Last night in Vancouver a small group of young men, watched and urged on by a large crowd, indulged in a frenzy of violence. And then afterwards there was a riot.
Hockey has a very ambivalent--and increasingly anguished--relationship to violence. This is a sport in which fights are permitted if not condoned, and which is only now debating whether or not to outlaw "hits" (that is, shoulder charges at speed) to the head of opposing players. This is a sport in which roughing up the opposition is an integral part of the play and major injuries are common: the league's best player has been out for most of the year with a concussion. In the season's penultimate game, one of the Vancouver Canucks had his back broken when he was rammed into the boards that line the ice long after the play had moved on; the player who hit him didn't even get a penalty. Every such incident provokes prolonged discussion of the finer points of the game's ever more complex rules governing which types of violence are acceptable (and when), and which are not. There is no real thought, however, of eliminating the violence altogether, as it is acknowledged that it is a large part of the game's popular appeal.
This Stanley Cup finals series between Vancouver and Boston was particularly nasty, with a lot of bad blood between the two sets of players. Boston were the more physical team, and tried to impose their style of play on Vancouver, who were drawn into replying in kind. There were big, violent hits on both sides, as well as endless hacks, slashes, and punches. Much of this went unpunished thanks to some rather inconsistent refereeing.
And then there was a riot. But by contrast with the discussion prompted by the on-ice fighting, the commentary on the post-game violence has been singularly un-nuanced. The people downtown have been uniformly condemned as "idiots." One Facebook status update I saw urged on the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: "Go VPD Go!!! Go RCMP Go!!!" Another was scarier still in its unabashed call for an authoritarian crackdown: "How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?" Who are the thugs here? Who are the ones calling for more force, more violence?
The post-game violence was just about as predictable as the violence during the game itself. The last time the Vancouver Canucks had been in this situation--in 1994, when they had likewise lost a Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals--also led to destruction and looting. This West Coast city is pretty laid back about most things, but when it comes to hockey apparently we like to riot. There had been much talk in the media and elsewhere about the possibility of a repetition of the events of 1994. Indeed, the riot had been talked up almost as much as the game itself. In the interval, however, the success of the Winter Olympics last year seemed to suggest that Vancouver could now deal with large and exuberant crowds in the downtown core. In the event, however, none of the lessons of the Olympics were learned. In fact, overshadowed by folk memories of 1994, it almost seemed as though the police wanted a riot; as far as I could see, at least, they were doing their best to provoke one.
I watched the game with some friends in an inner city suburb, the West End. As it happens, they live very close to what had been the epicenter of the 1994 disturbances. But as I went out, half an hour or so after the hockey had finished, there was no sign of any trouble. Some people were milling around, but the streets were pretty empty. No doubt many had gone home early, both disappointed in the score and worried about the much-hyped prospect of violence. Though there had reportedly been up to 100,000 people downtown to watch the game, very soon afterwards there were far fewer people out and about. The crowd was certainly nothing like the size it was after the Olympic gold medal hockey game last year, when at times it was impossible to move down some of the city's main thoroughfares because of the sheer numbers of bodies blocking the way.
I made my way further downtown: things were quiet and calm everywhere until a block or so away from what might be the heart of the city, the intersection of Georgia and Granville, where a fairly raucous crowd was gathered outside the Vancouver outlet of that Canadian icon, the Hudson Bay department store. Even here, however, the streets were never too busy to traverse. I could easily have kept on walking; at no point were pedestrians at risk. Around me were a wide and representative selection of the city's inhabitants: young couples; women dressed to the nines with high heels accessorizing their fitted Canucks jerseys; businessmen in suits; old as well as young; many South and East Asians, reflecting Vancouver's racial mix. Apart from the very old and the very young, it was a pretty representative cross-section of the community. Perhaps surprisingly, there was not much obvious public drunkenness. There was a sense of expectation and some anxiety, a recognition that circumstances might change, but in general people were relaxed: at a loose end, hanging around, waiting to see what might happen. An occasional cheer would go up, and there was some commotion right next to the plate-glass windows of the Bay, but in general at this stage it was quite safe to be out and about.
There were no police to be seen. This was quite different from the Olympics, when the police had been everywhere, interacting with the fans. My understanding had been that here, too, the strategy was to be "part of the crowd." But, if it had ever been implemented, by this point that strategy had clearly been abandoned.
The first indication I got of a police presence was when people started running past where I was standing on the corner of Georgia and Granville, coming from the direction of the stadium, and I caught the whiff of tear gas. The panic soon stopped and the crowd stabilized again, but it seemed that if they were doing anything the police were merely provoking these blind flurries from somewhere on the Eastern perimeter. Meanwhile, across the street at the Bay, there were periodic attempts to smash the window. But this was a slow, episodic process--it appeared that there were security guards within the building who managed mostly to keep would-be looters at a distance. At almost any point, this crowd could probably have been dispersed. The number of people actively looking for trouble was very small indeed; the rest were merely at a loose end, uncertain which direction to go.
After another rush, another distant volley of tear gas, and so another panic, it looked as though someone wanted us to move. I wandered a few blocks south, up Granville Street, where I finally caught my first sight of the police: a small group of officers standing at the intersection of Granville and Smithe, who seemed at as much of a loss as to what to do as the crowd. Further up Granville, however, were more clouds of tear gas, prompting people to move back towards Georgia. We were now being gassed from two sides. If there was any particular direction that the police wanted us to move, it wasn't too obvious--and the small group I saw made no effort to tell us what to do. There seemed to be little if any coordination.
Meanwhile, someone set fire to a rubbish bin on Granville. As there was nobody to stop it or put it out, the fire burned merrily away. People took pictures. In fact, just about everyone had a camera out most of the time; later, I even saw someone holding up an iPad to get a record of events in front of a police line. I drifted back down the street. Shortly, another bin was alight, in front of London Drugs. Across the way, after an agonizingly long time, people at the front of the crowd by the Bay had finally managed to get in to the store and were raiding the perfumery department. A detachment of cops, I suddenly noticed, were hunkered down in the SkyTrain station opposite, making no moves to come out and deal with the disturbances. They had apparently decided to give up these few blocks of the downtown core, and let the store's private security guards take the brunt of any violence. Meanwhile, the tear gassing was surely provoking more bad feeling, and whenever the police helicopter, hovering up above, shone its searchlight in our direction people turned around and gave it the finger. In short, rather than preventing the trouble it felt rather that the police were provoking it.
It was now dark and I thought I'd start making my way home. It was unclear how to do this, though: there was no traffic and so no buses or taxis. I thought I'd walk East, try my luck with the SkyTrain if it was running, and if not I'd try to pick up a taxi in the nearby suburbs of Gastown or Yaletown. Heading down Georgia, though, I ran into a rather more significant police presence: the riot cops were now on the scene, some on horseback, standing in front of (but as far as I could see, otherwise doing nothing about) a rather larger street fire round the corner, on Richards. They charged the crowd a couple of times, pushing us up the street where another cordon of riot police prevented us turning East on Robson. Near the next intersection, there was another fire in an alley. A man ran to it with a fire extinguisher, trying to tackle the blaze. Nobody helped him out.
Meanwhile, the police had drawn back along Richards Street, making their previous charge seem rather pointless. Indeed, their various barricades obeyed no obvious logic, not least because it was easy enough to avoid them by slipping down an alley. The provided a fairly intimidating image, yes, not least because many of the cops had their weapons out. But they surely weren't making much of an impact on crowd management. One cordon put down their shields and started putting on their gas masks. I decided I'd seen what I wanted to see and had had enough of being tear gassed, so continued with my plan to head towards the Georgia Viaduct. Along the way I asked one of the policemen if the SkyTrain was still operating. He had no idea.
Walking along Georgia, towards the stadium, I came across more smashed windows (a Budget rental car office; a BMO bank) and two burned-out cars. I think these were the two vehicles that were making most of the TV news. I had earlier passed a bar in which people were happily drinking and watching on big-screen TVs the footage of what was supposedly going on outside. Again, however, it was completely safe on the streets: the only points at which I'd felt at all uncomfortable had been when we'd been tear gassed and/or charged by mounted and shield-waving riot cops. I passed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and headed down Dunsmuir towards the SkyTrain station, which was indeed open, but my way was blocked by yet another cordon of riot police. They said I had to do around: so I went half a block, up an alley, and back again. It's as though the cops were actively making it difficult to leave downtown, for no obvious reason.
In contrast to their absence on the streets, the police were present in force at the SkyTrain stations, picking off people for questioning if they felt they looked suspicious. Again, this seems to have been their plan: to occupy the periphery and let a rather small section of downtown Vancouver riot, while they lobbed in the odd tear gas canister and observed from the sides and on high. It seems obvious to me that this made things much worse, rather than better: it did nothing to stop the violence, and criminalized the whole crowd, succeeding only in irritating the vast majority of people, who were mere bystanders hanging out because there was little else to do. Frankly, I'm surprised that the disturbances weren't worse; most of the crowd behaved remarkably well, considering that from almost the outset the forces of law and order had decided to treat them as though they were really, as the media alleged, some kind of mob.
Of course, it's easier to portray the people on the streets as a mob, and blindly to cheer on the police, than to think about the violence with any kind of nuance or self-reflection. This demonization of the post-game violence is no doubt a safe outlet for the pent-up energy of so many disappointed Canucks fans: they have a target for their frustration, and they can feel so very civilized in expressing their anger. It's easier to grab this moral high ground, to claim that the so-called rioters do not represent Vancouver, than to stop and consider the ways in which violence is engrained in this sport on whose bandwagon they are hitched, or the conditions that gave rise to the post-game disturbances--and the many ways in which it could have been avoided. But let's give these concerned citizens some slack. They need their moment of mindless outrage, too.
Republished at the Tyee.