Rioting research from Vancouver to India points to restorative justice solutions

Standing at Ground Zero of last year's Stanley Cup riot, Dr. Theo Gavrielides says the evidence points to restorative justice as effective in such cases. Photos by David P. Ball

“'Oh my God, I'm smashing somebody's window!'”

That moment of surprised awareness may help understand the psychology of why riots happen – but it likely won't settle the city's unease after last year's Stanley Cup mayhem, according to a British scholar who spoke in Vancouver yesterday.

“But if somebody else is doing it with you, then you move onto another event, triggered again in the same fashion,” Theo Gavrielides, director of the UK-based Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS) think tank, told the Vancouver Observer. “But very quickly, when things calm down, the shame starts. You look back and say, 'I can't believe I just did that.'”

The visiting scholar is urging BC to go ahead with plans to use restorative justice model in dealing with convicted rioters.

As authorities continue to press charges – the current count is 200 – Gavrielides hopes they will forge ahead with plans to use restorative justice as an alternative to the penal system in some riot convictions. His research looks at case studies of rioting – what he terms “street group violence” -- in a plethora of countries, from Vancouver's hockey riots to anti-Muslim mobs in India and anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece.

His talk at Simon Fraser University – which has partnered in his research – comes just over a month before the one year anniversary of Vancouver's June 15 Stanley Cup loss, and the hours-long riot that ensued in its aftermath. The investigation that followed has involved high-tech video software, dozens of police officers, and now 200 charges filed. Police estimate the riot investigation will cost the province $2 million by the end of next month, plus millions more in extra police pay.

The Vancouver Police Department's Sept. 1, 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review report – which found that police were unprepared for the scale of destruction – itself recommended alternative sentencing models such as the ones Gavrielides has researched.

Gavrielides research links the hockey riots with five days of chaos in England following the police killing of a black man on Aug. 4, 2012. Although the Guardian newspaper found widespread negative perceptions of the police, as well as racism, to be a significant factor in the rioting – which spread from London to cities around the country – Gavrielides believes the underlying psychology is similar.

“In the street group violence phenomenon, the group act acts as a coverup of your own criminal activity,” Gavrielides said. “Because you're doing it with someone else, you don't fall into self-check system you normally would.

“I've tried to understand, refine and identify reasons behind street group violence. All these riots have very different reasons. In England, there were causes – inequality, schools, family responsibilities – but to a great extent, the reasons were not much different than the reasons here.”

The scholar interviewed businesses and individuals who suffered losses during the June 2011 mayhem, but was unable to speak with Vancouver rioters themselves because there has so far been only one conviction – too small a pool to draw research from.

But in the UK, he met with riot participants. He also recalls attending youth meetings after that country's riots at which participants and bystanders spoke of their feelings afterwards.

“Young people spoke about opportunities,” he recalled. “Restorative justice is not about unraveling and discussing the reasons behind group violence – it's only for those who accepted what they did. Once you have knowledge of the harm, there is an opportunity to put it right.

“My appeal to people in BC more generally, is that you have an amazing opportunity to modernize your criminal justice system, and look at what sort of better options – evidence-based options – you have.”

The restorative justice model involves alternatives to incarceration and punishment – such as accountability circles and meetings where offenders hear about the impact of their acts on victims. Gavrielides said that the evidence shows that the model has proven effective in redressing a range of offenses – and also offers the community more opportunities for healing, something he said the “sterile” criminal justice system cannot do.

The study of rioting – of which Gabrielides said there is a growing body of research – is undoubtedly contentious, with tension between psychological and sociological interpretations.

“Some will defend rioters – some see it as a way of expressing democracy, or giving back to the state if it's not listening,” he said. “Others will condemn them.

“All riots have very different reasons. But for me, the riot is just the hook for considering restorative justice. The riots are helping you to think in a different way – forcing you to think simply because the system is stuck. Millions have been spent just on the investigation – and how much footage do they have to go through? This is just a hook to introduce a more responsive, hopefully less costly, justice system.”

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