Friday, 17 June 2011

Senselessness in the burning streets of Vancouver

"We have a small number of hooligans on the streets of Vancouver causing problems. It's absolutely disgraceful and shameful and by no means represents the city of Vancouver."
- Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaking to reporters last night
Car burns in front of Canada Post office
June 15 started as a day of hope in the beautiful West Coast city of 2 million, as residents anticipated a Stanley Cup victory, hockey's most prized trophy, which had eluded the Vancouver Canucks - the city's NHL team - in its entire 40-year existence. The sun was shining, the Lions Gate Bridge was gleaming, and downtown was teeming with a festive flock of fans. However, as it became apparent that the Canucks would lose the decisive game 7 to the Boston Bruins, by the closing minutes of the game, the mayhem had already begin. Instead of hosting a parade, the city finds itself cleaning up the remnants of a destructive night of ruinous rioting. 17 years after the 1994 riots and one Olympic games later, people are rightly asking what happened last night and why.

In 1994, the Vancouver Canucks for the second time in their history - the first being in 1982 - reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Again the underdog and facing a New York team (this time the Rangers rather than the Islanders), the Canucks managed to recover from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series and force a final decisive game. There was a tremendous feeling of anticipation in the city that June but the final game was lost 3-2. The Cup had seemingly fallen from the grasp of the city. Thousands of people had already gathered downtown that night for the game and a series of events led to a standoff between unruly youths and riot police (see video footage here). The Whitelaw report conducted on behalf of the BC Police Commission and Attorney General had found that there was poor police planning and crowd control and that there had been a premeditated action on the part of some individuals to trigger looting and anarchist violence.

This year, however, was supposed to be different. 17 years later, the 1994 riots were viewed as an aberration and black mark on what is a peaceful, tolerant and beautiful city. Two weeks ago, Vancouver Police Constable Lindsey Houghton remarked:
"That was 17 years ago. The positive atmosphere here in the city that's been increasing in the last few years culminated with the Olympics. We've seen nothing but a fun, family-orientated celebration this year."
Police try to recapture the streets
Of course, the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted by the city barely saw any violence, beyond the anti-Olympic protests in the initial days. It was that Olympic spirit, where for two weeks tens of thousands of people - including families and young children - descended on downtown, which brought me back from Dubai to watch the Stanley Cup Finals in my hometown. Sure enough, until last night, there was a positive atmosphere in the air. Yet, the ingredients were all in place for a repeat of 1994 and the senseless destruction that it brought. The principal difference with the Olympics was that it ended with a Gold medal victory for Canada and electrified the city into celebration. There was nothing to celebrate last night but a devastating lost. All the positive energy that had been built up expectedly came crashing down. 
First car set alight in the city
So what exactly happened last night? News outlets are reporting that close to 100 arrests have been made and a couple of hundred people were wounded, several with serious injuries. The estimated damage is roughly $1 million, which compares to the 1994 riots. I was fortunate to have attended Game 7 yesterday and thus as I walked through downtown, witnessed much of the scene until 11pm, by which time the police were regaining control of the streets. What I saw was at times total and utter havoc and a very limited if not ineffectual police presence. There were not thousands of people rioting, but several dozen, mostly angry - drunk or high - youths, under the age of 21, causing destruction. There was a mob mentality for sure, but mostly a high school mentality, whereby young people would attempt to 'fight the authorities'. Bottles rained down on the police from afar. Storefronts were destroyed. Cars were set alight. Onlookers cheered the ringleaders on and yes, young women were seen cheering their male friends on in the violence. While there may have been some anarchists and slight premeditation, this was largely the typical expected reaction of a drunk, young and unruly crowd in a commercial space with limited police presence and infused with a sense of emotions and anger (following the loss). 

The initial violence unfolded in the closing minutes of the game as people in the crowds around the fan zones setup in downtown Vancouver began hurling beer bottles at the large television screens that were setup. Some scuffles broke out and then very quickly a car was set alight right near the Vancouver Public Library and Canada Post office. As there was a police presence already within the fan zones, the authorities quickly moved in to secure the area as well as facilitate the arrival of the fire rescue team. As I walked back from Roger's Arena (there was an incident there as a fan fell a couple of stories to the ground and was being assisted by paramedics), and into the area by the Library, thousands of young people had already massed, where a car had already been burned and another one vandalized. There were perhaps a dozen police in the area and a fire rescue truck. Several bottles rained from down on the officers from afar and then perhaps as a result - but also seemingly inexplicably - the police all retreated from the area. This was a critical point in the riots. While there were roaming groups already on Robson and some walking along Granville street - the nightclub district in Vancouver - it was this consolidated mass of people which became a roving mob of destruction.

As the police retreated away, some in the crowd turned to the second vandalized car. A group of about ten people cheered by hundreds around them, flipped the green pickup truck. Soon you could smell the gasoline leaking from the tank. Almost instinctively, one of the group then set the car alight. Several minutes later a large explosion could be heard and a dark plume of black smoke wafted upwards from the vehicle. Police then secured their presence on the intersection of W. Georgia and Homer, and equipped with riot gear and officers on horseback began pushing the crowd back in all directions. The result, however, was the displacement of the crowds towards Robson Street (Vancouver's main shopping area). Yet, for each thousand people there were perhaps only ten or so officers, not nearly enough. So it became a game of cat-and-mouse. As the crowd moved, small items were destroyed in its path, such as garbage bins, newspaper stands, bus stops, and the temporary bathrooms that had been setup downtown.

Further up downtown's main artery - W. Georgia Street - at the Seymour intersection, more cars were set alight, and the crowd set its sights on police cruisers that were parked near there. After this point, with further crowds consolidating downtown, by 9:30pm it was apparent that the police did not have control of the streets and there were many simultaneous incidents unfolding (too many to list here). What was apparent was that there were only a few people involved in the destruction. However, there was a wider ring of onlookers - mostly between 15-21 - cheering on anyone who led the violence, whether it was smashing the glass of a store or setting alight a car. Young women were just as complicit in this second realm of activity. Then there were several thousand amused spectators energized by the destruction who did nothing to stop it or lead a more responsible mood on the streets. And finally, there were several thousand people, the vast majority, who were simply trying to get home. By nightfall, most of these people had dissipated, but because of the chaos, there were no clear paths to leave Downtown.

In fact several times, police officers were asked, "Where do I go? How do I leave this area?" and the response was simply, "Go, get out of here." By 9:30pm and 10pm several intersections had been closed off, and tear gas canisters had been fired from several directions (including from the West along Granville); this pushed people further into the downtown core. Additionally, public transit started to be limited by nightfall, and the last bus service to the North Shore for example was at 11pm. This trapped a few more people downtown.

Residents tried to save this car
What was clear was that several dozen people seeking to cause violence and destruction were given a freehand inadvertently and there was chaos and a lack of control on the streets. Some residents got involved by throwing debris at rioters from their apartment buildings to prevent the destruction of cars. The police officers who were there tried their best to disperse the crowds peacefully, using mostly forced movement, tear gas, and percussion bombs. Vancouver hospitals were the busiest they had been in 20 years, and many officers valiantly tried to help the seriously wounded get medical attention. Yet, for whatever reason, that police presence was limited. Some citizens tried to take matters into their own hands and defend private property; in a few instances these people were successful, but in others they were severely beaten. In the confusion, several fights broke out and other people were wounded by flying objects. In one instance nearby where I was, an individual was stabbed (or had some type of gash from an incident). Yet the crowds were almost over-running this spot, so we created a ring around the person (this was on Homer Street). In another instance, a wounded individual was in the middle of Robson (near Seymour); while we tried to create a ring around this person, it was less successful. In other cases, people naively were driving their cars through the thick of the crowds, leading to dangerous standoffs. Several of us helped navigate a few cars to safety, amidst the frenzy, while a few unruly kids kept kicking the cars as they went by.

For sure, there will be an official report reflecting on the failure of security that was the responsibility of the City of Vancouver and judging by most accounts, the police did not adequately prepare for the consequence of a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. Massing thousands of young people, many of whom were intoxicated or high, in the downtown core was a significant risk without an adequate police presence or an effective plan to divert them from the commercial center. Yet, there is a need for greater reflection in Vancouver - and perhaps in other cities in North America and Europe - when this type of youth-led anarchist violence unfolds. Not only was the destruction despicable but it was also senseless. There was no reason except the indulgence in violence for its own sake. Spending most of my time these days in the Middle East, and seeing the Arab Spring unfold in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, with further protests for human rights in Bahrain, Syria and Libya and elsewhere, I have sympathy for civil disobedience (not necessarily violence or vandalism) in the pursuit of liberty. Yet, contrast that action with the mindless rioting from last night by Vancouver's youth and the indulgence in it by thousands of titillated onlookers.

It was not even sports hooliganism, which is itself a dastardly act. The targets of rage were not Boston-affiliated stores. The injured were not individuals from elsewhere. That would have been bad enough. However, the targets of rage were parts of their own city. The wounded were fellow Vancouverites. The mindless and pointless destruction that ensued yesterday was shameful for the city and its young people. At a time when in other parts of the world people are trying to channel their energy for positive change, there is a lot for us to reflect on here back in Canada - and in Vancouver in particular.