Avoid counter-protests this weekend, urge seasoned activists and police
'Do not go,' warns Ottawa professor who studies collective violence
Seasoned local activists and the Ottawa Police Service have the same message for anyone who might want to head downtown this weekend to counter an anti-vaccine mandate protest: don't go.
The "Reclaim Ottawa" protest on Instagram garnered a few thousand followers, but has since called off a demonstration for Saturday citing safety concerns.
Sam Hersh, a Horizon Ottawa board member who helps organize at least a dozen demonstrations a year in Ottawa, cancelled an event planned for Tuesday. Hersh has rallied on topics such as police funding, the light rail or affordable housing, but says the current situation in Ottawa feels very different.
"These people want confrontation. I'm not saying that for everyone, but a lot of the folks who are leading this are looking for that," said Hersh, who said he was threatened for wearing a mask while downtown this week.
He worried even a peaceful protest might end with violence, and says groups representing Black, Indigenous, or people of colour told him they were concerned too.
"It's crazy to be having this conversation," he said, adding he feels police haven't protected people enough.
If you're frustrated with the situation ... those are all valid feelings. But do not go to the counter-protest.- Regina Bateson, political scientist at the University of Ottawa
Many Ottawa community groups who frequently collaborate on demonstrations met Thursday night and decided to find safer ways to channel their message than putting themselves in the fray, said Hersh.
MPP Joel Harden held a town hall Friday night to discuss how to instead offer residents food, mental health supports, or make sure people felt safe walking.
Such community walks began in Centretown on Friday. Coun. Jeff Leiper, who joined, said they purposely held no signs and wanted only to make sure neighbours could look out for one another.
More extreme crowd expected, says prof
Before the cancellations of the Instagram-based protest on Friday, Ottawa police anticipated 1,000 counter-protesters to gather this weekend. Police anticipate about 300 or 400 trucks to arrive in the capital with 2,000 people on foot to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Deputy police chief Steve Bell said he understands residents' frustration and their "need to speak out" but asked them not to hold counter-protests.
"We would like to not have that to be another dynamic we have to manage within the crowd," said Bell.
University of Ottawa political scientist Regina Bateson has become increasingly worried this week.
Bateson has studied collective violence all over the continent, and has attended countless sit-ins, blockades, protests and counter-protests. She said the main protest will likely be far riskier and attract a different crowd this weekend than last, with fewer families and residents concerned about vaccine mandates.
"People who are more extreme, people who are more willing to take risks, maybe have more ties to related right-wing and white-supremacist movements have had more time to come now", she said.
In other protests that have seen injuries, conflicts often happened when two sides are allowed to come into close proximity of one another, warned Bateson.
"Do not go," she urged any resident wanting to counter-protest.
"If you're frustrated with the situation, if you're feeling aggrieved, if you're unhappy with the way police have handled it up until now, those are all valid feelings. But do not go to the counter-protest."