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Vancouver’s riot and the perils of naivete

Canuck fever in downtown Vancouver Credit: Sue Frause

A little over a week after the unsettling Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, people around the city are still struggling to understand what happened. It’s not an edifying story.

Amid all the allegations there is at least one striking miscalculation. Really, if the city, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the police are going to set up an event where 150,000 people, many of them drunk, are gathered in one place with nothing to do after a game ends, they ought to be able to protect innocent people and adjacent property. Boston had 1,000 police on hand for its parade, compared to Vancouver’s 300-or-so. (More about the police response below.)

Here are the basic facts. Immediately following the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-0 loss in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup hockey finals, the estimated 150,000 fans congregated to watch the game on city-sponsored big screens downtown boiled over. They overturned and burned cars; they smashed store windows along Georgia Street; they grabbed Coach handbags and cool cameras off the shelf; employees cowered for hours in protected rooms at the back of the stores. In all, 117 people were arrested, 150 injured, including nine police officers, and uncountable numbers of people were photographed.

Vancouverites have twisted themselves up into enough rationalization positions to start a new school of post-riot psycho-yoga. Blame has been spread wider and faster than a Youtube posting. “Lock up the goons and whip some sense into them,” is one prevailing sentiment. (The records from the arrests at the 2010 Olympics suggest that few if any will do any jail time.) The Georgia Straight newspaper published an article by a psychologist saying this was totally normal predictable behavior based on the way the brain is wired to respond in crowd situations — “Evolution made me do it.”

Others are blaming the Canucks, whose slogan “We are All Canucks” in this hockey-mad city presumably includes embracing the razor-sharp violence of fist-fights and concussion-inducing collisions that we love about the sport: i.e. angry fans did it.

Many are pointing fingers at Mayor Gregor Robinson and Police Chief Jim Chu, who has gone into hiding from the media in recent days. It was a few anarchists who came downtown with shopping lists for looted goods who started it all, they first told us. Later, having been corrected, they expanded their blame network. Yes it was (male) kids next door in their hyper-extended adolescent years who went crazy on alcohol, testosterone, and a chance to get immortalized on Facebook.

Others blame the boredom and alienation of living in Vancouver’s “sick society” and not being able to afford a house or even a lousy $1,500 ticket to the final game. (Based on someone’s analysis of Craigslist postings of looted goods for sale, however, two thirds of the looters were from municipalities outside Vancouver.)

Was the riot a natural extension of the chronic lawlessness and rampant street drug use so well established in the nearby Downtown Eastside neighborhood? After all, Vancouver leads the country in both bank robberies and lenient sentences for convicted bank robbers. Or was it just part of the city’s history of pointless riots like the 1966 Grey Cup (football) riot and the 1994 Stanley Cup riots?

It was our lack of love, said the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, who led a procession of peace and a traditional First Nations’ Smudge Cleansing Purifying Ceremony at the scene a week later.

We don’t need ingenious theories. No one seriously thinks this event had any conscious cause other than stupid young male self-expression run amok. “It is obvious that these brats are bored — never had to fight for anything in their lives such as oppression, food or freedom,” snarled one online commentator. “They got everything on a silver plate. No discipline, no respect, and most of all no sign of intelligence.”

Whoever did it, we’ll drag every last yob to justice, vowed our new Premier Christy Clark and the mayor immediately after the event. That was a stern turnaround from the mayor’s la-la come-on-down Go-Canucks-Go cheerleading of a few hours earlier. Ironically, former mayor Philip Owen was booed off the political stage after famously asking Vancouver residents not to come downtown to celebrate New Year’s eve in 1999. Every mayor since then has been leaning out to prove we’re not a “no-fun” city.

Maybe not so much now.

Every day perpetrators are stepping forward — or being pushed forward — online (sometimes after being tagged in Facebook photos) and confessing, even turning themselves in to police. “If you come in voluntarily, you can do so discreetly and at a time that is convenient for you,” said Chief Chu, still channeling a meet-and-greet niceness that is part of his personality. “If you wait until we find you — and we will find you — we will arrest you in a public manner suitable to the public crimes you have committed,” he added. For some of the yahoos involved that could cause as much pride as shame.

So far, 15 people have turned themselves in to police. Some have lost their jobs when their employers found out what they had done. One prominent private-school son of a surgeon has been kicked off the national water polo team after being photographed trying to set a police car on fire. As a friend who grew up in a small town observed, social media has made every big metropolis into the equivalent of her small town: You can’t do anything without everyone knowing about it.

Another aspect of the fallout is that arious groups are stepping up online and claiming Vancouver as “theirs” (an example is, provoking a predictable pushback from others. Vancouver’s boosters are on the march, with 17,000-plus “liking” the REALVancouver Facebook site, and hundreds coming downtown with brooms and garbage bags the day after to help business owners and city workers clean up. Many of them papered a police car with friendly post-it notes the next day, thanking the police for their efforts.

The police have received 3,500 emails, hundreds of them with videos, images, and links to social media sites attached. Vancouver citizens are rightfully outraged at what has happened to their SuperNatural city. “Honest fans will seek revenge,” raged one online commentator. “You deserve every charge that is given. I personally would like to see your bank accounts frozen and your assets seized. You are sleeze [sic]. You are two brain cells dumber than a stone. I hope you can’t procreate.” Etc.

This digital Revenge of Decent Citizens has been likened to a rampaging lynch mob, but the potential damage to undeserving innocents is hardly comparable to a newpaper box tossed into a store window while terrified store clerks lock themselves in a back room. Besides, images of illegal acts posted on the Internet have their own endless loop of immortality, regardless of whether anyone points them out to the police.

In the end, the real issue comes back to the performance of the cops and local authorities. I recall former Vancouver police chief Jamie Graham once being asked if there was one thing he could do to reduce crime in Vancouver, what would it be. “We could lay off two thirds of my force if there was no alcohol in our society,” he answered. In Game 6 (Canucks in Boston, getting pummelled) downtown alcohol sales were suddenly shut down with two hours notice, somewhat taming behavior.  For the final Game 7 the warning of a noon liquor curfew came a day early. That meant lineups around the block at noon and the biggest day ever for at least one downtown liquor store. By 2 pm louts with Canucks jerseys and backward baseball hats were high-fiving startled lawyers walking to the courthouse many blocks away from the arena. “There was already a mood in the air that anything goes,” one woman remarked.

By the time the police came on duty at 4:30 pm, the main downtown viewing area was so packed with people, many openly drinking, that police penetration was almost impossible. Searches of backpacks coming into the alcohol-free “Fanzone” were abandoned. The police couldn’t even get their own cars out of the way in time. Two cruisers were smashed up and burned. Later, after spooked parents had whisked their kids home, when the mayhem got crazy, thousands of people interfered with police crowd control by gleefully swarming and posing around every new burning car or broken window, cameras held high.

The police chief for some reason won’t say how many police were on duty that night (probably around 300 before reinforcements were called in from suburban forces). The mayor wants to know too, but says he can’t force the chief to tell him, even though the mayor is chair of the police commission that supposedly governs the police force.

No one is talking openly about this yet, but city hall’s clampdown on the police budget precluded the police from having all the resources they wanted for that day. Hey, why worry? For every other game and for the whole 2010 Olympic downtown festival period, soft-hat meet-and-greet tactics really did work. The Olympics, of course, had the advantage of a hosting-the-world mentality, coupled with hundreds of millions of senior government contributions to security costs — not to mention surveillance cameras everywhere downtown, all since dismantled in the name of civil liberties.

The police can’t win. If they spend too much and nothing happens, we scream about wasted tax dollars. If they don’t spend enough and the city gets smashed, we scream even louder. If they hit too hard, as happened in Toronto during the G20 meeting, we complain. If they don’t hit hard enough, we complain even more.

When the unraveling of civil behavior really got going in the big-screen viewing area, the police available were scrambling to change into their riot gear and then wondering where in the 20-square block area of mayhem they should start. They didn’t have a sound system able to order that big a crowd to disperse. By the time they got out the tear gas it was way too late.

Will there be consequences, as so many are demanding? Perhaps the community court process, bypassing the cumbersome traditional channels of justice, will tie up some of the perpetrators in a few months of volunteer graffiti removal and street cleaning. The premier has vowed to prosecute all the law-breakers “to the fullest extent of the law,” but our courts are already tied up with much more serious criminals waiting forever for a trial date.

The mayor and police chief seem a bit hapless, partly fighting back, partly admitting mistakes, and partly ducking questions altogether. Neither are likely to escape some repercussions. The province has ordered an official investigation to report out by the end of August, with the Vancouver Police Department and the city also doing internal reports.

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