A cynic’s war
What happened when hate groups clashed
with activists at Capital Plaza
Various groups gathered Feb. 20 at Capital Plaza to protest mask laws. (Cole Buhler)
By Cole Buhler
IT ALL STARTED WITH JAMES COATES, a pastor with GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, who turned himself in Feb. 17, after refusing to follow bail conditions set after an earlier arrest. He said he was taking a stand against an attack on religious freedom, and had been pushing his congregation to protest lockdown measures.
Coates’s self-sacrifice encouraged Pastor Artur Pawlowski, an LGBTQ2S+ critic and anti-mask crusader, to organize a “Walk for Freedom” protest in response. (To some critics, it may have looked as if Coates and Pawlowski were ready to let parishioners catch COVID-19 for the sake of their collection plates.)
And that, in short, is what led us to be outside the Legislature on this unusually warm late-winter day for The Walk for Freedom protest, which also drew a contingent of anti-racism activists, worried that white-supremacists had infiltrated the anti-mask protest. Posters for the protest used imagery from the Charlottesville riots of 2017 and advertised a “Jericho torch march” – a tiki-lit parade around the Alberta Legislature symbolizing the downfall of our government.
While the protesters were gathering at the Legislature, counter-protestors, led by Taylor McNally, the Calgary-based co-founder of Rural Alberta Against Racism, were coming together at the former site of the Pekiwewin prayer camp in Rossdale.
Dressed in haute couture Antifa-black, the group was marching with the Crazy Indians Brotherhood – a support group for Indigenous and Métis men – to the legislature grounds. The Brotherhood, tapped as security to protect racialized folks during the event, has been active in the protest scene over the past year, volunteering as protection at Pekiwewin as well.
Dressed in motorcycle-leather, boots, and bandanas, the Brotherhood formed a loose circle around counter-protesters. An organizer with the group said that a member of the Brotherhood suggested they should attack cops who find themselves alone. One member sarcastically yelled at a cop: “A white man with a gun! Watch out boys.”
‘I’m not a white supremacist,
I’m a Christ supremacist’
As we begin the march to the Legislature, I smile under my mask at the men and photograph their faces – deliberately flashing my hand tattoos, hoping they’ll assume I’m enough of a degenerate that I won’t narc on them.
As we approach Capital Plaza, cops on bicycles begin to split the crowd, creating a barrier between protestors and counter-protestors.
There is an air of tepid violence. Folks on either side of the police bicycle-barricade pace back and forth, hurling insults at one another. It feels like everyone is waiting for someone, anyone, to act on their words. But, unlike what we’ve witnessed in the United States, it doesn’t seem as if anyone has the nerve to throw the first brick.
Speakers on the alt-right side of the barricades keep referring to this as “our Jan. 6,” referring to the Capitol Hill riots in Washington, D.C., and one counter-protestor tells me that Canada is on the verge of a civil war.
For weeks, counter-protesters have been talking about protecting their identities with burner phones and balaclavas over social media channels that already own most of our biometric data. They tell stories about unfriendly police liaisons referring to them as Antifa. Hate groups have sent death threats to Taylor McNally. I’m wearing Doc Martens. Antifa is wearing Doc Martens. The Nazis are wearing Doc Martens. It’s a cynic’s war.
There are speakers scheduled throughout the day, but until the crowd grows larger, a street-preacher is our only entertainment. Singing ’90s pop standards, but replacing the lyrics with jokes about the pandemic, the preacher draws ire from the counter-protestors. I overhear someone yell, “You deface my boy band, and we have a f***ing problem.”
‘Everyone else is toxic;
Though they preach inclusivity, activist groups in Edmonton have splintered over the state of the counter-protest. Prominent anti-hate groups, such as the Edmonton chapter of Black Lives Matter, The Hue and Black Women United, have all asked folks to boycott the counter-protest in the name of safety. Counter-protestors speak about these activist groups aloud: “Everyone else is toxic; not us.”
Those on the protesting side don’t have these problems. They are a tightly organized coalition including the Alberta Rifles, the Urban Infidels, the Northern Guard and Pawlowski’s supporters. Despite the Edmonton Police Service’s insistence that the protest comprises folks demonstrating their constitutional rights, anti-LGBTQ anti-Muslim, and pro-fascist members of these groups throw up Nazi salutes and other white-power hand gestures.
Tokenized individuals are paraded across the stage like house-slaves. An Indigenous man with a Guy Fawkes mask on the back of his head, has both of his fists raised in the air by white men around him. Organizers push a black man to the front of the stage. With their arms around his shoulders, they face him towards the counter-protestors as if to say, We’re not racists, this is our black friend.
A trans woman speaks from the anti-mask podium. The organizers of the protest misgender her and refer to her as male. I don’t understand how, in the face of such hate, that people could align themselves with these groups. She invokes the ghosts of black revolutionaries in her struggle against sound medical advice, science, and reverse racism. “Huey Newton taught me that, and Fred Hampton died for that,” she screams.
It’s strange to hear someone speak so favourably about a Marxist like Hampton while protestors hold up signs decrying the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on Justin Trudeau behind her.
‘Let him go
before you get hurt’
Dawid Pawlowski, Artur’s brother and a member of the Christian Heritage Party of Canada, pushes past the police barrier while blowing a curled horn made of bone. There are several folks on the protesting side with these horns. The appropriation of Scandinavian religious symbolism has long been used by white supremacist groups – such as the Soldiers of Odin. Norse mythology offers a simple, white-power estheticism wrapped in pretty runes.
A sheriff, with the RCMP, grabs Dawid out of the crowd and struggles to get him under control. The media finally shows some life and swarms above the scuffle, while the police are martyring his flailing, woe-is-me, white body.
The protestors, known for supporting police who have been accused of using excessive violence against racialized people, suddenly turn on their would-be-heroes. I hear protestors threatening the police: “Let him go before you get hurt.”
A large group follows the police as they drag Dawid down the hill to the bus terminal where their paddy wagons are. I overhear folks following the police, claiming that Mayor Don Iveson is a communist who organized a communist police force. The thin-blue-line crowd is a fickle bunch.
Peter Downing, the founder of the Alberta Rifles and former leader of the Wexit party, speaks to the crowd: “I’m not a white supremacist. I’m a Christ supremacist.”
Downing, who was discharged from military service in 2009 for uttering threats against his ex-wife, tells a story about serving in Myanmar, where he claims the Canadian government-funded Muslim terrorists. (The Canadian forces have never been militarily engaged within Myanmar. I checked.) As Downing tells stories that have nothing to do with lockdown measures, he begins to ramble and break down. He ends his speech by telling the crowd to look up.
“Do you see that line of smoke?” He asks. “Those are chem-trails.”
The next speaker – whom the protestors claim is a 98-year-old, First World War pilot – is hard to understand. As the First World War took place between 1914 and 1918, I wonder what a man born in 1923 would have to say about that conflict.
‘You deface my boy band,
and we have a f***ing problem’
I try to get closer, to get a photo, to capture the faces of white protestors as they flush with old-stock anger, but a cop won’t let me through the barricade. He asks me what side I’m on. I want to reply by asking him what side he is on – in my best snarl – but think better of it. So, I just point to the counter-protesters, the “virtuous” side.
I’m an Indigenous man, with 15 or 16 years of internal punk-rock melodrama, but I say nothing. It can be difficult to articulate righteous anger in the face of opposition. It is a side of protesting that people don’t often understand. For every documented Antifa member lighting a fire, there are 100 more who fumble for a match.
As a journalist, I am unable to pretend that we remain impartial in these situations. I, too, feel my anxiety rise as every white supremacist, conspiracy theorist, and evangelical extremist takes the stage. As the day reaches its climax, the counter-protest side has thinned considerably, while the protestors have grown in number. The Crazy Indians Brotherhood has left, and several counter-protestors tell me they feel abandoned.
Hundreds of folks start lighting tiki torches.
They are given a police escort around the legislature.