Run, Riot, Heal

Last night’s riot in downtown Vancouver is a timely topic for a slow blog to take on, but in many ways it’s a post that’s been in the making for years, and needed only the right timing.

Last night’s riot has many faces. There are the faces in the innumerable photographs, of people who have checked out of civic life for a short time to rage against the demons they otherwise have no answer to in their daily lives. They are weak, their actions despicable. Yet as much of a mess they must be inside to create such chaos outside, we have to acknowledge that they are us, and that our culture is the one that birthed their actions, because no action happens in a vacuum.

The Canucks, the hockey team that fell apart at the 11th hour, had a great story to tell in the run up to the playoffs. It’s been a while since a Canadian team won the top prize of the sport most of the country identifies with. They had been improving steadily over the years and were earning their way back to a place in the final showdown.

For myself, I don’t have any attachment to hockey. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it. It generally registers neutral in me. But living in Vancouver, I’m not ignorant of what’s going on. At some point I felt the local mood around the Canuck’s rise turn from celebration to something a lot less fun.

Images of champions fell away to a parade of violent symbols, usually involving teddy bears (representing the Bruin’s mascot?). Teddy bears beheaded by the Canuck’s mascot and the image a full front page on the local hysteria tabloid, The Province. Fans posting ‘TAZE THE BEAR’ over and over on Twitter, face painting of the team’s symbol, Canucks jersey’s supplanting regular dress across the city.

Even the high end yoga store Lululemon had a hockey net in the window with a teddy bear tied spread eagle in it in some intersection of soft S&M fantasy, profit motive and local pride. And the refrain of Go Canucks Go stopped being hopeful and started sounding more like a war drum. It’s easy to say ‘these things don’t matter, they aren’t literal.’ That’s a poor retort, though, because symbols do matter, and they invoke powerful responses from people. To suggest that hockey fans or Vancouverites are immune from being influenced by these symbols is to say they’re not people.

The local media runs with this and amplifies it at every moment. The most extreme fans are celebrated for their passion and tolerated of any eccentricity. Over time, the narrative itself changes from hoping the Canucks win to winning being a matter of destiny, of necessity, of right, bound up in nationalism and the afterglow of the 2010 games. What is possible becomes the only option.

When the Canucks choked there was no exit narrative. Media and social pressure had brought people together and urged them go all in with their civic and personal identities. When the game ended, they stood humiliated and without a model of who or what they are as the team that didn’t win.

That immediate, local context, created the players, but the stage of downtown was created by the general North American dislike for non-corporate public space. In Flesh and Stone and to a greater extent in The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett looked at the interplay between city architecture and mass unrest. In 18th and 19th century Europe, most notably in Paris, the decay of exterior symbols to indicate public status and the rise in the degree of anonymity that went along with growing urban populations sparked a number of revolts against what remained of the old order. That unrest would typically foment and grow as it moved through the narrow and winding streets of old cities, but if it happened into a wide public space with many exits, would lose its fire and often dissipate. Big public squares became interesting to urban planners in Europe and elsewhere quite quickly.

We don’t ‘do’ big public spaces in Vancouver, or in many North American cities for that matter. Our culture tends to distrust large public spaces as a misuse of property, a breeding ground for laziness, and a generally poor (deemed so because it’s not monetary) return on investment. Downtown Vancouver has this problem in two measures. The first is the general tightness of the streets and the impoverishment of open public space. The Vancouver Art Gallery has long served as the primary public gathering space, but was far too small to provide the thermodynamic container for the building crowd rage. More importantly, the tall buildings that line the streets created the pressure that helped raise the temperature and keep the crowd hot.

The second is the geography of downtown, which is for the most part a peninsula. All but surrounded by a natural boundary of water, and with only a few bridges or a walk east to get out, it’s not hard to feel like one is in a contained space when there.

I was surprised that the riot didn’t spread through more of downtown, and it makes me wonder if Tony Wanless is on to something in his post, which takes as its point of departure the growing economic divide, sure to worsen dramatically in the next few years of Canada’s ascendent right-wing era. The dispossessed and aimless are often the first victims to propaganda and the temptations of violence, and the tools of propaganda (perfectly described in Jacques Ellul’s work) were well in use in the run-up to last night, though mostly unconsciously so.

What is there to say? The images push any words aside with ease.
There are photos and videos a-plenty. Most of them show disgusting mayhem, and a lot of the mayhem is caused by people wearing Canucks clothing. That is a fact. It is not arguable and cannot be explained away. But there are the smallest points of light in these collections that burn brighter than torched cars and helicopter spotlights.

In The Vancouverite’s video you can see a woman keeping a crowd almost completely at bay by sitting on a police car and holding up her fingers in a peace sign. She’s scared, but more brave than scared. She’s powerful in her quiet certainty. There’s also a youth who rips a skateboard being used as a hammer out of another’s hands and walks away with it. These things happened.

In a Tumblr blog that has gotten a lot of press, there are incredible moments, and most impressive is two men tried to stop a crowd from doing more damage. That happened.

I also saw pictures, and sadly lost the links, of an older man holding a group of rioters at bay with words and gestures. A second photo showed the crowd advancing on him, and he must have moved away as they final shot showed them making trash of some store in Pacific Centre. That also happened.

@chriswalts tweeted that Kindness Flags are starting to appear in front of The Bay

That is happening as I write.

This man was first called a rioter by over-zealous social media detectives, but turned out to be stopping fires in a building being looted. Using social media tools to crowdsource the identities will need to be examined later, as it seems to be producing its own measure of chaos, and the anonymous admin of the tumblr blog is posting full names from hearsay and in some cases slyly encouraging vigilantism. A zero-accountability zone has crept off the streets and online in the riot’s aftermath, and while the intention started out as good it’s become perverse and lawless.

Maybe the most heartening mass reaction to the riot online was the use of a Facebook event to bring together volunteers cleaning up the streets. While they probably weren’t that effective, their sentiments were clear and welcome.

Those who earn their living by flattering masses of certain identities have been quick to excuse their bases from the mayhem. Local bloggers who rely on ad dollars bend over backwards to please readers. One particularly grotesque example of doing a fast edit on history comes from a ‘blog’ called Vancity Buzz, with a writer who writes with the courage that can only come with writing under an ironic pseudonym.

The blog, which did its part to drive fan fervour to impossible heights, gave a blanket pardon to both Vancouverites and hockey fans in a delusional and pandering post. Real fans left before the riot. The riot was planned by out of towners.

Then Premier Christy Clark, herself a concoction of various PR groups and content algorithms, took to the airwaves to declare that it was not hundreds of Vancouverites who lost their shit but a small group of hardened criminals. Now it’s a conspiracy, a dark fairy tale that excuses the guilty if they choose to think of themselves as a) fans b) Vancouverites or c) non-criminals 364 days of the year. Quick, rewrite the blog posts, and about those Canucks jerseys, let’s say they were ‘disguises’ for the conspirators.

No. This is wrong.

They were fans, many were Vancouverites, and this was not some global conspiracy to shit on your loss. If we want to understand this, we cannot let ourselves carve out the rioters as The Other and wash our hands of it. Indulging in violent imagery, buying into media narratives about destiny in sport, drinking too much, not planning well for thousands of people in a cul de sac, glorifying the financial excesses of a professional sporting league, and maybe not recognizing the worth of what we have without all that, that is the cause.

We must understand that this is a part of our city, and our culture, that what generated the moments of heroism on the streets also generated the horror. We have to understand that they are part of the same whole if we ever want to get our heads around it. Politicians and bloggers who want to deny self-reflection and replace it with convenient, saccharine myths, social media vigilantes who want to play CSI with a mouse, and well-meaning but naive residents posting feel-good blurbs on a Facebook page do not make this better.

What makes it better is recognizing that great places can still have terrible problems. Vancouver is a place of extremes, bordered by sea level and mountaintops, holding the richest and poorest postal codes in Canada, fuelled by high tech and old resource economies, where rough punks and prissy yuppies feel that they have some kind of home. We are not all that great, and we are not all that horrible, but we are all of this and we are what happened last night. We’re the jerks and the heroes. We’re both Kirks, both Doctors, the screaming primal rage-meister shirtless and wild-eyed before a burning car, and the woman holding back a crowd with her eyes and a peace sign.

We can be better, and that’s the point of life. Don’t fucking look me in the eye today, Vancouver, because today we hang our head in deserved shame. Tomorrow, we start being better.

10 Responses to “Run, Riot, Heal”

  • @vishmili Says:

    Very aptly put. I do hate hearing that “this is a part of culture” though. While I’m appalled at what happened in Vancouver, I feel that I can’t relate to it. I feel that the Vancouverites who took to the streets the following morning to clean up the mess were the ones exhibiting our city’s culture. The ones who amassed and rioted, those who jumped on the bandwagon, and caused pain and destruction – those people just surrendered (or planned to surrender) to that beastly frenzy that lives inside all people, but that most of us control for the sake of humanity. It’s a shame – and a complete embarrassment – that social responsibility and plain human decency lost out in the fight for some people – and ruined it for so many.

  • adam Says:

    I summed it up this way (read between the lines any way you like):

    No one over 30 or so. The idealistic young. The same ones we send to fight our wars, if we can convince them the cause and benefits are great enough. Now we want to take the mindbenders behind this riot and deal with them as severely as the law permits. When will we stop abusing our youth?

  • Erin Says:

    Brilliant analysis. thank you.

  • Todd Says:

    When I say ‘culture’ I mean the anthropological sense, so the bundle of behaviours, symbols and ideas that define a group of people, and in that sense a riot is part of our culture. When the chaos started, people knew what it meant. Those who participated knew what kinds of things to do, and the crowd easily agreed which targets they wanted to go after (retail, banks, cars). There were some fights, but mostly it was a crowd attacking property and holding control of streets as long as they could, because that’s what happens in a riot.

    It’s very normal for any one person to not identify with aspects of a culture, I doubt any one person identifies with all aspects of theirs, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I don’t identify with the nightly ritual of watching simulated fighting and murder on tv, but there’s plenty of it there and many people do watch it. To us seeing the rioter’s behaviour is repugnant and meaningless, but there are those out there who see it and nod their heads or smile, and they do identify with it. The point of my post was to say, we’re in that soup together, like it or not.

  • Erin Says:

    an, and to @vishmili–we’re all the same people, though. thr rioters and the folks cleaning up the mess. sometimes we gather to realize our best potential, sometimes we become a mob. happens all the time–usually on a smaller scale.

  • Todd Says:

    I want to see prosecutions go forward as well, Adam. You point out how young these people are, and that they are says that the seeds of this riot have been planted recently. Whatever taught them that this is fun is fresh around us. I do think that severe punishment as an inoculation against future riots is a fantasy though, and if that’s all we focus on we’ll a) embitter those who did it and b) clear the ground for the next generation without understanding what went wrong with this group.

    What we have to do is stop giving them outs. Saying there were ‘mindbenders behind it’ excuses the hundreds that jumped in to participate, and now they have a way to excuse themselves. This was done by Vancouver to itself, and embracing that is the only thing that will lead to understanding it. Thanks for your comment, I feel that anger too.

  • Todd Says:

    It really does happen all the time. Look at how drivers can rage against people they share the road with, screaming and being aggressive, then a few minutes later stroll down the street, hold the door open for someone and sit down for a civilized dinner as if it never happened. We have these modes built into us for survival as a species that in the modern world make us into quick-change players, sometimes of extremes.

  • @vishmili Says:

    Yes, Todd. You’re right. On a grand scale, culture is whatever we, as a group of people, understand or participate in (etc. you defined it well). I just cringe (and maybe I shouldn’t) at the thought of this culture being ascribed to a city (my city) – rather than just plain people, who really are anyone – Vancouverites or not. These modes of behaviour are universal and I just can’t accept it being called “a part of Vancouver culture” – wrong as I may be. Somewhere in that statement, there has to be an assumption that culture extends to some kind of plurality or majority. I don’t think this was the case. I hope it wasn’t.

  • Todd Says:

    Not part of Vancouver culture in that it’s specific to Vancouver, but we’re not special in that we do not share this dark trait with other people and places.

  • Stella Says:

    Hmm. Well written but, like most of the coverage, overblown.

    This for example – “We are not all that great, and we are not all that horrible”. You just summed up the entire world, not just Vancouver.

    Vancouver has a long way to go to catch up with, for example, cities in the UK, the US and Australia that have experienced racial riots in recent times. (In fact, what was remarkable, and very Canadian, was how multi-racial the troublemakers were.)

    Vancouver hockey fans are not even the worst behaved in Canada. Montreal would take that title by a long way.

    This isn’t to excuse what happened (far from it – I have never seen so many idiots in one place before, including those just watching and taking photos).

    Rather, the fact that this is such big news (although not really anywhere else outside Canada) is that it is so rare.

    All of this soul searching and writing messages on walls and claiming to be “embarrassed to be from Vancouver” etc is nonsense.

    Over 100,000 people were invited into the city centre to watch a violent sport on a hot day after drinking for hours. The home team lost and the fact that a bunch of teenagers decided to take the opportunity to smash stuff is not surprising.

    Questions need to be asked of the police though. That they stood around while ordinary citizens took on the looters is unforgivable. That others stood around taking photos is even more so (even though those photos will now be used in convictions – the fact is if the majority of peaceful people had just left the area the looters would not have enjoyed the cover they got from the crowds.)

Leave a Reply