Disappointed

The game over, we were coming to grips with a disappointing ending to what had been a marvellous season for fans of Vancouver Canucks hockey. Consoling beverages were fixed, arguments on who had failed to perform (in this series, pretty much every Canuck, alas) were waged… and a few uncomfortable jokes about a reprise of the 1994 riot were muttered.

Knowing that an estimated 120,000 people were on the streets watching the game on public screens, and knowing that the drunken thugs who clog Granville Street every weekend night would be among them, a certain amount of trouble was inevitable… There would be some arrests for fighting, public intoxication… Some windows would get broken, maybe a dumpster fire…

The TV stayed on after the game, and when I wandered back into the room I was struck by the standoff being transmitted by the CBC (who had gleefully hosted a massive crowd watching the game on giant screens outside their downtown studios):

The announcer who was narrating the shot was going on at some length about the mob… “The rioting is a small number of people… but the larger crowd is not dispersing… they want to be close to the action…” in a strongly disapproving tone.

Which struck me as ironic and surreal, because the televised gaze from the CBC offices was drawn by exactly the same motivation. How could the morbid fascination of the bystanders be so inexplicable? This column also assails the bystanders for being drawn to the same spectacle that the writer mingles among and writes breathlessly about… I suppose the CBC and Gary Mason would argue that as reporters they had a professional right and obligation to “cover the story”… But their fetishized perspective inevitably perpetuates the same notion of mindless violence as “history” that evidently motivates this individual:

We were holed up at our friends’ apartment just off Robson Street, listening to the media exhortations for people to “leave the downtown” yet unsure how to do so with the bridges closed, no taxis or buses on the streets, and reports of mayhem making it seem dodgy to head out on foot with the kids. The only ‘action’ right outside the building occurred when someone tipped over a car2go smart car (now THAT’S sticking it to The Man, huh?), breaking its window. Keira had the idea to sweep up the broken glass, so we did. Sometime after midnight, it seemed quiet enough to head out, walking through oddly silent streets (and still no taxis or buses) until we made it to a Skytrain that took us out of the downtown “party zone” and finally to a taxi…

Today, when sports talk radio would normally be certain to dissect the Canucks ‘collapse’ in the Stanley Cup Finals, the focus was instead on the aftermath. As I rode a bus through sun-splashed and surprisingly clean downtown streets (the scores of spontaneous cleaners evidently doing a fine job), I listened to a radio host say that the problem was that the cops were not violent enough. Another that “our society is too tolerant”… They all agreed that more prisons are needed. One guest suggested that compulsory military service would get to the root of the problem. Dave Pratt has expressed the certainty that the Vancouver riot was a coordinated, planned effort by “left-wing anarchists” (somehow abetted by Gregor Robertson… and give him time, at some point he will work bike lanes into the indictment – update: he did, ninety minutes into his first post-riot show). The post-riot dialogue on Twitter is about the same. As Jon Beasley-Murray (who watched the game with us last night, but ventured off into the madness early) writes:

This demonization of the post-game violence is no doubt a safe outlet for the pent-up energy of so many disappointed Canucks fans: they have a target for their frustration, and they can feel so very civilized in expressing their anger. It’s easier to grab this moral high ground, to claim that the so-called rioters do not represent Vancouver, than to stop and consider the ways in which violence is engrained in this sport on whose bandwagon they are hitched, or the conditions that gave rise to the post-game disturbances–and the many ways in which it could have been avoided. But let’s give these concerned citizens some slack. They need their moment of mindless outrage, too.

I recommend Jon’s piece. And unlike him I did not experience much of the riot up-close. But while I am puzzled by how the police chose to respond… I have a hard time thinking of the people in these photos as anything but idiots. And these idiots will not bear the consequences of their actions, even those flagged by the social media ID campaign… I refer to the reputation of this city and its already maligned hockey fans… And the momentum this will give to equally thoughtless and violent ‘law and order’ responses. Stephen Harper’s plan to build unneeded prisons got a huge boost last night. More insanely expensive paramilitary equipment will be part of future civic budgets. And if an improbable Canadian social movement chooses to take to the streets some time in the future, they can expect a crushingly violent response.

See also, “Spectacular Vancouver conquers itself”:

In the absence of any shared collective progressive principles, the BC elite longed for a new solidarity forged from of this “fighting collectivity” of Canucks fans. You could not find a politician that didn’t reinforce the jingoism, not the least with Premier Christy Clark speaking exclusively in hockey metaphors.

But grounding social solidarity in competitive spectacle is a risky wager, as the solidarity can be wiped away by a 0-4 tally. Spectacle is by its nature passive, the spectator powerless (without opportunity to attack the opposing “fighting collectivity”). The latent purely political violence cannot be directed at the enemy, and so Vancouver’s “fighting collectivity” turned on itself, individuals beating each other up on the streets (in place of the Bruin fans), attacking police (in place of Boston police), and looting Vancouver stores (in place of Boston stores). And so Vancouver had its war: it conquered itself.

Our “leaders” had reveled as young men and women over-consumed alcohol and representations of violence. And now those same leaders feign surprise, shame, and disgust as the cycle of consumption and powerlessness draws to its logical conclusion in tonight’s auto-conquest. Many sitting at home, their gazes fixed on the spectacle, do not like what they see reflected back at them. In denial, they construct mythologies, pretending that the rioters are exogenous, and few in number. The simple truth is that we all saw this coming. The reality is that the rioters were Vancouverites, and the spectacle they created accurately represented the values of a hedonistic Lotus Land, unchanged since 1994.

It all seems like the inevitable turning of a terrible wheel. I’m disappointed by the outcome of a pointless hockey game that I nonetheless followed with intense passion. I’m disappointed that something that should have been fun would have such a sad effect. I’m disappointed that this is how my friends around the world now see my city. I’m disappointed by what we are and what we appear to be turning into…

11 thoughts on “Disappointed

  1. Brian,

    I am glad that everyone in your party made it home safe. It occurred to me this morning that we were lucky that the Canucks lost. I believe that the people who really wanted to create trouble did not do so based on the result of the game. If the Canucks had won I think that the same shenanigans would have been instigated with one difference – about 40,000 more people would have stayed downtown until the end of the game (and probably many more children). Instead, I have heard many stories of people who left during the second period, which I believe reduced the opportunity for mass panic layered over the mob violence we witnessed.

    I love Vancouver and the images of people, like yourself, cleaning up the damage will be the ones I choose to remember.

    Cheers, bob

    1. Thanks for your comment, bob. I had a similar thought about how many of the crowd left during the latter stages of the game, and the effect it had… I have no idea how things would have turned out if the Canucks had won the Cup, though I’d be willing to travel to a quantum parallel universe to find out.

  2. There was some other violence up close last night (you were inside at the time Brian). We saw a guy right after getting a bottle smashed over his head complete with blood dripping down his face. A few minutes later there was 2 roving gangs of guys squaring off in the alley. What was interesting to me is that the 2 agro dudes beaking on one another did back down. Mostly because 2 of the other guys facing off were talking- they weren’t the centre of the action- but I noticed them actually speak, not shout. And then suddenly the tension disolved and they all ran off. Just interesting to see what makes the peace, even momentarily. A few minutes later the big smash of the car going over and windows smashing. And I felt pretty clear I wasn’t taking our 8 yr old out there. The YouTube party was awesome. The long walk to the skytrain after it got quiet was maybe the creepiest walk I’ve ever done. No cops, no taxis, no buses. That feeling has been building all day. I’m sure the episode of Treme we’ve got queuing up will resolve that…

    1. Not sure why your lovely visage is obliterated by my avatar… but I can’t seem to edit it.

      I had forgotten about that scene in the alley you’d described… and thanks for adding that detail about how creepily quiet that walk to the Skytrain station was… It is a little weird that only a half hour after reports said the riot had been ended, we could walk across the contested terrain for half an hour and see a single police officer!

      And yes, Treme seems connected to all this, somehow…

  3. I didn’t have the radio on most of today to avoid this stuff. But I did happen hear Ron McLean and Don Cherry’s contributions. No Ron, nothing to do with the sport. This happens at the dragon boat festival every year. And yes Don the Liberal BC government are leftist pansies. What a couple of tools…

    Most hockey fans are good people; a minority are thugs. But the sport’s culture still passively embraces the thug shit. One of the reasons I enjoy Olympic hockey so much is that the IIHF makes an effort to keep this crap down, if not entirely out. You can’t thump your way to hockey gold–you’ll get thumped out of the tournament (usually).

    We have a problem in Canada though and this conflation of hockey=identity. Of course it’s an awesome game and it’s ours. But I can’t think of anything else that turns an alarming number of Canadians from reasonable kind and gentle people into raving loons. Bring 100k of them together, with 1/20 of the security of the Olympics, add some alcohol and a lost Cup…you get last night.

    I prefer the no-fun Vancouver. When you could go to Granville Street on a Friday night and not feel like you’re taking your life into your hands…

    1. Thanks for your comment John. I’ve never been to the Dragon Boat Festival, now I don’t think I ever will!

      I love the physical aspect of hockey — as a fan, one of the things I found thrilling about the first three rounds was watching the normally finesse-oriented Canucks outhit their opponents. But the thuggery is unfortunate, I find it sad that Marc Savard, the Bruins most skilled forward, missed the playoffs (and probably has ended his career) because of a cheap shot more than 18 months ago.

      I remember the “no fun” days… and was frustrated. But this Granville Street zone is a disaster. Certainly there is still no (legal) place in Vancouver I want to go late at night — and would never send a visitor to the city down there.

  4. Nice post, Brian.

    Strangely enough, you guys seem to have seen more violence against the person than I did, even though I was right by the looting and burning cars. The nearest thing I saw was when two guys (both South Asian) raced out of the crowd and up Granville: one was chasing the other, and didn’t look to wish him well. But I didn’t see how that either started or ended. Apart from that, nothing. And, as I say, I saw surprisingly little drunkenness.

    This is not to say there were not idiots around. Undoubtedly. But more than the average Saturday night in the so-called “Entertainment district”? Frankly, not much. But the cops have pretty much figured out how to police Granville Street. And in the vacuum that they left last night, more importantly I saw rather a lot of opportunism: the sudden realization that, yes, you could (at least temporarily) get away with some foolishness such as setting a trash can alight, kicking at a store window, climbing up onto an awning, or posing in front of a burned out car.

    It was this opportunism that struck me most, and the fact that the police (and council) had created the conditions within which it could flourish. I was not there at the very outset, but I saw no real sign of premeditation–except in so far as everyone had hyped up the possibility of a riot so much that it became almost bound to happen.

    1. I admit to some fascination with that sense of a temporary moment in which people perceived they had some kind of freedom to misbehave… Even though they could see people filming and taking pictures all around them. I’m not surprised to learn that a large proportion of the rioters who’ve turned themselves in so far have no criminal records. And if these were premeditated acts by hardened “anarchists”, isn’t amazing how few of them thought to cover their faces? Undoubtedly stupid judgment, though we now know many of them were quite accomplished UBC students! That sense of apparent liberation from usual conduct is obviously so powerfully intoxicating.

  5. Reading your post I thought of Jay Smooth’s recent video about our irrational investment in sport and George Rudé’s work on the social meaning of riots. Rudé laid the lie to the notion that riots are merely a function of unthinking and uncontrolled mob action; rather, they can be read in very specific historicized ways for insight into a social moment. Those on the Right sense this and are seizing the opportunity to integrate the violence into their retrograde, prefabricated narrative. Counternarratives like yours that and Jon’s that seek to understand the violence even as you condemn it are very important.

    1. That Jay Smooth video is brilliant! An ‘over-inflated sports-industrial complex’ …’built on pretending this stuff matters.’ I gotta get me some more of that…

      And I will check out George Rudé’s work too, though it looks like I will have to walk into an actual library… I thought everything was online now?

      There is no question that there are all sorts of political dimensions at work in these riots, though there are so many competing narratives and symbolic constructions at work I can barely begin to untangle them.

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