Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Almost a week ago, shortly after Vancouver's hockey riot, a number of presumably young people, in many cases very likely still drunk or high on adrenalin, stumbled to their computer keyboards and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to boast, no doubt also to exaggerate (and in some cases to invent) their contributions to the evening's antics, they celebrated the disturbance and their part in it. With dodgy syntax and an even shakier grasp of spelling, they gloried in the violence.

If you live in Vancouver, there is every chance that you know their names and what they said. Their updates have been plastered on the numerous "name and shame" social media vigilante sites. One of them has even had his status update set to music, in a song that denounces him as a "fucking moron." They have been forced to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, and even go into hiding as a tide of righteous vengeance sweeps the Lower Mainland.

At around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, a rather larger number of presumably somewhat older people, who in many cases had enjoyed a beer or glass of wine or two in front of the TV and high on adrenalin, also went to their computers or grabbed their laptops and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to broadcast their views on the scenes of disorder, looting, and overturned cars in downtown Vancouver, they cheered on the police's part in the disturbances. Often invoking the hockey chants that had resonated throughout our team's playoff run ("Go Canucks Go!!!") they called for still more violence, if need be unaccountable to any authority, to be rained down on the troublemakers.

(Fortunately, the Vancouver Police Department didn't hear or listen to these calls, and beyond the use of tear gas and pepper spray generally refrained from physical violence against the crowd.)

Whether you live in Vancouver or not, there is little chance that you remember this second group of people's names and what they said. Their updates received their share of "likes" at the time, but are quickly fading into history. Nobody calls these upstanding citizens morons. None of them has had to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, let alone go into hiding. It seems that there's no problem glorying in violence so long as you pick the right team, and join the tide of righteous vengeance rather than going against the flow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


This week a small group of people have profoundly embarrassed some of us here in Vancouver. They have behaved unthinkingly, in a sort of mob mentality, with their small-town ways and their hysteria fanned by the local media. They cheer on violence and gurn for the cameras. And before that, there was a riot.

Let us be clear: the riot was a pretty pointless affray, a needless and eminently avoidable commotion that deserves no celebration.

The riot was not started by anarchists--though it's impressive that anarchism is still, apparently, in the twenty-first century the political scapegoat of choice, and that this should be the first stereotype to which the city mayor turned. It was not political, except in the most indirect of ways. As my colleague Gastón Gordillo puts it, "the nihilism that fueled the riots is that of a popular culture that places victory in sports above anything else, in an expensive and corporatized city that does not offer its youth other sources of collective passions and identifications." Larry Gambone argues that the riot was the expression of anomie on the part of the Canadian banlieus, disaffected young people who "have no future and somehow know that. Future means working in Walmart. Future means never being able to afford a dwelling in the Vancouver area even if they scored a half-way decent job." But this seems to be contradicted by the news that (for instance) one of the most high profile pictures, of a young kid trying to set light to a police car's gas tank, is in fact of a star athlete, son of a surgeon, headed to university on a scholarship.

No, the rioters were simply Vancouverites. As far as I could see, they were a fairly representative cross-section of people, men and women, of all races, all social classes, and a range of ages. They were psyched up by the occasion, much hyped by the media, and some of them had been drinking for hours. Most importantly, at least by the time that the trouble spread to the Bay department store (focal point of the riot and now of the subsequent memorialization), the police had abandoned the streets and gone into full riot mode at blockades set up on the periphery. In the space carved out by this upping of the ante, things accelerated as people found that they could do what they wanted without any immediate repercussions. They were soon acting out fantasies engrained in popular culture and modeled by millionaire sportsmen on the ice. For some, it must have felt like a carnivalesque moment in which anything was possible: an intoxicating notion, especially for the intoxicated. The media, city council, and police had together constructed a temporary state of exception--that, indeed, is what "reading the riot act" is all about. Criminalized in advance, with the cops lobbing tear gas at them from some blocks away, plenty of young people (though still by far the minority of the crowd) took advantage of the situation to break windows, set fires, turn over a few cars, and loot a couple of downtown Vancouver's larger chain stores.

The main troublemakers--or the people who most egregiously filled the vacuum left by the forces of law and order--will no doubt be charged and prosecuted, and rightly so. I have no interest in defending the rioters. But it's worth looking at what they did, before all traces of the violence are swiftly swept away. It's significant that almost all the crime was against property, rather than against people (apparently the majority of the personal injuries were caused by the police tear gas and pepper spray). Also that the damage was remarkably localized and selective: the Bay was a magnet for looting probably not only because it is an establishment icon (the former Hudson's Bay Company once had quasi-state powers under the British Empire, much as the East India Company did in the Orient), but also more banally because its ground floor show-rooms have easily-portable items of high value: perfumes, bags. This wasn't a riot in which people were carting off consumer electronics or food. It wasn’t a riot of professionals or of the poor. Again: it was an opportunistic riot of ordinary Vancouverites.

But, with the exception of a few dissenting voices (here's one; here's another; and one more), almost all the post-riot response has aimed at denying this perhaps unsettling fact. And so the embarrassment begins.

The dominant post-riot response in the media and on the Internet has been that of a self-righteous lynch mob. And they have the cheek to call themselves the "real" Vancouver.

This "real" Vancouver cheers on violence. There have been those who have used the event as an excuse to call for state repression: "How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?" I have heard plenty arguing that the riot shows that Canadian society has become too liberal, too tolerant. This is no doubt music to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ears. The headline on the front page of the Vancouver Province was "Let's Make Them Pay," encouraging the online vigilantes who have set up Facebook groups and and websites to post images of alleged rioters in a sort of dystopian social media society of surveillance. Big Brother meets the Wild West meets Mark Zuckerberg. Nobody talks of civil liberties or little principles such as the presumption of innocence. And this is from people who claim to uphold the rule of law. Their unthinking hypocrisy is breath-taking.

For hypocrisy is the order of the day among the up-standing citizens who are so keen to express their dismay, moral outrage, and embarrassment at the so-called thugs, idiots, morons, hooligans (choose your own pejorative) who supposedly conjured up the violence out of their back-pockets with a couple of cigarette lighters and (it's rumoured) balaclavas.

This "real" Vancouver carves the city up into an "us" versus a "them." The double standards are everywhere evident on the boarded-up windows of the Bay that have become an impromptu shrine to civic pride and social scapegoating. The same photos that circulate online are plastered up with the slogans "We Are All Canucks... Except this Prick." Or "We Are All Canucks... Except this Jerk." Graffiti claiming "We Love Vancouver" and "We are One Family" is unironically scrawled next to declarations that the rioters should "Get Out of Town and Stay There." The city is to be made whole again by banishing its undesirables and denying that they ever had anything to do with an "us" that is pure and virtuous thanks only to this kneejerk demonization.

This "real" Vancouver pits downtown against the suburbs, "real" fans against supposed anarchists, heroes against hooligans, and actively undoes the social solidarity previously promoted through the ubiquitous propaganda that "We Are All Canucks." Frankly, though I've been following the team, I've never felt much like a Canuck; I'm not paid anything like their stratospheric salaries, for a start. The slogan was always an artificial imposition (already, Graham Lyons persuasively argues, a "mob mentality") that tried to deny any social differences, all the better to sell us a uniform of over-priced jerseys. But those differences have been re-asserted, quite literally with a vengeance. We now have Canucks and anti-Canucks, Vancouverites and anti-Vancouverites, angels and devils in a devastatingly simplistic (and violent) division between good and bad. And the "good," the "real" Vancouverites who set to work to clean up the post-riot debris pose for the cameras in a mirror image of those gurning in front of burning cars they so quickly replaced.

There's nothing particularly wrong with civic volunteerism, of course. Let's just hope that this is not simply a spectacular frenzy that is repeated only every seventeen years. Let's just hope that these same people move on to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside, the neighbourhood that is Canada's poorest postcode, located just a few blocks from the site of this week's disturbances. Sadly, I doubt it. Street-cleaning, moreover, is normally the preserve of municipal crews--who were indeed already on the streets and already in action before the night of rioting was even out, long before any of the much-ballyhooed good citizens showed up. Those people deserve our gratitude, too, as much if not more than these once-a-decade volunteers; more so if anything, as they have to clear the debris after every drunken Saturday night in the Granville Entertainment district. But nobody seems to mention them. Again, it is no doubt music to Harper's ears, as he strips our public services, to hear the fantasy that trumpets volunteerism instead of properly funded social programs as the cure to civic ills.

This "real" Vancouver depends upon fantasy: the fantasy that cheering for a professional sports team is some kind of noble cause rather than, as my colleague Alec Dawson sadly notes, complicity in "an endeavor devoted to turning public goods into private wealth." But above all the notion of a "real" Vancouver builds on the fantasy that violent exclusion will somehow make this a "world-class" city. One of the most ridiculous, if sadly not atypical, articles published this week was written by Matthew Good (I kid you not, that's his name) for the Guardian: his shame, he tells us, is provoked by the question of "what [. . .] the national media is going to be saying? Or, for that matter, foreign media?" But as the article's commenters repeatedly point out, there's no better instance of provincialism than this small-town worry about image, this all-too Canadian concern that people should like us. "World-class" cities prove their status mostly by not worrying about whether or not they are perceived to be world class. And for good or ill, it would be hard to name a major world city (Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City) that does not have its history of riots and social disturbances. Real cities, unlike this fantasy of a "real" Vancouver, have social tensions, divisions, disagreements, off-days and on-days, that sometimes erupt in violence, sometimes not. It's the dream of purity, of niceness untroubled by difficulty and difference, that reveals continued provincialism. We saw this already with the Olympics, and the effort to present an image of the city that erased its homelessness and drug problems in favor of the literally incredible myth of "Super Natural British Columbia."

All this should be obvious enough. A moment's reflection would reveal that the riots tell us something about the city, a city that is rather more real than the so-called "real" Vancouver. The post-riot discourse also tells us something, of course. As UBC student Miriam Sabzevari eloquently observes, it tells us that there is a significant minority who "have a need to feel morally superior to others—and when an opportunity comes to bask in our superiority, we actually become quite relentless in it."

These are people who really should know better. They are the ones who embarrass me.

Revised and republished at the Tyee.

See also:

Thursday, June 16, 2011


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.