It began as a ragtag team of Canadian truckers shouting about their disdain for vaccine mandates and the politicians upholding them. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in below-freezing temperatures, waving Canada’s flag and using their semis to block bridges and thoroughfares.
Now, nearly two weeks after Canadian truckers began the blockades that shuttered portions of Ottawa, the country’s capital, the patchwork movement orchestrated largely on social media and in online chat groups is expanding globally.
As the Omicron surge recedes across the U.S. and more states weigh lifting mask mandates, similar caravans and blockades — dubbed “Freedom Convoys” — have started to pop up across the globe, threatening to grind city cores to a halt in parts of the U.S., France, New Zealand and Australia.
In the U.S., the loosely organized effort has bubbled on social media for days, with drivers communicating in Facebook groups and using a hashtag, #TruckersForFreedom2022, to discuss potential routes, including a convoy from California to Washington, D.C. Using the Telegram messaging app, drivers have voiced their shared grievances — centered largely, they say, on governmental overreach — and discussed logistical details, such as having food, toiletries and other supplies delivered at various points along the route.
Some experts have warned that the convoys, which have garnered glowing support from some Republican politicians and right-wing media, could become a harrowing echo back to images of Jan. 6, 2021, when law enforcement proved woefully unprepared for the violent mobs that stormed the U.S. Capitol. Many cities, they said, could also grind to a halt with blockades.
“An initial reluctance to enforce the law against these far-right protesters has the potential to lead to disaster,” said Mark Potok, a former senior leader at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “In both Canada and the United States, these lawless convoys are engaging in tactics that are not only patently illegal but also have a very real potential to escalate into a direct challenge to democracy itself.”
Several law enforcement sources said a bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security warned hundreds of police agencies that a truck convoy might start in California and travel to Washington, D.C., causing traffic disruptions that could potentially target large cities.
And in recent days, Facebook removed a page promoting the U.S. convoy, alleging posters had made repeated violations related to QAnon. At the time it was shut down, it had nearly 140,000 supporters.
In interviews with truckers in the U.S., many said they are not far-right radicals, but instead feel the government has grown too large and is too prone to overreach.
“We’re tired of the mandates, we’re tired of giving up our rights as free people to do what we want,” said Daniel Koors, an Indiana trucker, who plans to join the effort. “That’s what this entire convoy is all about: It’s to bring attention to the government that the American people are tired of being walked upon.”
Koors graduated from Purdue University, became a trucker 13 years ago, bought a truck seven years ago and now runs his own company, DWK Trucking. He also runs The Disrespected Trucker, a Facebook group where truckers have been complaining about vaccine mandates and praising the Canadian convoy. He’s known to fellow truckers by his handle, “Short Stack,” an ironic nickname for a guy who’s 6 foot 6 and 300 pounds.
It’s in truckers’ nature, Koors said, to question authority.
“That’s why we are truck drivers. We don’t follow the pattern of everybody else. We’re independent people. It’s a lifestyle that we live,” he said. “We’re not dummies. We’re blue-collar Americans. I own my company. That’s who we are and why we’re tired.”
Dena Wouters, an organizer for a local Facebook group in Great Falls, Mont., is married to a trucker and said few know the trials truckers go through to provide for their families as well as the American people.
“Without truckers, our economy and supply chain would tank,” she said. “With the ‘one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach’ with these COVID mandates, it does make it difficult and trying for truckers and businesses to do their jobs and provide for their families.”
The focus of the convoys, at least in Canada, has been to publicly call for the removal of politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They won’t stop the blockades, protesters say, until he steps down and all vaccination mandates and COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
In an address to Parliament this week, Trudeau urged protesters to leave Ottawa and Windsor, the Canadian sister city of Detroit, where blockades shuttered the Ambassador Bridge, threatening serious issues to the flow of the auto industry supply chain.
“It has to stop,” Trudeau said.
“This pandemic has sucked for all Canadians,” he added. “But Canadians know the way to get through it is continuing to listen to science, continuing to lean on each other.”
The efforts have, however, gotten encouragement from members of the GOP in the U.S.
“God bless these Canadian truck drivers. They’re defending Canada, America and they’re standing up for freedom!” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted. “The government doesn’t have the right to force you to comply with their arbitrary mandates.”
In a statement, former President Trump called Trudeau a “far-left lunatic” who has “destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates.”
In New Zealand, thousands of truckers gathered this week in Wellington, the nation’s capital, and stood outside their trucks waving the nation’s flag. They blocked roads outside of Parliament and waved signs that read “Take Back Our Rights” and “No More Mandates.”
Like Trudeau, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, characterized the group as a vocal minority.
“I think it would be wrong to, in any way, characterize what we’ve seen outside as a representation of the majority,” she said at a news conference. “The majority of New Zealanders have done everything they can to keep one another safe.”
Since 2020, New Zealand has maintained some of the strictest travel restrictions and logged extremely low case rates — 18,000 to date — and a death tally of 53.
In Australia, hundreds of truckers recently joined a “Convoy to Canberra,” where protesters opposed vaccine mandates outside of Parliament.
Early Thursday, dozens of protesters in southern France posted images on social media of a convoy headed for Paris. The main Facebook group behind the French movement has attracted more than 300,000 followers.
Back in the U.S., at a truck stop in the Northern California farm town of Dixon, about 25 miles west of Sacramento, many truck drivers seemed unaware of the convoy plans, and befuddled by what such a convoy might accomplish.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking about diesel right now. Look at the price,” said driver Hardjinder Singh, who was filling up his tank and gestured to the pump, where he was paying about $5 a gallon, a huge jump from a few years ago. As he waited, 18-wheelers roared past on Interstate 80.
Singh, who lives near Sacramento and has been driving a truck for 32 years, said he was less concerned with vaccine mandates than he was with fuel prices, the cost of insurance and the rising cost of food.
“I’m worried about everything right now,” he said. “It’s scary.”
But Danny Schnautz, president of Houston-based Clark Freight Lines Inc., said he hopes to join the convoy.
“The idea behind it is bigger than a vaccine or COVID,” said Schnautz, 54. “It’s the frustration.”
He said truck drivers went from being the heroes of the pandemic to being subjected to mandates on top of a slew of other pandemic restrictions.
“Truckers,” he said, “really have faced a lot of trouble trying to get their job done.”
Lee reported from Los Angeles, Hennessy-Fiske from Houston and Garrison from Dixon, Calif. Staff writer Richard Winton in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.