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Blog February 18, 2022

Shakespeare and the Truckers’ ‘Freedom Convoy’

The ‘Freedom Convoy’ that rolled into Ottawa on 22 January 2022 to occupy Canada’s capital was organized at least in part by a group called ‘United We Roll’, whose former activities include opposing the federal carbon tax and defending the construction of new oil and gas pipelines, the Convoy was originally operating according to the terms set out in a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ released by United We Roll’s James Bauder in the name of ‘Canada Unity’. When the media exposed these terms, which in effect constitute an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected federal, provincial, and municipal governments of Canada, the document was ‘withdrawn’. But the Convoy participants on Parliament Hill have been calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be arrested for ‘treason’, and those monitoring the exchanges taking place between Convoy participants and supporters on platforms such as Zello report that what they hear is ‘chilling’ and that the goal remains the overthrow of the government. The activities of the occupiers—‘psychological torture’ meant to ‘instill fear in citizens’, Amanda Jetté Knox has declared on Twitter—have been tempered by the injunction issued by judge Hugh McLean against the blaring of horns, which was renewed on February 16th for another 60 days. (Horn blasts are not, he contends, ‘the expression of any great thought’.) But Ottawa residents continue to be harassed in the streets for wearing masks, and the recent arrests, both in Ontario and Alberta, of Convoy participants hauling guns and ammunition, with four persons in Alberta charged with conspiracy to murder, suggest that what the Convoy participants and supporters are calling ‘peaceful protest’ may in fact be, as others claim, an ‘insurrection’.

No one could possibly keep on top of the amount of material that has been circulating in the media, both via mainstream channels and platforms such as Twitter, to register Canadians’ widespread rejection of the Convoy. 

This material ranges from the work of cartoonists to tweets about tiny protests such as that of a five-person group in the Yukon holding up signs that read ‘Honk if vaccines work’, ‘Silent Majority’, and ‘I ♥️ public health’. Some counterprotest activity, arguably the most inventive, has been playing out online. This includes what is being called the Ram Ranch Resistance, which began, as Rolling Stone notes, with counterprotesters disrupting Zello chats amongst Convoy participants and supporters ‘by playing “Ram Ranch,” a 2012 porno-metal classic by Grant MacDonald’. Myriad social commentators are noting what they consider to be the hypocrisy of the police, who swiftly respond to other kinds of protest with violence, but in this situation have not only been filmed on camera explicitly expressing sympathy with occupiers and blockaders but have also been filmed embracing them. At Trinity Bellwood Park in Toronto in the summer of 2019, police shoved and trampled homeless persons and their supporters whose arms were linked in a loving chain while evicting them from the park, and police brutality in dealing with the blockaders at Fairy Creek in British Columbia has been relentless.

For the claim that all of the Convoy activity is part of a lawful fight for ‘freedom’ some historical perspective is in order. 

On February 12th freelance journalist Justin Ling, who has been reporting on the occupation and those behind it for The Guardiantweeted ‘Now is the winter of our malcontents: Welcome to day ∞ of the anti-vaxxers revenge’. Ling was riffing on a line from Richard III, in which the title character generates all kinds of mayhem and arranges for others to commit murder on his behalf, so that he may seize the English crown. But Shakespeare has much more to offer us by way of perspective on what is much more than simply the revenge of ‘anti-vaxxers’.

The second in the tetralogy of plays that culminates in Richard IIIHenry VI Part II stages the populist rebellion of 1450 led by Jack Cade, who attempted to seize the throne from Henry VI. Adapting the material that he found in the chronicle histories, Shakespeare represents the Cade rebellion as motivated by the rebels’ desire for their ‘ancient freedom’. This ‘freedom’ is far more expansive than the one that the members of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ claim to be fighting for. Cade and his men want freedom from their servitude to the men who held much more power over their daily lives in late medieval England than the king, the great feudal landlords who held the greater part of land in England, in theory as reward for their ‘homage’ to the king, for whom they would muster men for war. More audaciously, Shakespeare represents Cade and his men as desiring that the realm be ‘held in common’. Poor labourers, Cade’s men want not simply to be freed from their obligations to labour for other men. They want an equitable sharing-out of material goods and pleasure to all. In his imagining of the transformation of England into a pleasure-dome for all, Cade declares (for example) that it will be ‘a felony to drink small beer’ or beer watered down to make it a commodity labourers could afford.

Shakespeare was taking these ideas from an earlier rebellion, the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, in which a priest, John Ball, gave an inspirational speech that went into wide circulation. In that speech Ball declared that things would not ‘go on well in England . . . until everything shall be in common’. He called for ‘all distinctions’ to be ‘levelled’ so that no one would any longer be a ‘villein’ (a labourer not free to work for anyone other than the lord of the manor). Such distinctions were simply not rationale, he contended, in a Christian commonwealth. Shakespeare’s choice to conflate the two rebellions relates to the developments in his own lifetime excoriated by Marx in chapters 27 and 28 of Capital: a radical increase in the enclosure of land by those holding the old feudal manors. With enclosing, land that had formerly been held in common (usually for the pasturing of cattle) was turned over to sheep farming, thereby depriving small farmers of their means of subsistence, and ‘the agricultural people’ [were] first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system’. Anti-enclosure protests in both the 1590s and in the Midlands in 1607 resulted in great violence, both in the fields, where workers attempting to pull down hedges were trampled, and on scaffolds, where leaders were executed under martial law. The political project that Shakespeare attributes to Cade ties his play to the anti-enclosure activity, which was an attempt to maintain at least one form of holding things in common.

Cade, meanwhile, is presented as the tool of one of the great feudal landlords, Richard, Duke of York, who intends to usurp the throne from Henry. York claims that he has ‘seduced’ Cade to create a ‘commotion’ or ‘black storm’ that he hopes will destabilize the rule of Henry VI while testing the appetite of the English ‘commons’ to have a king other than Henry. York is counting on Henry to prove too ‘saintly’ to put down the Cade rebellion. Henry tries to contain the aggressions of the courtiers vying to topple him from the crown with statements such as ‘blessed are the peacemakers on earth’. For York, who is content to ‘blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell’ if that’s what will put ‘the golden circuit on [his] head’, this kind of statement is nothing more than incitement, as it gives him the confidence that no matter how Cade fares York will subsequently be able to ‘come . . . with [his] strength, | And reap the harvest which that rascal sow’d’. 

No one is calling Justin Trudeau a saint, but Margaret Atwood trenchantly summed up the predicament in which he finds himself in a tweet of February 10th: ‘It’s an old playbook. Create chaos, remove validity from gov’t, create a demand for #authoritarian order, step in; OR force gov’t itself to use muscle, then yell Tyrant. Bingo, democracy doesn’t work! Enemies of it win’. But Shakespeare’s play has more to say to us about the predicament that not just Trudeau but all Canadians confront in the face of the current ‘commotion’.

The materials circulating on Twitter include clips from a press conference in which Tom Marazzo, as spokesperson for the Convoy, called for the Governor General to meet with him and other Convoy representatives about their demands. Marazzo’s posture was consistent with the ‘MOU’ released by ‘United We Roll’: the presumption is that those who can marshal physical force and the threat of physical violence can compel figures of authority in a democracy to bend to their will. As Cade says in his most self-aggrandizing statement, ‘My mouth shall be the Parliament of England’. For the most chilling of his statements, Marazzo stole a line from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing to deride Trudeau as having a ‘’22 calibre mind in a 357 [magnum] world’. The implication is a grim one: that the only thing that matters in regard to political leadership is the capacity to deal in violence, and whoever is packing the highest-powered weapon deserves to prevail. By this logic, Trudeau is no match for the Convoy for reasons that anyone who truly cares about democracy as the rule of law would applaud—Trudeau has shown himself reluctant to call in the military.

Shakespeare’s Cade reflects a mentality like Marazzo’s when he declares to a lord who is hauled into his presence by one of his men, now art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal’. That word, ‘point-blank’, was a fairly new one at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, having come into common parlance only a little earlier in the sixteenth century. It applied to the reach of an arrow from a bow as well as the shot of a gun. The principle that Shakespeare attributes to Cade is the same as Marazzo’s: that political authority properly belongs with those who make use their willingness to threaten and possibly deal in violence the source of their ‘jurisdiction’.

We see even worse evidence of this presumption in a video filmed by one of the Convoy’s key organizers, Pat King, apparently while his truck was in motion down a highway. King claims that he knows what’s coming (and that ‘there’s not a single person out there who’s going to be able to stand up’ to it). He derides counterprotesters as ‘little fucking pukes’ who cry when they get pepper-sprayed or rubber-bulleted’ before declaring that ‘rubber bullets and pepper spray are fuck all’. He can’t wait, he says, ‘til the real bullets start flying’. 

Whatever King may or may not know about planned violence, his anticipation of peaceful protesters being hit with real bullets tells us something alarming. There is a very serious hatred on the loose that the Trudeau government is going to have to contain if the social fabric is not to be torn apart by those Canadians who think they are free to terrorize others and to do so under the sign of various flags—not just Canada’s, but the flags of the United States and the US Confederacy, as well as banners reading ‘Trump 2024’.

In Shakespeare’s play, Cade’s men look forward to the violence that they can deal in with the tools of their trade. They declare, for example, that they will make swords out of lathes. In what is arguably the most notorious line in the entire Shakespeare canon, they specify exactly with whom this program of violence will begin: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. (Paul Champ has shown us just how important lawyers are in the non-violent fight against violence.) The (fictional) violence of Cade and his men is directed at anyone they perceive as participating in the system that oppresses them. 

The members of the Freedom Convoy find their enemies in anyone who respects public health orders and not just their health and safety but the health and safety of others by wearing a mask. This is very like what we see in the play, where the men take as their victim even a clerk, whom they seize when he is ‘setting boys’ copies’. In other words, the clerk is a teacher in a grammar school (which only boys could attend), and at the time of his capture was offering boys instruction in writing. Literacy was a key means of securing upwards social mobility in both late medieval and early modern England, especially for the sons of farmers and artisans. But Cade and his men, labourers who can only ‘make their mark’ (that is, sign legal documents with an ‘x’), see nothing but a threat in the clerks’ literacy. Cade’s command that his men hang the clerk with his pen and inkhorn about his neck makes a mockery of Cade’s claim that he and his men want to restore an ‘ancient freedom’ and have the realm held in common. Shakespeare underscores the larger implications of the wrong of such violence in a commonwealth that claims to be Christian by giving the clerk the name Emmanuel, which means ‘God amongst us’.

With details such as these, Shakespeare’s play captures the error of (and the potential tragedy for) those who let themselves be used as weapons against the members of the very ‘civil society’ which is their only real protection against those who would otherwise exploit them. Targeting those who exemplify their care for others in the simple act of wearing a mask and casting public health directives as forms of oppression, members of the Convoy are busy producing a senseless and dangerous spectacle that distracts from the forms of freedom that are genuinely in peril in democratic societies, including their own as poorly paid labourers whose frustrations others can harness to turn them into troops in a ‘black storm’.

The concern of Shakespeare’s play is with a feudal society in the midst of the transformation to a capitalist society, and more particularly with the ways in which both kinds of social organization, the latter especially, foreclose the possibility of ‘holding things in common’. In the play we see nameless commoners attempt to bring a petition against the Duke of Suffolk for enclosing commons. The petition, meant for the king, never reaches him because it is ripped to shreds in front of them by Suffolk’s lover, Queen Margaret. The ‘freedom’ that is at stake in the play is tied to the viability of social forms of organization in which the people of a society put care for one another, or community, ahead of any form of private profit or self-aggrandizement. 

Every time one of those truck horns blasts what we should hear is the moneyed interests that benefit from creating the social divisions that put at risk our capacity to work together to protect the various forms of the common at stake in democratic societies, including not just our public healthcare systems but the air we breathe and the water we drink. None of us can be free on a planet in which either capitalist corporations or communist states are free to destroy what we hold in common, the environment.

It should be lost on no one that the massive metal vehicles occupying the nation’s capital and exposing Ottawa’s citizens, amongst other things, to toxic diesel fumes, are part of the oil-and-gas infrastructure that transports goods around North America. In the form of these trucks that infrastructure is being used to attempt to topple a democratically elected government—one that brought in the federal carbon tax ‘United We Roll’ opposes. 

When the premier of Alberta tweeted a photograph from a counterprotest in Ottawa that showed a lone hammer and sickle flag held up in the crowd and used that flag to denounce the counterprotesters as ‘pro-lockdown counter protestors’ who ‘romanticize’ communism, he was speaking (ironically) to a connection that we all must make: that those occupying Ottawa are being funded by Canadians and Americans who would like us to believe that there is no political alternative to a capitalist economy dependent upon fossil fuels. The ‘lockdown’ that a politician like Jason Kenney really fears is the one in which Canadians commit to keeping fossil fuels in the ground in order to address climate emergency. The harassment that we are witnessing in Ottawa and elsewhere is the harassment of those Canadians who choose to put the common good first, whether it’s in the form of adhering to public health mandates that seek to radically diminish the possibility of Canadians getting sick and possibly dying from COVID-19 or in advocating for the protection of Canada’s air, water, forests, and ecosystems as part of the urgent challenge of addressing climate destruction.

Every time I see an artful use of social media to respond to the Ottawa occupation and the related blockades with a small act of virtual protest I am cheered. See, for example, ‘Captaincoby’s’ reworking of Pat King’s video, in which he has spliced in images of himself undermining King with sardonic commentary. The thing that King has really got ‘coming’, Captaincoby suggests, is time in jail. As I finish this post, it appears that Ottawa police may be, with assistance, finally clearing the occupiers from Parliament Hill. But we must recognize that the ‘commotion’ we have been witnessing is a trial balloon in a larger ‘black storm’ that bears with it a very real threat, that of a growing authoritarianism, whether from above or below, that is prepared to treat those who would defend our common well-being with violence. 

The two plays that follow Henry VI Part 2 in Shakespeare’s tetralogy show us where the failure to block such violence can lead: to the rise of tyrants like Richard III. Richard III has a short, but very powerful scene between three nameless citizens who share amongst themselves their sense of the threat that Richard poses, but decide simply to leave matters ‘to God’. Canadian counterprotesters have been showing that they will not make any such mistake. They are willing to put their own bodies on the line, whether as cyclists in Vancouver or pedestrians in Edmonton or Ottawa, to block violence. But they shouldn’t have to. We need to find ways, as Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, written in relation to the 1607 violence in the Midlands, suggests, to ‘plant love among’s’ so that no one can imagine that the way to protect ‘freedom’ of any kind is by expressing hatred or threatening violence. The police shouldn’t be dealing in violence with anyone, and members of the opposition party in the House of Commons should not be shouting down a Liberal MP speaking against hate. Our love for one another must be comprehensive, not selective. We must not let a narrow conception of freedom distract us from far more urgent issues, or considerations of what constitutes real freedom. And we must find ways to hold precious things in common, starting with the rule of law.