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.
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.