Day, but there’s a nasty undertone. I don’t know if I’m making that up, but my nerves are frayed after three weeks of living blocks away from the “Freedom Convoy.” (I do not actually call them that – what they call freedom is pure selfishness – but aside from “occupiers,” the other words I use are not ones I care to admit to in this blog.) My family and I count ourselves lucky: we could only hear their incessant honking as a background drone, not an earsplitting nightmare; we don’t have their diesel fumes leaking into our living space; we are white, so we are not automatic targets when we go outside; we don’t have a Pride flag displayed, so no one has used our front yard as their toilet. All we have is inconvenience, in the grand scheme of things, plus an ever-present fear that things are going to become violent. Even the cold air feels like tension. Make no mistake: these trucks are weapons, and these people are here for hate, no matter how much they believe they are here for freedom.
Right now I just want to get to my friend’s party. Six of us are planning to sit outside in the freezing cold in camping chairs set up on their backyard skating rink. We will wrap ourselves in blankets, huddle around a tiny outdoor fire, drink hot cider with a splash bourbon and eat chocolate cake. We will last about an hour in this most Canadian of pandemic birthday celebrations. We have not been indoors together in nearly three years because too many germs from too many places make Covid too real of a possibility and we have young kids and grandparents to think about.
These people I am passing think differently. They believe conspiracy theories and that they should get everything they want, regardless of others. They don’t want the vaccine AND they want to participate freely in everything – swim lessons, restaurants, hockey teams, workplaces, all of it. I used to try to be open-minded, or at least curious, about their thinking, but three weeks into this illegal occupation, three weeks into harming businesses and workers and everyday people, three weeks of honking when the politicians they are mad at aren’t even in the city… well, my curiosity has waned.
These people are here for fun. I find myself thinking unkind thoughts about them. Ok, angry thoughts. Ok, rageful thoughts. I call my sister and curse into the phone while she laughs at my surprisingly curse-ridden vitriol. Better to tell her than to tell the people around me. My heart beats faster as I pass some groups. My anger rises as I see white people, maskless, flag-covered, sprawling across benches in the park we use, gathered on corners, insisting to store employees I recognize that they will come in without masks (later today both downtown grocery stores will close because they decide their employees are no longer safe; many restaurants have had to close; people have thrown bricks through the window of an Asian restaurant and set a small fire in an apartment building then tied the doors shut). I walk faster.
I remember Lisa telling her daughter to shoot them the bird and I wonder briefly what she would do if she could see this mess. I tell my sister, who is still patiently listening to me as I try to cross town, about what I am seeing and feeling. And then I spot them: a couple, sitting on a bench on a corner in the middle of the local shopping street. They are taking up a lot of space. On his belly, he’s balanced a box of poutine – classic Canadian street fare. She has a Canadian flag draped around her shoulders. He’s casually letting a pole with a “F#*& Trudeau” flag dangle into the sidewalk in front of me.
“Disrespectful,” I hiss. “Get out of my city. Get out of my home.”
He starts to yell something back at me, but I am already past him and my sister is talking directly into my ears, “Mandy, this is a bad idea. Keep walking. Don’t engage.” Moments later, she is laughing and so am I. This? This is it? I’m in the middle of a slow-motion insurrection, surrounded by white supremacists using trucks as weapons and my go-to insult is “disrespectful”?
I pull my knitted cap lower over my expertly highlighted blonde hair, wrap myself more tightly in my hand-knitted scarf, and wonder at who I am: a middle class white teacher lady who curses on the phone in secret but can only engage the occupiers like a schoolmarm.
Days later, I am still wondering what more I can do, how much I will risk. Days later, I know that the failure of the “authorities” to protect (white) citizens, to keep us (white people) safe (from white people), to even begin to address this occupation (by white supremacists), has changed me completely. I cannot yet articulate how this will manifest, but I know that my tendency towards moderation has disappeared in the face of this. I am ashamed that only now do I truly understand what others have been saying for years: the police, the authorities are not trustworthy. I believed them, but until now I had not experienced this. Though I already thought that I was past this, I now know that I can no longer be the white moderate who Martin Luther King, Jr decries in Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”
If I’m going to live up to my RBG mask, I’m going to need some better insults.