Chronicles of a writer abroad

The strange anatomy of a riot


Remember that city I’m most recently from — the one that I told you was so beautiful, such a peaceful gem on Canada’s West Coast?

Yeah, well…

Vancouver Sun image

There you have it.

When I awoke on Thursday morning, it was still before midnight in Vancouver, and the post-Stanley-Cup-loss rioting was still in progress. I was soon glued to footage of Vancouverites burning, smashing, and looting my beloved city. And standing around those doing the smashing, burning, and looting were thousands more taking pictures and video, no doubt thinking of the facebook comments or the high number of youtube views that they might earn later.

This is utterly stupid behaviour, and it makes me depressed to see how many were engaging in it. During and in the aftermath of the riots, it was suggested that (1) those responsible were just a small group of determined troublemakers (this was the mayor’s take); or (2) those participating were not Canucks fans, but criminals who seized an opportunity to be violent. However, I find that neither of these things is borne out when you watch the footage and examine the photos…there are many expensive Canucks jerseys being sported by those trashing the city. And there were enough people involved in the mayhem that multiple cars were flipped over, the streets were littered with glass, multiple storefronts were compromised, and VPD officers as well as RCMP called in to assist had their hands completely full for the evening. I find that the rioting cannot be blamed on an elite group of criminals. Those responsible and involved were dumb Canadians — it’s that simple.

There’s something about hockey that arouses in some of my countrymen a need to riot. If you look into Stanley Cup-related riots, you’ll find that there are 3 on record: one in 1994, when Vancouver lost the Cup in Game 7, just as they did two days ago; the one that happened two days ago; and one that happened in Montreal in 1993, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. That’s right: all in Canada. And yes, we riot when we win and when we lose. At the moment, the Vancouver media is reporting on the fact that more than 100 individuals were arrested after Wednesday’s riots. But more than 100 people were also arrested on the evening after Canada’s gold medal hockey win during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — it’s a fact that most people either don’t know or have forgotten. It wasn’t a riot exactly on that evening, but there was a lot of similarly stupid, disorderly behaviour in the city streets.

This leads me to believe that for some people, sitting and drinking and watching as other people engage in exercise and violence is a dangerous thing. Especially when those people begin to cast their lot with that of a team who has, if we’re being honest, not much in common with them except geography. It seems that the tension and the stakes, mounting for weeks before the final game, may be what contributes to the resultant violence, since it can erupt in victory or in loss.

I’m not at all saying that hockey is evil or should be banned. Like movies, video-games, rap music or countless other things that have been blamed for acts of violence, the sport is something that is harmlessly enjoyed by most, and that provokes reprehensible behaviour in a few. I only wish that all able-bodied persons who watch sports would participate in them, or some kind of exercise, on a regular basis as well. Something tells me that could help to prevent a lot of these problems. Of course, the alcohol is also a major factor — as a city, Vancouver has a drinking problem (in addition to its hard-drug problem). Its Granville strip, on any given Friday or Saturday night, becomes a pedestrian-only zone, as well as a nightmarish freakshow, due to the large number of young people who converge there for the sole purpose of getting wasted. Walking through there sober (as I have done multiple times, on my way home) can be scarring on any night. On key hockey game nights, more testosterone and adrenaline is mixed into the alcohol-fuelled chaos and stupidity, and…well, it’s scary what can happen.

So I guess I haven’t told you the whole truth yet: Vancouver is beautiful, yes. But like many a beautiful person, the city has an ugly, troubled side — as well as an obsession with documenting it.


7 thoughts on “The strange anatomy of a riot

  1. Vancouver is certainly a city in shame after the drunken hoodlums trashed the downtown but the other side of the coin is that thousands of good people turned out Thursday morning with brooms and garbage bags to help with the clean up. So, although at first I felt ashamed to be a British Columbian because of the senseless riots, maybe there is hope that good people who care for Vancouver will win out.
    By the way, the picture of the couple embracing on the street is the end result of the young lady being knocked down by the police and her boyfriend trying to calm her hysteria, as reported by Global News this evening.

    • Yes, it was heartening to see all of the people who turned out to help clean up the city. I wonder if any of these people were regretful participants from the night before? And I also followed the story about the kissing couple. It’s funny how people become famous nowadays….

  2. I’m a little stunned at the mob mentality, also thinking about the guy on the front page of the Toronto Star who was beaten up for challenging the hoodlums. Makes me angry that people can so easily turn into a pack like that. There is goodwill today, people are being outed on video and photos and some have gone to see the police, so that’s good. I was wondering if you would comment on the VPD preparedness aspect. The mayor was on CBC this evening saying after a thorough review … blah blah … they’ll make sure it never happens again. I don’t know what the answer is, but that was one scary evening in a beautiful and troubled city.

    • I can’t say what the VPD would have done to prepare for this. Certainly they would have had more officers patrolling the area than usual, but I don’t know if all the riot gear was readied and so on. I know that a VPD spokesperson was saying before the game that they in no way expected a repeat of ’94; that the city had “matured.” So I bet they were scrambling a bit when chaos broke out. I think for sure that the city will not set up viewing areas downtown again if the Canucks are in the playoffs. Too bad for those who enjoyed watching the game outdoors responsibly.

  3. Out of the ’94 riot’s inquiry came the startling news that various emergency services (VPD, RCMP, Fire, Ambulance) could not even talk on the same radio frequencies, and that gave birth to eComm, a pan-service communication network whereby all are linked and in communication. It was this lack of communication that most agree led to one line of police unwittingly moving the ’94 crowds towards another advancing line of police. The police were then roundly condemned for a heavy-handed approach. This week, perhaps lulled by weeks of peaceful crowds watching hockey on huge screens in Olympicesque “fan zones”, things turned ugly, and fast. There were both friendly police (the type that high five the guys and let the girls pose for pics) as well as the deadly serious riot police on the streets, but their collective numbers were, I believe, too small. About two hours into the fray, additional forces from neighbouring cities were called in. Too late. Many people reported the police passively standing around while clearly criminal behaviour was happening: arson, looting, brawling, etc. Unlike in ’94 the police forces were in communication with each other, and I’m of the opinion their numbers were small enough they felt strong intervention would have caused mass violence to turn against them leading to carnage. Hence their very very slow advances (which did move the crowd, allowing the police to get to the hot spots, but something like 30 to 40 minutes too late). Firefighters were being pelted with projectiles when they first attempted to extinguish the car fires. The police and fire chiefs collectively decided to pull the firefighters back to areas of safety. Moreover, it is a standing order that no fire truck can allow itself to become immobilized by a crowd for fear it won’t be able to move to a really big fire. But by far the biggest contributing factor (and perhaps the most opaque) is the crowd’s response to the violence. On the one hand the police report that this riot was created by 20-30 anarchists, who came downtown with riot as their sole purpose. They had backpacks with hammers (to break storefront windows), Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices, brass knuckles, and in some cases weapons. They reportedly had a plan (of which, in the absense of the billion-dollar intelligence gathering of the Olympics, the city fathers were completely unaware), a plan which was going to be put into effect whether the Canucks won or lost. I saw a sign, for exmple, that said “Vancouver Riot 2011”. Because the game was lopsided, somehow the collective smarts of the crowd came into play, and many hockey fans with children left the hockey arena way early to avoid what they instinctively suspected was about to happen. I wonder: what impulses were these ordinary Moms and Dads responding to that the police were insensitive to? I mean, after the fact you could argue that a riot is just not going to happen after the third-last game, nor after the second-last game but it’ll be the final game, if ever. How did the police not know that? But I wonder, what is the attraction to watching fires or looting? The mob mentality is a scary and unpredictable beast. Why else would young women take an active role in looting, or helping to make a small blaze a raging inferno? And what’s with all the self-portraits taken on phone cameras? Is it just young peoples’ desire to take the stage? Outsiders like us universally reviled the acts. Those who were actually there, at least some hundreds or thousands, clearly revelled in the acts. Those thousands made it nearly impossible for the police to stop the riot. A handful would commit a violent act such as flipping a truck over or setting a police car ablaze, the crowds of onlookers would move in and take over where the instigators left off. The instigators scampered off to the next spot, leaving the crowds interposed between themselves and the police. Are Vancouver crowds especially loutish? Vancouver Tourism would say it doesn’t matter whether they are or they are not; the world now perceives them to be, and that is all that counts. An inquiry will almost certainly find the police to be partly at fault, for not having greater numbers already in place in several strategic places. A coordinated transit plan must be part of the solution. As things got violent, buses were nowhere to be seen (the transit authorities deemed the area too dangerous for bus drivers), the bridges into and out of the downtown area were closed, and only the subway was running (and it ran more or less at capacity); crowds couldn’t disperse easily even for the many tens of thousands that were peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Most of these same factors are at play whenever Vancouver hosts large assemblies (the Fireworks, for example, where absolutely huge crowds come from all over). The difference? Perhaps more alcohol. The final game = heightened emotions. Few families = a wilder feel in the crowd. Finally, a group (anarchists? they deny it was them!) planned and carried out enough violence to get the crowd incited to a mob. These are guesses, not analysis. What is certain is our collective sense of shame and disappointment.

    • Thanks very much for your comments! I was hoping the Vancouver-dwellers would weigh in on this.

      I agree that there were some experienced troublemakers in the fray that night — I’m not comfortable calling them “anarchists” though, because this type of violence is, in my view, too senseless and motiveless to align with the political philosophy of anarchism. I also think that when the media blames “anarchists” (or especially “anarchists from out of town,” as they love to do!) this is a convenient way for us all to ignore the problems that exist in the city. The 20-30 guys who you mention are not the ones who trouble me…if it was just them, things would have been under control really quickly. It’s the many other people who started car-tipping, fire-lighting, glass-smashing, and looting along with them that get me worried. Imagine the city in a state of emergency, and having to try to cooperate with your fellow citizens, a frightening number of whom are willing to become involved in property crime just because they see others doing it and it looks like fun. These guys and girls are the ones who give me nightmares.

      I also think that the “I couldn’t get out of downtown” excuse employed by many bystandanders was just that — an excuse to stand around and take pictures and, as you said, block the efforts of emergency services personnel. I have no doubt that, with buses not running in the downtown core, the Skytrain’s Millenium/Expo lines were at capacity. But the crowd was young and able-bodied, and it’s not as though downtown Vancouver is an island and the bridges are the only way off. It’s an easy walk to Cambie or Main St, where you get access to the Canada Line as well as a network of buses heading various places in the city.

      I didn’t go into the police response much in my post because it’s such a touchy subject, and I know that I am likely to be biased, since I’ve worked for the police. Interesting that E-Comm was created as a result of the 1994 riot; I never knew this while working with the VPD (and also closely with E-Comm)! I really feel that the police are damned if they do (G20 riots; 1994 Vancouver riots) and damned if they don’t (cases such as this). Yes, there probably should have been more of them, but I think it was very difficult for them to anticipate this. The VPD may have become a little complacent because of how well they handled the 2010 Olympics. I’d guess that they were expecting another night like the gold medal hockey game — a night that they handled very well. And I think you’re right that they may have held back for reasons of personal safety, and I don’t think anyone blames them for this. I’m glad that among all the bad things that were going on, the reported number of personal injuries (for members of the public and the officers) was not that high.

      This was certainly a sad day for Vancouver. I doubt that its reputation will suffer a lasting blow, though — these things do happen, in many different places (people don’t stop visiting Europe after soccer-related riots occur, for example). It’s sad that the city’s inhabitants are not mature enough to enjoy a party thrown for them, though. As I said in a previous comment, I’m sure Vancouver’s residents won’t have another chance (at least not for a long, long time) to show that they can gather outside in large numbers to share in the excitement of a game.

  4. Hi Kristen,
    I haven’t had a chance to check in here for awhile but just wanted to say that after reading your posts on the riots, I think you have brought up many interesting points. I too was very uncomfortable when the police called the initiators a small group of anarchists or “protesters” (as CBC called them). Yes, there may have been several initiators, but for a full-fledged riot to occur, many people had to join in. The thing I find troubling is how people can join in to destroy a city, when we cannot seem to bring together a strong collective of people to protest major troubling social issues such as BC’s child poverty rate, homelessness, and our drug-addled DTES. It scares me that legitimate protesters/activists were being equated with hooligans (who had absolutely no reason for violence). I have heard that there was a palpable feeling in Van that morning that something was going to happen. And now that it has, I have been watching what has happened on FB and social media to the people who were rioting, and I have to say, I agree that this is another example of how the mob mentality can continue. People are so quick to point fingers (which granted this was a very heated night and aftermath) without thinking of the consequences of ostracizing someone from society. I think it may make it easier for those identified to begin to relate to more questionable peers and workplaces. I don’t think there are any easy answers in this but I hope that as a society we can continue the discussion, as it has clearly affected many people.
    Anyways thanks for your thought-provoking writing!

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