Vancouver Riots

Everybody’s talking about the possibility that Vancouver will riot again if the Canucks lose the Stanley Cup again. I’ve been meaning to say something about this and Friday’s performance against the Kings has prompted me to hurry while the Canucks are still in the playoffs. Let me say this up front and I’ll justify it later: Whether the Canucks win or lose has nothing to do with rioting; Vancouver will riot if it feels right, as it has so often done before.

Michael Barnholden’s book, Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver, offers a starting point for anyone examining this topic. Barnholden describes a number of Vancouver’s riots beginning with race riots in 1907 and continuing with the Wobblies’ Free Speech riots of 1909 and 1911, BC Pen riots, APEC demonstrations of 1997 and 1998, Grey Cup and Stanley Cup riots, and rock show riots among others. Obviously some of these things are not like some others. Barnholden acknowledges this, sort of, then tries to squeeze all these events into a single Marxist paradigm, something about “ongoing class conflict”. It may be that the Free Speech Riots and the Unemployment Riots of the 1930s can fit this notion, perhaps the BC Pen riots could, too, but not the entertainment and sports riots; they fit a different Marxist concept, that of alienation.

Not mentioned in Barnholden's book, the Zoot Suit Riot of 1944. This was an imitation version of the American Zoot Suit Riots of that time. The US rioters were Hispanic, Vancouver's were Italian and they didn't wear zoot suits, but whatever sells papers, right? (Vancouver Sun)

[More on Vancouver’s Zoot Suit Riot here.]

Now you don’t have to be a Marxist to accept that large masses of people are alienated, one way or another, from the greater society. This shades over to what Emile Durkhein called anomie and many others have glossed his theories. The idea is that when people feel they have no real stake in the social order, they don’t value their own part in maintaining that order. Might as well riot because “Saturday night’s all right for fighting” as the song says.

But don’t mistake this for the British press’ dismissal of last summer’s riots as meaningless (a view repeated vis-a-vis Vancouver by MacLean’s: “Rioting is Fun!”). The London riots were ignited by a police murder and reflected some of the general hopelessness that has characterized English youth since Thatcherism took hold. These riots are not organized protests and have no specific goal but that does not mean that they aren’t the product of some real problems.

Vancouver’s biggest riot before last year’s Stanley Cup episode was the Grey Cup riot of 1963 with that of 1966 a very close second. Grey Cup week is one long bout of drunkeness of course, and Grey Cup partiers are not going to be easy to rein in. In 1963, Hamilton defeated BC but the game was long over at 10 o’clock when the first altercations began.  Fans had gathered in the bars to finish up their final evening of inebriation. In those days a beer was 15¢ and people went to beer parlors to get smashed. It was called “frontier-style” drinking as opposed to the more refined “cocktail hour” boozing done in civilized regions. The terrycloth-covered tables would be covered by beer glasses, perhaps three to a person, even though the Liquor Control Act forbids over-serving. And customers would drink them all and call for more.

The police managed to calm things down until closing time, which was midnight Saturdays then, when the drunken crowd was turned out into the streets. When police tried to shut down groups of revellers, other groups would hurl bottles at them. It took most of the night to restore order. Three hundred and nineteen arrests were made, mostly for public drunkeness. Many of those arrested were under the legal drinking age of twenty-one. The police promised to do better next time.

1966 Grey Cup rioters. (Vancouver Province)

In 1966, BC was not even in the Grey Cup finals, but Vancouver rioted anyway. The police arrested some three hundred people before the game even began as the troubles started during the parade, the day before the game. Groups of rock-throwing drunks battled the ranks of police that tried to clear the streets. Some say four hundred people were involved, some say four thousand.

Vancouver’s first Stanley Cup riot was in 1994. The Canucks lost to New York in Game 7 and fifty thousand or so people rampaged on Robson Street, smashing windows and battling cops. Afterwards, City Council voted to hold a review of the events. The review was supposed to look at “the issues underlying riots” but was not going to get into “social causes of disaffection and violence”. This contradiction meant that the final report was going to be just so much bumf. The only recommendations that could follow from such a panel would be more force and better tactics.

1994 Stanley Cup riot, (the Vancouver Sun ran this photo last May, carefully not saying that this would happen again.)

The lessons of 1994 were not heeded in 2011. Perhaps the lack of trouble at the Olympics had lulled Vancouver into thinking it really was Lotos-land and all that was necessary was to guide the docile lotos-eaters in the right direction. Instead of controlling the size of crowds, the city concentrated very large groups of people into small areas. Win or lose, that meant there was going to be a problem or two.

This year, the Canucks organization has begun a “We’re all family” promotion because families never ever fight. No.  And the crowds will be dispersed all over the Lower Mainland. And the police will be ready. But, who knows, maybe this year Vancouver will decide, as it did in 1995 and every Grey Cup since 1966, not to riot. Rioting is one of those chaotic events whose probability is impossible to predict. All that can be said is that there have been an awful lot of riots in Vancouver and they seem to happen for any or no reason at all.

[Michael Barnholden was there, he says, at the Rolling Stones riot of 1972. Unfortunately, he has little to say about it. But I was there, too, and I will talk about it — next post.]

2 comments on “Vancouver Riots

  1. Good post … just a note that you have “Barnholder” in a coupe of spots. s/b “Barnholden”
    best,
    BK

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