Ottawa's sleepy core transformed into protest street party

OTTAWA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A sedate strip of Ottawa's downtown has been transformed into a weeks-long street party as anti-vaccine mandate protesters have settled in, complete with barbecues, bouncy castles and a hot tub, drawing the ire of the city's exhausted residents.

Hundreds of vehicles, including trucks, have lined a roughly one-mile stretch of the Canadian capital since Jan. 28, turning the picturesque avenue that runs in front of the Gothic-style Parliament complex and Supreme Court into a temporary home for the self-titled "Freedom Convoy."

"All the love coming in, it helps us guys on the ground," said protester Chris Dacey, as dance music throbbed from a stage and people lined up for hot dogs at a nearby stand.

The massive stage and a tall wooden tower used by protest organizers as a broadcast center are the heart of the encampment, strategically set up across from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office.

Bagpipers playing doleful tunes flow into DJs spinning music and live bands belting out rock covers, all punctuated with enthusiastic screams of "Freedom" from the crowd in frigid temperatures.

Next to the stage, a massive Canadian flag stretches above a crosswalk near four plywood urinals with signs proclaiming "Freedom to Pee." All along the road, trucks were plastered in anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-Trudeau signs.

The mood among the crowd was jovial late on Thursday, even as police handed out warnings to leave the site or risk arrest. read more

"I'm looking forward to being cellmates with a lot of you," a woman yelled to the cheering crowd from the stage. "We are not backing down."

Half a block away, trucker Jacob Redecop and two of his co-workers had set up a grill behind their rig and were busy cooking steaks. They said they would stay put until the vaccine mandates were lifted.

"We came here for a reason," said Redecop. "We're not here just because of us. We're here for the next generation."

'RIGHT TO LIVE PEACEFULLY'

In a nod to how entrenched the protesters are, several have set up mailboxes outside their trucks. Organizers set up bouncy castles for children at the site while a portable hot tub has proved popular, with protesters lounging in bubbling water. read more

The protest has brought chaos to downtown Ottawa, a quiet capital city of civil servants, embassies and NGOs which has long had the moniker "the city that fun forgot."

Police have described the protest as a siege with late-night fireworks and incessant horn-blowing fraying residents' nerves. A counter-protester last week carried a sign that read: "Make Ottawa Boring Again!"

On Sunday, hundreds of residents, frustrated by police inaction, blocked a new convoy from joining the downtown demonstration in an hours-long stand-off that was quickly dubbed "The Battle of Billings Bridge" on social media for the neighbourhood where the incident occurred.

For businesses in Ottawa's core, the protest has been anything but a party. One of the city's main restaurant strips has been dark for three weeks, with most establishments unable to open.

Office buildings and stores are closed, as is the Rideau Centre shopping mall a few blocks away from Parliament. Workers can still walk downtown but there have been complaints of harrassment from some protesters.

Henry Assad, owner of a chain of coffee shops in the city, has temporarily closed three of his downtown locations because of the protests.

"It's been horrendous," said Assad. "Big machinery spewing diesel fumes and honking days on end ... they're impeding on everybody else's right to live peacefully."

Reporting by Julie Gordon; Editing by Karishma Singh

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