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June 25, 2011

Another Vancouver riot: class rage or road rage?

by Ian Weniger

Vancouver Riot

Vancouver's downtown is the scene of amazing beauty as the forested Northwest Coast mountains, the lushness of Stanley Park, a fiord and a false creek cradle a hub of skyscrapers that has hosted a very successful international exposition, and the last Olympic Games. Vancouver also just saw what has been described as one of the biggest riots in Canadian history, as the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team lost the final match of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

The most sensational aspect of the riot must be the millions of photos and thousands of hours of video posted by the hundreds of people who stood back and recorded the dozens of people who appeared to be playing to the crowd as seventeen cars and trucks were burned, opposing Boston Bruins fans beaten, and many stores and businesses had their windows smashed, insides vandalized, and merchandise stolen at an estimated cost of four million dollars. Over 100 people were injured and scores have now been arrested.

For a week, residents, politicians and commentators have been alternating between blaming hooligans and anarchists, questioning the nature of Canucks fans (but not  professional hockey violence that is promoted by Harper as Canadian nationalism), asking forgiveness for the actions of a few, and wondering how this could happen after the wonderful “buzz” of the Olympics a year ago.
Much of the world sees Vancouver as a quaint, green urban nub at the edge of a rainforest that has earned its reputation as the world’s most liveable city. Most of the world is therefore baffled that downtown Vancouver was also the site of an earlier riot, also the result of a failed playoff bid, also by the Canucks, in 1994. In contrast, while the Olympic debt for 2010 is estimated at $8 billion, it did buy an army of thousands of police and soldiers to organize the downtown core so that thousands of people could be moved in and out 24-7 to enjoy the shopping and entertainment.

What Happened?

Much commentary was made about the calmness and family composition of the crowd that came to watch. Other municipalities started hosting their own “livesites” to tap into local enthusiasm for a team that had been a contender for the championship only three times in 41 years. On top of this, the games started at 5pm local time, so the daylight of the last days of spring gave an aspect of a mellow picnic at the end of a workday.  
This calm was a veneer that was supported and undermined by the creation of many livesites and entertainment zones near the CBC Centre; the closing of a major arterial and entertainment district to transit and private vehicles and opening it to pedestrians only; installation of temporary fencing and giant TV screens; and the presence of many plainclothes officers engaging with the crowds pleasantly asking people to pour out liquor they’d brought from home. As the final of four series arrived, all liquor stores in the downtown core were required to close an hour before game time. However, the alcohol flowed freely in the entertainment zones without restriction.  
While this corporatization of entertainment could imply a political aspect of cheering for the Canucks--wealthy people can drink all they want on one side of the beer wall, working stiffs get theirs pours out by cops if they can get to the store on time--there was no such consciousness in the crowd. In fact, no one noticed that the crowd looked any different until the middle of the first period.  
The street vendors and police officers in the CBC livesite realized at about 5:40pm that the crowd composition had gotten younger, more male, childless and much drunker. At this point, over 100,000 people filled a ten-block area, with no space to get a fire truck or ambulance in or out, let alone a police cruiser – and a punishment riot was about to begin as the Canucks began to lose. 

This situation was similar in gridlock to the riot of 1994. Police chief Jim Chu, who was a sergeant in the thick of it back in the day, was aware of the tipping point in crowd composition, but couldn't call for extra or auxiliary officers because he had deployed them all, and couldn't call for backup from neighbouring suburbs until the game was over and the riot was in full swing. Even then, the VPD had run out of protective riot gear.

Anarchists, Hooligans, or Deflected Youth?
From the beginning, the mayor, Gregor Robertson, and premier, Christie Clark, claimed that the riot had been planned and organized by anarchists and hooligans, some of whom were allegedly connected to the G20 protests in Toronto or Olympic vandalism. But when police made their first arrests, not one of the young men charged were politically affiliated or in possession of a criminal record.

Some commentators, fuelled by Don Cherry, continue to blame the violence on left-wing activists, but their only so-called evidence is the burning of two police cruisers. The VPD have images and anecdotal evidence suggesting that some people had brought flammable liquids, pepper spray and mace, but no conspiracy to attack specific vehicles or buildings has yet been proven.

What really needs to be raised are some realities about Vancouver – its raunch youth culture and its enormous class divide.
The downtown--Yaletown, Robson Street, the Downtown Eastside, and the gay community in the West End--is the regular venue for public fights, drunkenness, and gay bashings every weekend, including all the holidays, and especially in the summer. Young men, low-waged workers and middle-class students, descend from suburbs and rural areas for “entertainment” in the anonymity of urban cluster, cosmopolitanism and, of course, darkness.

Most of the city is satisfied with the level of violence because the downtown cage-match is on a peninsula, surrounded by parkland and isolated from 80 percent of the population by three bridges and an industrial park. Vancouver’s business community also wants increased density without providing new social services like schools or hospitals. So the local capitalist class is greedy enough to gamble the safety of residents against large crowds of visitors to sell to.

Every summer, residents, business owners and politicians argue about the impact of crowds up to half a million strong attending fireworks competitions. That city leaders are able to grant permits to these events without any opposition is evidence that corporate entertainment is seen as more important than public safety.

But Vancouver is also one of the most socially polarized places in Canada, with the most costly housing market in Canada sitting next to the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, the Downtown East Side (site of the InSite drug injection clinic).

Vancouver’s social geography is both a place of intense class segregation and intense deflected social behaviours – which makes hockey hooliganism a perfect outlet.

The Reactionary Response

There is a social context to every riot - sparks of direct action that consciously or unconsciously transgress capitalism’s rules – but not necessarily a clear political meaning.

Vancouver’s hockey riot wasn’t a conscious transgression, like the Vancouver Post Office police riot against unemployed workers in the 1930s. Vancouver’s 2011 hockey riot, instead, was an unconscious spasm of young male fans socialized to identify with the most violent of Canadian sports at the peak of its meaning - that has invited a wave of reaction.

The massive abuse of social media to crowdsource photo and video evidence of looting, vandalism and fighting has led to vigilantism 2.0 as people identified by the blogosphere receive slanderous abuse and death threats, are forced out of their homes, and fired by employers who themselves have been threatened. The principle of the presumption of innocence has been undermined as the VPD refuse to ask Facebook officials to sanction user accounts, as police have done in other incidents of posting assaults and other crimes online.

In addition, the privacy of individual information collected by government for specific purposes without sharing among other agencies has been compromised. ICBC, the provincial government auto insurance firm, has offered to share facial recognition software with the VPD to match drivers' licence photos with images from the riot.

Professional Sports: Alienation’s Mirror

For activists, the situation has now shifted. The police now enjoy public support to use any means necessary to enforce public order. The freedom to assemble in the streets for political protest, like postal workers and Air Canada agents and their supporters, is now undermined. The Vancouver riots have now all but established that public behaviour will be Tweeted for more than just personal entertainment.

The only clear political aspect of this riot and its aftermath is that the ruling class is winning its culture wars against workers.

Dave Zirin, the US sports journalist, urges socialists to pay attention to pro sports because of the massive social influence that corporate entertainment exerts over government, education and culture. Sports riots, like overpriced tickets, food, swag, over commercialized events, athlete violence and drug abuse are issues that mirror our world. And in that mirror there are social meanings we need to expose and oppose.