The anti-vaccine trucker protests that have paralyzed Ottawa and tested Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have driven home a few points. First, truckers are logistics professionals, and they are good at organizing things. Second, it does not take very many trucks to cause a lot of mayhem.
Neither would have been news to Americans in the 1970s, when trucker blockades were a fact of life and a pop-culture phenomenon. Like airline hijackings, trucker unrest was a periodic occurrence throughout the decade, culminating in widespread disruption during the first and second oil crises in 1974 and 1979. Wildcat strikes blocked ports and expressways, snarled supply chains, and ruined harvests. Truckers who kept driving were threatened and shot at. In 1974, one driver was killed on the road in Pennsylvania after strikers dropped a boulder on his cab from a bridge.
That movement offers an instructive precedent for the Canadian trucker protests today, and not just because Ontario’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” echoes the name of Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 film Convoy, which became the enduring document of ‘70s trucker culture. Just as social media and digital fundraising platforms undergird the Canadian protests today in ways that confound policymakers and test the limits of online freedom, so too did American truckers adopt a newfangled communications network to coordinate their attacks: Citizens Band, or CB, radio.
“Its boosters tout it as a ’new form of community,’ a breaking down of urban anonymity, a solution to problems of loneliness and alienation,” two sociologists wrote of the CB radio movement in 1978, in a passage that might as well be about social media in the 21st century. “Its detractors lament it as a tool for lawbreaking on a massive scale, a fad as frivolous as hula hoops and pet rocks, or the tell-tale sign of a lonely, alienating culture’s inability to sustain genuine face-to-face relationships.”
What was certain was that CB radio was instrumental to the disruptions that independent truckers organized starting at the end of 1973, when Richard Nixon tried to manage the OPEC embargo with a series of oil-conservation measures including a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Truckers used their CBs to tap into audio chat rooms whose audience was limited by the range of their antennas. There, they traded tips on speed traps (“Smokeys”) and cheap diesel. They bantered for hours in the southern-tinged dialect of CB slang. And from coast to coast, they organized some of the world’s most spectacular traffic jams.
Here’s how Rolling Stone summed up it up in April 1974:
A sinking economy, like an anchor on their short hairs, forced the men who own and operate heavy-duty diesel rigs to remember the simple circuitry of their machines: If you turn the key to off, a truck won’t move. Beginning on January 24th, legions of these small businessmen left their cabs and denied the nation their services. By Groundhog Day, February 2nd, the Northeast had empty grocery shelves and America’s industrial spine was cracked in a dozen different places. It was called The Truckers’ Shutdown and it didn’t end until the government threatened to call out the Army.
All thanks to the CB radio. “The Citizens Band (CB) radio is the greatest boon to truckers since the invention of the wheel and black coffee, according to some of its devoted users,” Owner Operator magazine wrote at the end of the year. CB radio use exploded, with the number of licensed users growing from fewer than a million in 1973 to more than 12 million in 1977. Along with CB radio sets, trucker lingo captivated the nation in novelty country songs like “Convoy,” which inspired the movie of the same name. “CB is the door to a new world of communications that has no experts and no authorities… on CB there is no Big Brother… there is only Good Buddy,” wrote one enthusiast. It was an antecedent of social media all the way down to the “handle,” each user’s nickname.
The fad went way beyond truckers: Puerto Ricans in New York used high-powered CBs to avoid long-distance phone charges and call home, disrupting emergency calls on the East Coast. One user jammed negotiations with a hijacker carrying a bomb at the Oakland airport. And it wouldn’t be a panic without a sexually transmitted disease: It was said CB users were meeting for sexual encounters and spreading “CB-VD.”
But the important thing, the FCC reported to Congress in 1975, was that “many states have serious law enforcement problems because of improper use of CB by truckers and others.” The agency deployed traveling enforcement teams to eavesdrop on and fine violators. They made licensing cheaper, in an effort to bring CB users into the light. They banned amplifiers that super-charged transmission ranges. They regulated which channels could be used for what.
Mostly, the FCC—and local cops—spent a lot of time monitoring CB channels for abuse. The very thing that made CB open for organizing also made it an easy place for surveillance—a cat-and-mouse game chronicled in Jeremy Packer’s book Mobility Without Mayhem.
Indeed, CB radio became so mainstream that Betty Ford used it to campaign in 1976, under the handle “First Mama.”: “The husky growls of burly truckers warning each other of smokes and their radar traps and advising of detours around the weight station mingled with the dulcet tones of a woman calling for votes,” the AP wrote that year. “It was Washington’s newest citizens band radio freak trying out her fresh new CB license and calling for Wisconsin voters to cast their ballots for her husband, president Ford.”
Those same tensions between freedom of speech and coordinating illegal activity, between a highly supervised network and a more open one subject to surveillance, between the beneficial uses of a new platform and the controversial ones, have persisted in protest movements since—up to and including in Ottawa, where Canadian courts have blocked protesters from online fundraising channels. (Ironically, some far-right protesters who fear government clampdowns on social media now are turning back to CB radio.)
One big difference between then and now? America’s Wildcat truckers were popular, even as they sowed chaos. That’s in part because they were standing up for something everyone could relate to: the right to make a living. Cheaper gas. Pain-in-the-ass speeding cops. And that crazy 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. That’s one reason that America had trucker protests for years: Because we put up with it. “There was a mystique about the convoy,” said Meg Jacobs, the author of Panic at the Pump: “Their main demand was a rollback of prices at the pump. That had broad support among the public and in Congress.”
Canada’s truckers, by contrast, are hardly concerned with bread-and-butter trucker issues like wages, parking, and bathroom access. Their cause—refusing the Covid-19 vaccine—is not a popular one, not with the Canadian public, and not with most Canadian truckers. And that, more than any kind of technological surveillance or intervention, is what is giving Justin Trudeau the latitude to bring in the Canadian military to clear the capital.
There may be new technology behind each new protest. But it’s mostly politics that determines the outcomes.