The freedom convoy reminded me that I too have rights
On a recent Saturday morning in Austin, TX, my daughter and I took a shortcut downtown after running and biking further than planned on the Town Lake Trail. We drove home, up Congress Avenue towards the State Capitol, an area we‘d found ourselves avoiding over the past few years as it was increasingly the site of protests making demands of elected officials.
But today, we were 10 blocks from the Capitol complex, elated by the dopamine spike that came from exercising, when we heard the loudspeaker behind us. “Doo doo doo [the sound of an intercom chime]. This is your government speaking. And we would like to thank you for wearing your mask – uh, we mean, your muzzle. Your government thanks you for your surrender.
From where we were, we couldn’t see that the announcement was coming from speakers mounted on a utility truck. “Doo doo doo”, it came back. “The Freedom Convoy is here to remind you: you can’t fight for freedom if you’re muzzled.”
“I’m scared. I want to go home,” my daughter said, shaking my hand, as the voice over the loudspeaker continued and the convoy approached. “Me too,” I replied , without imagining our lodge a few blocks away, but rather visualizing my residence, in Montreal, Canada, where I was born and raised. Little did I know at the time that the mayor of Ottawa was preparing to declare a state of emergency as a group of truckers calling themselves the Freedom Convoy occupied Canada’s capital. That Saturday afternoon in Austin, I still believed things were different (read: better) “over there” – still not fully understanding that the distance between here and there, between us and them, is shrinking.
I am a first generation Canadian. My parents’ emigration from Trinidad to Montreal never seemed strange to me – moving to a new country when you became an adult seemed typical, judging by what most of my aunts and uncles were doing too. So moving to the United States as an adult seemed completely natural.
I lived in New York, Boston and Philadelphia before arriving in Texas, a state that bears surprising similarities to the Canadian province in which I grew up. Both have struggled with the secession debates. Both are home to the second largest populations in their respective countries. Both have seen an increase in hate crimes. And in early February, the Texas attorney general tightened the tie, quoting, “Texan patriots donated to the noble cause of Canadian truckers” in a Tweeter. The Washington Post revealed an even more direct and troubling connection, finding that “residents of wealthy enclaves across the United States — from Beverly Hills, California, to suburban Austin, to beachside communities in Florida — have sent millions of dollars to support the convoys of truckers who occupied Canada Capital.”
Yet my Canadian friends act like I’ve moved to Mars when they hear I live here. I face various versions of “Austin, like, Texas?or “Texas?” So when are you coming back to Canada? »
Even when I don’t meet a Freedom Convoy, I ask myself this question almost every day. Why did I leave a country where I feel safe for a country where I feel more and more insecure?
I understand. People are exhausted, worn out by the pandemic, having to follow so many rules and constantly being told what to do. As the control of our daily lives seems to be loosening, I understand how some might believe the Freedom Convoy is reinforcing the waning control.
But what about those of us who feel threatened, unempowered, by calls for freedom, a call that means different things to different people?
It turns out that Americans increasingly want to leave this country, but foreigners yearn to enter. According to data from the Internal Revenue Service, in the first six months of 2020, the number of Americans who renounced their citizenship or residence in the United States jumped to 5,816, compared to 2,072 in 2019. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world.
Today, more than 40 million people living in the United States were born in another country, with just about every country in the world represented among immigrants. Even still, xenophobia is on the rise. Heather Segal, a Canadian immigration lawyer, said when the former US president balked at condemning white supremacists, her Toronto office was inundated with calls from Americans wanting to emigrate north. .
I certainly thought about making such a call. Yet the emotional exhaustion of seeing the growing tolerance for white supremacy, combined with the pressures of everyday life and a healthy dose of apathy as a coping mechanism, stopped me every time.
History, however, has repeatedly shown us the dangers of apathy, such as when genocides and refugee crises are ignored until it is too late. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, says “psychic numbness” is the reason people don’t react to mass atrocities. His research shows that the human mind struggles to empathize with millions, if not billions, of individuals.
But perhaps empathy can start with one person at a time and with the realization that we are more alike than we think – a realization that can be triggered when the Freedom Convoy crosses borders, at literally and figuratively, and the distance between “we” and “them” shrinks. And when my daughter and I cross paths with the Convoy in Austin, Texas, while its counterpart occupies Ottawa and blocks the borders that would allow me to return home, the border between Canadians and Americans, conservatives and liberals, “here and “there”, becomes blurry.
This is not an argument for or against efforts to globalize economies and dismantle borders. It’s just a call to reconsider the way we think “Those people over there.“It would be naïve to believe that a community, a party or even a country’s antics can be contained, and that ideas we can ignore during megalomaniac tantrums – like a Mexican border wall or a Ukrainian invasion – are easier to swallow when this happens over there. It could feel like watching a group of rambunctious neighboring children with detachment through our window, until they come crashing through our front door.
On that sunny Saturday when we met the Freedom Convoy in Austin, my daughter repeated, “I’m scared. I said, “I get it, that’s what they want. But I swear nothing will happen to you. My heart raced. We walked briskly dodging tourists, street cleaners and people queuing for brisket. And yes, I felt crazy trying to figure out if I could actually throw his bike at someone if I needed to, while the people around us, seemingly unaware of the protesters, took selfies outside a popular barbecue . Maybe they seemed like they couldn’t see or hear the freedom convoy because they, like me, were too scared to gape? Or maybe they were just numb.
I thought twice before writing this essay, bracing myself for comments such as “Go back where you came from” or “If you’re not happy, leave”. But I also heard the message from the Freedom Convoy not to be muzzled loud and clear. And whether or not they meant for someone like me to take this message to heart, I – like them – choose to be heard.
is an art curator and writer living in Austin, Texas, where she directs the Black Studies Art Galleries at the University of Texas.