The Vancouver Riots: re-making 20th century history for a 21st century audience
The teargas had barely cleared before the blame game began. Whose fault was the riot of June 15, 2011? Politicians like Christy Clark and VPD chief Jim Chu initially blamed “anarchists and agitators.” Callers to talk radio blamed alcohol and/or the Granville Entertainment District. After all, was it not the devil’s brew that spawned such immoral behavior?
The CBC was blamed for setting up a live site on Georgia street where the riot began. A ‘FaceBook mentality’ has been cited to explain why people snapped profile shots of themselves in front of burning cars instead of heeding police requests to disperse. And bored suburban kids – whom Andrew Morrison eloquently refers to as “lame suburban douchebags” – were blamed for ‘invading’ Vancouver.
Those with a more overt political agenda have used the riot as ammunition against opponents. Critics of the VPD chief Jim Chu argue that more officers could have prevented the riot. The label “Robertson’s Riot” has been flung into the realm of municipal politics by critics of city hall, implying that Gregor himself caused the riots by issuing an open invitation to drunks and vandals to do some burning and looting.
Angus Reid recently conducted a poll gauging the public’s view on the riots. Most people surveyed believe that committed agitators were to blame for the riot. The fact that people still believe agitators were the primary drivers behind the riot – despite the mountains of video evidence showing otherwise ‘average’ kids trashing downtown – demonstrates the power of public relations and the media to shape the message. It is time to set the record straight.
2010 vs. 2011
I photographed anti-Olympic demonstrators on February 13, 2010. I also shot photos of the riot on June 15, 2011. In both cases, windows were broken and the riot police were deployed. But this is where the similarities end.
The events of Feb 13, 2010 were undertaken by political protestors who undertook the actions in the spirit of anti-capitalism/anarchism (the banner read “Heart Attack: clogging the arteries of capitalism”). Most participants wore face coverings and engaged in black bloc tactics (providing solidarity to the group while allowing for autonomous actions on the periphery). They acted as a collective, protecting each other and cooperating. The participants who overturned newspaper boxes and broke windows were driven by a political conviction (anarchism vs. the ‘oppressive state apparatus’). The destruction of property was precise and specific (the windows of the Bay were targeted for its ‘historical role as a colonizer’). There was no looting (notoriously anti-consumerist, anarchists would definitely steer clear of a $500 Versace shirt).
In conclusion, what occurred on Feb 13, 2010 was fundamentally a political event. The participants did what they did because they believed in what they were doing.
Contrast this with the events of June 15, 2011. Boozed up and hyped-up yahoos flipped over cars and set them on fire while thousands watched energized from the sidelines with cameraphones rolling. Men in hockey jerseys fought police and each other. Fashion conscious youngsters looted expensive shops. People even goaded each other into lighting police cars on fire. Teamwork and cooperation was limited to: “on the count of 3, let’s tip this cop car over!”
In short, the broken windows of 2010 were the result of a specific set of beliefs, while the chaos of June 15, 2011 was a free for all with no overarching ideological message. Given this, I suspect that very few, if any, of the anti-Olympic protesters I observed in 2010 participated in the 2011 riot.
At risk of oversimplifying, anarchists see the current consumer-capitalist economic system as inherently exploitative. Anarchists would be opposed to the hockey-hype conformism – the “we are all Canucks” mantra for the masses – and would probably offer an intellectual critique about the commercialization of sport intertwined with mindless drones purchasing sweatshop clothing produced by multinational corporations. It is unlikely that a principled anarchist would get involved in any activity that involved looting a corporate clothing store alongside a jersey-and-gold-chain-wearing dude flashing gang signs for his buddy’s cameraphone.
So why did the riot occur?
Here are some alternative explanations for the riot the public has been given:
1. too much booze (translated: too many drunken young males)
2. too many people in a crowded space (translated: too many drunken young males in a crowded space)
3. too few police officers (translated: not enough police to deal with too many drunken young males)
4. too much testosterone (translated: too many young males, period)
5. too much social media (translated: too many drunken young males seeking photographic approval)
6. too much crowd psychology (translated: drunken young males are easily led astray by others)
But here is one that hasn’t really been analyzed so far:
7. there was a riot in 1994 after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs
I know this will be controversial, so I want to be very clear about what I am suggesting. While 1-6 may indeed have been contributing factors, I believe the only proposition that is both a necessary and a sufficient condition is #7. In other words, I believe that there would not have been a post-Game 7 riot in 2011 if there had not been a post-Game 7 riot in 1994.
By saying this I am not implying that the riot of 1994 caused people to riot in 2011. The riot of 1994 did not determine the riot of 2011. But what I am suggesting is that the riot of 2011 can’t be understood without reflecting carefully on how the riot of 1994 provided a historical template for 2011.
Try to imagine the Canucks latest run Stanley Cup finals without ever hearing the phrase “the last time the Canucks lost Game 7 there was a riot.” Now try to imagine people setting police cars on fire without shouts of “Fuck! It’s better than ’94!” in the background.
I should point out that very few of the people involved in the riot of 2011 were involved in the riot of 1994. Most were probably less than 10 years old in 1994. But the fact that a committed Christian wasn’t at the birth of Jesus doesn’t make the celebration of Christ’s birth any less inspirational to the participants (maybe not the best comparison, but anyway...).
Humans engage in a myriad of collective events that have both symbolic and transformative power (i.e. rituals and festivals). We celebrate historical events, not just because it is obligatory to do so, but because doing so connects us in the present to the history of the past.
What transpired was not a riot borne from the frustration of hockey fans, or a riot that occurred ‘just because.’ Instead, the riot can be read as a collective performance with cultural significance based on the reproduction of history. Translated into plain English? The people who participated in the riot on June 15, 2011 were collectively resurrecting a part of 20th century Vancouver history and performing it for a 21st century audience.
In a quote now made famous by Brock Anton, a FaceBook personality who appears to have admitted his role in the riot:
Maced in the face, hit with a batton, tear gassed twice, 6 broken fingers, blood everywhere, through the jersey on a burning cop car, flipped some cars, burnt some smart cars, burnt some cop cars, im on the news ... one word ... history :) :) :)
One word…history. By rioting “just like 1994!,” a new crop of 20-somethings has ‘reproduced’ an integral part of Vancouver’s history…and in so doing, made history come alive in the present day.
Maybe in retrospect, Brock Anton is a more insightful individual than his FaceBook status makes him appear.
Joshua Hergesheimer is a freelance journalist and photographer.
You can see his website here: www.joshua.hergesheimer.ca