Monday, August 22, 2011


June's riot here in Vancouver was gradually being forgotten (we realized that the sky hadn't in fact fallen down on our heads), but then the disturbances in England rather rudely brought it briefly back into consciousness.

The observation that other people riot too (and the sky doesn't fall down on their heads, either) should give the lie to some of the more ridiculous reactions to our own little affray. "World class" cities are just as likely, if not more so, to experience social disturbance of this sort. And I doubt anyone likes the English any the less (or any the more) than they did before the violence broke out. In the end, for better or worse--for better, I think--Vancouver's just not so very special. It's much like other cities its size in many ways. But with more mountains (and more rain).

It was strange to see elements that had marked Vancouver's riot reaction mirrored or repeated in London. It's true that in the British capital nobody was quite so stupid as to suggest that the rioters were somehow not the "real" Londoners. But there were some other tricks that they may have picked up from us.

For instance, there was an attempt make an exhibition of ostentatious community spirit by coming out with brooms and cleaning up the streets the morning after. But, as here, they found that the bulk of the work had already been done by municipal crews in the early hours. Local councils such as Croydon and Hackney politely said "Thanks but no thanks" though they took people's phone numbers just in case. Not that it's likely they ever got in touch later: public sector cuts already mean that there's nobody even to manage volunteers. Unable to show off their civic virtue by volunteering, then, as in Vancouver people had to make do with scrawling graffiti or sticking post-it notes on boarded-up windows to convey their messages of pride and social scapegoating.

The big difference between Vancouver and England emerged in the courts. In London and Manchester all-night sittings of magistrates meant that hundreds of people were processed within days (effectively, hours), and some extraordinary sentences were handed down while everyone's pulses were still racing: four years for a Facebook update, for instance, even though it was fairly obviously a joke (in however poor taste) that led to no violence at all.

Seeing the speed with which these grim punishments had been doled out rather woke us up over here as we were led to wonder if anyone had actually been charged over our own riot, some two months later. It seems in fact that two people have been charged, but none so far convicted. The police are still building their case,

The good citizens of Vancouver have reacted rather shame-facedly to this disparity between trigger-happy England and dilly-dallying Canada, asking why the wheels of justice couldn't turn a little faster over here. But I'd have thought we might be proud of the fact that we haven't resorted to the kneejerk response of what are effectively kangaroo courts under pressure from political rhetoric and general public hysteria.

In British Columbia, we still hang on to old liberal shibboleths such as the principle of the separation of powers. If we're going to be smug (and we are), let's be smug about that for a while.

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