June 15, downtown Vancouver. This was not a hockey riot. And the lessons that are being learned from it are exactly the wrong ones.
I live in Vancouver, and I watched the last game of the Stanley Cup playoffs — and the postgame bonfire — from the corner of Georgia and Hamilton Streets. That intersection was the center of both the cheering and the chaos. But I’ve been in real riots: Prague when the Iron Curtain fell, an ethnic riot in southern Egypt in my teens, Kathmandu when the king was killed, East Jerusalem during the first intifada. What happened in Vancouver was different. It was a soft, gentle riot. The police were kinder and gentler than any I’ve ever seen at a riot. The rioters — using the term loosely to encompass all Vancouverites, since the rioters reflect poorly on the whole city — quickly mobilized thousands of volunteers to clean up the downtown core, many taking a day off work to do so. I went back the next afternoon, and by 2 p.m. it was nearly impossible to tell that a riot had occurred.
This was a riot in a fundamentally “nice” city, often too nice. People don’t even jaywalk here. After Game 5 I saw police get angry at someone for jaywalking. If you spend your life being told what to do, if taking a bike on the West Vancouver Seawall during the week when it’s nearly empty gets a dozen good Samaritans telling you “it’s against the rules,” and if you combine that with the high energy and low brain function of a Surrey suburban teenager — I have no idea whether the “anarchists” were from Surrey (a blue-collar suburb of Vancouver), but it’s standard practice during riots to blame foreign subversive elements and I just can’t imagine soft-and-gentle Vancouverites rioting, whereas the Ford F-150 culture in Surrey I can — then no wonder people riot when, once every 17 years, they’re suddenly unshackled.
But that will not be the lesson here. The result of this riot will be more rules and constraints on freedom — even though the energy at the corner of Georgia and Hamilton didn’t really come from hockey; it came from people living in a virtual prison of rules and regulations. When people habituated to living under rules and computerized consequences, which follow them their entire lives — people who have never had to learn self-control, internal restraint — suddenly find themselves without external restraints, they go crazy.
Yes, I’m sure that some people were there for precisely that reason, for the opportunity of temporary madness. The media had been going on for weeks about the 1994 riots, the last time Vancouver lost the Stanley Cup in Game 7. So what did they expect? You remind people relentlessly, get them thinking “riots,” and then those few people who think that riots may be fun gather from the whole city to attend. The 2011 riot was a near-perfect replica of its 1994 inspiration, though whereas the older event had a trigger — a man falling from a lamp standard into the crowd below — this year’s version didn’t need one. Or, rather, revived memory of the 1994 riots was itself the trigger, with crowds chanting “Let’s go riot!” by the end of the first period.
But the photo of the kiss in the middle of the riot shows better than any number of words that this was not about hockey. Nor even about destruction. It was about damning the consequences, about a momentary break in our mechanized, almost mineralized society. The power of that photo in telling a different narrative from that of either “hockey fans” or “destructive anarchists” is evident in the energy the mainstream media has devoted to deflating the photo, repeating remarks from the kissing boy’s mother that he was just helping the girl get up — though he’s clearly both kissing and groping her — and that he probably didn’t even know there was a riot going on. I’ve been in tear gas. It’s hard not to notice.
This wasn’t about hockey. It was an outlet. Hockey just happens to be a cultural trump card here in Canada, an excuse to let go, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio. You cure this sort of insanity with fewer rules, more bacchanal outlets — just as prison wardens have slowly learned that you can decrease riots by allowing prisoners to rearrange their own furniture, and forest rangers know that frequent controlled fires prevent major conflagrations. But the lesson learned by the powers that be is the opposite. That’s the truly sad consequence of all this stupidity.
Both the mainstream and the social media are full of outrage right now, from moral to economic. Morally, sure, it’s hard to justify smashing things. But the references to economic harm are a bit too simple. All those cars and shops are insured, and most of the insurance companies are owned by people outside Vancouver, with the costs spread out across either the shareholders or the pool of the insured, depending on your view of how elastic the insurance markets are. Either way, the result will be a net transfer of wealth in Vancouverites' favor. They won't end up being damaged.
But the real beneficiaries will be police budgets and politicians seeking reelection by promising to clamp down on “crime” with new laws, which only the law-abiding will obey, thus decreasing the freedom of the productive members of society without influencing the actions of the law-breakers in any way.
Laws are always a one-way ratchet. That’s why the ability to riot is important. But it’s like pulling out a gun. Stupid to do so without a clearly achievable agenda — whether it’s the elimination of a tax or a law or all the way to some sort of revolution. Still, there is something appealing about all this. In America, the people are scared of the government. In Europe, the governments are scared of the people, precisely because the people haven’t forgotten how to riot. This is why workers have healthcare, a minimum five weeks of paid vacation, and generally far more power vis-à-vis their employers than workers have in the United States. (I’m not debating the economic consequences of that worker power, just the fact that it exists.) I always assumed that Canada was more like the US, but maybe we still have a little life left. The problem is that the act of taking the pulse in this way will itself weaken it.
And sure enough, exactly one week after the riots, British Columbia’s privacy commissioner approved the Vancouver Police Department’s use of an administrative driver’s license database together with facial-recognition software to identify and catch rioters. Big Brother never hesitates to use these sorts of things to get a foot in the door. And what’s perhaps even more frightening, the police have admitted to being overwhelmed with the amount of evidence provided by all the Little Brothers looking on, photographing, filming.
So, yes, I’m upset at the stupidity of the rioters. But not for all the proper moral reasons. Nor for the economic ones. Rather, for the improper, immoral ones. The right ones. What happened on June 15 in downtown Vancouver should upset all self-respecting anarchists and libertarians far more than it upsets the law-and-order types. The latter are strengthened by it. The former are weakened.