We are the riot: The truth about Vancouver's history of civil unrest

| April 17, 2012

As the annual ritual of hockey playoff hype began in earnest earlier this month, the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot of 2011 cast a dark shadow across the usually sunny media cheerleading. However, it now looks as though the Canucks’ playoff run could be over as early as this Wednesday and nobody knows how the notoriously fickle Vancouver fans will react.

Police are distributing wanted posters featuring the caught-in-the-act faces of last year’s still-at-large Stanley Cup rioters. Trials are commencing for those already charged and municipal authorities fret about the possibility of burning cars and broken windows again this year. As well they should. Riots are part of this city’s DNA, buried deep in the double helix of logging, fishing, lattes and condos.

Last June, thousands of hockey fans – who could not afford the steep price of a playoff ticket – were crammed into small outdoor pens to watch Jumbotrons. The local NHL franchise lost the final game, coming just short of the highest achievement in North American hockey. Disheartened and inebriated fans then tore apart barricades, smashed windows, looted shops, set fire to vehicles and assaulted a few who tried to intervene or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Riot police were deployed and struggled into the night to disburse the rampaging group, arresting but a few.

After the smoke cleared, Vancouver wrote itself some positive self-affirmations on the plywood covering the smashed-out, gap-toothed windows of the HBC store and made a nice pancake breakfast to help itself feel better. Police and the mayor blamed anarchists for this clearly non-political rampage. Pundits protested that the 'ruffians' were not real hockey fans, not real Vancouverites.

History, however, tells a different story. The mob is Vancouver. We are rioters in denial, citizens of a city that has been regularly rocked by civil unrest since its founding. Below a genteel veneer of lattes, yoga mats and glass condos the west coast riot fitfully sleeps.

A history of racist violence

Vancouver has been the site of racist pogroms against the immigrants who built her, violent crackdowns on Depression-era poor, beatings of sixties hippies at the hands of law enforcement, police riots at protests and sports related rampages. In the aftermath, authorities invariably blame the scapegoat du jour: Chinese immigrants, reds, the unemployed, the anarchist black bloc – some marginalized “other” onto which the city fathers’ xenophobic fears might be projected and public criticism redirected. A brief stroll down Vancity’s memory lane finds it strewn with broken glass and many examples that illustrate this point.

In 1887, a Coal Harbour encampment of Chinese labourers was burned out by an angry white mob of several hundred, fresh from hearing racist speeches on the “Chinese problem” at City Hall. Dozens of Chinese workers were beaten and businesses torched.

In 1907, Mayor Bethune, proud member of Vancouver’s Asian Exclusion League, permitted a large rally at City Hall where fiery speakers championing an end to Asian immigration thundered from the rostrum. The assembled crowd marched to Chinatown, beating residents and smashing most windows in the area before moving on to Japantown. There, residents defended themselves and their community, forcing the mob to retreat. Only one rioter was ever convicted – for assaulting a police officer.

In the aftermath, the main problem for the media and local politicians was immigration, not racist violence, and so they blamed the victims. Soon enough though, city fathers would be seeing Red.

Communists, hippies and anarchists: Blaming 'the Other'

In the depression of the 1930s, many unemployed men migrated into Vancouver from relief camps, where hard manual labour paid starvation wages. A movement of unemployed workers blossomed in the Lower Mainland, but soon came into conflict with authorities.

In April of 1935, a delegation of unemployed workers was sent from a Victory Square protest to meet Mayor McGeer at City Hall. His worship denied any civic assistance to the hungry, and had the delegates arrested as they left the meeting. McGeer then went to the protest and read the Riot Act. Police started making arrests, raiding labour organization offices and charging on horseback into the crowds at Victory Square. The City blamed communists for the disturbances and broken glass of that day.

By 1938, this movement had mobilized broad support. In May, some 1200 men occupied the Post Office and Art Gallery with a month-long sit-down strike. They offered to accept arrest peacefully. Instead, police chose violent eviction with tear gas and a gauntlet of baton swinging police that beat the occupiers as they left. Thirty-seven were hospitalized on “Bloody Sunday.” There was no property damage, until windows were broken to vent tear gas. These same organizers provided the grist for a municipal Red scare campaign in the local press.

A generation later, police responded to open pot smoking and a counter culture that mystified them with street sweeps and forceful arrests of youth, resulting in the 1971 Gastown Riot. Hippies were blamed this time, to turn the focus away from the police youth profiling. In time, Jimmy Hendrix gave way to the Spice Girls and the 1990s saw more disturbances.

Police brutality

In 1994, shield-beating ranks of riot cops advanced into demoralized and drunk but relatively harmless crowds of hockey fans lamenting another momentous loss by the Canucks. It was unclear where the riot squad was trying to push the confused and now angry fans. Police fired tear gas – occasionally back into their own ranks. The resulting confusion resulted in the first Stanley Cup riot as windows were smashed and tear gas canisters were lobbed back into police lines. In a new twist on an old theme, the VPD blamed the publishers of a satirical article about how the poor might keep up with the Jones’ consumerism by looting. According to the police, 60,000 otherwise law-abiding hockey fans had been incited to tear up the downtown by Terminal City, the (now defunct) local left-leaning weekly that published the column.

At a 1998 protest of then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, police literally cracked skulls. The riot squad charged into a peaceful crowd, swinging clubs and pushing with their shields. Thirty were injured and four hospitalized at the “Riot at the Hyatt.” Although a dozen were arrested, Vancouver Police could never identify in their own investigations any behaviour of the demonstration that could be considered riotous. Protesters were blamed nonetheless, but once again it was the police who were violent.

Riot 2011

Finally, last June, hockey-related circumstances similar to those of 1994 produced a similarly riotous result. After inviting 100,000 fans to come downtown, get drunk and watch TV together in a little pen without enough personal space, organization, water or bathrooms, Mayor Robertson and the chief of police announced that it had all been an anarchist plot.

Since the city’s beginning 126 years ago, its many riots have been blamed on what Edward Said called “the Other” - immigrants, outsiders, the poor, communists, youth, anarchists, etc. Last year’s civil disturbance, as well as the responses of the mayor, police and premier to blame anarchists and the left, was very much in keeping with this legacy.

Today, Canucks jerseys again pepper city streets. Just blocks from where the fires burned last year, camera crews greet the accused rioters outside of court buildings. Commentators explain it all away, but no matter how they try to portray our city on the world stage, the uglier and more complex truth shatters all the chrome and glass illusions.

Vancouver has always had a dark side of racism, poverty, scapegoating and police brutality, but so too is it the site of struggles for social justice and demands for better world.

This jagged dialectic tears open in regular, violent social ruptures, and also scripts authority’s responses to them.

We are the riot.


Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.




A Quantitative Study of Public Order, Policing and Crowd Psychology

Additionally, in the attempts to control incidents of football crowd disorder,

... laws have been created that arguably undermine fundamental civil liberties and human rights.

This link may not hot link so copy and paste it instead:

The ESIM therefore proposes that to understand the dynamics of crowd events, it is necessary to conceptualise and study crowd psychology as an ongoing intergroup process of which the police can be an integral component.

A second key element of Stott and Reicher's (1998a) analysis was to suggest these asymmetries were important because of the ability of one group (i.e., the police) to then impose their understanding of the context onto the other group (i.e., England fans) through relatively undifferentiated forms of coercive police intervention (e.g., baton charges).

This intergroup interaction in turn served to unite large numbers of ordinary England fans and hooligans around a common understanding of "victimhood" and an emergent perception of the legitimacy of violent "retaliation" against the police.

Moreover, this emergent collective identity also empowered England fans, such that retaliation was not only seen as proper but also as possible social action. This retaliation precipitated an upward spiral of conflict, culminating in a large scale riot.

In other words, police expectations of a uniformly violent group acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the effect of their subsequent strategy and tactics on fans' social identity

REPEAT: In other words, POLICE expectations of a uniformly violent group acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the effect of their subsequent strategy and tactics on fans' social identity.

This link may not hot link WHOLE THING so copy and paste it instead:

A Quantitative Study of Public Order, Policing and Crowd Psychology

Additionally, in the attempts to control incidents of football crowd disorder, laws have been created that arguably undermine fundamental civil liberties and human rights.



Re 2011 Van riots: Bob Whitelaw, independent investigator of the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver is incredulous his exhaustive recommendations and warnings were ignored by Vancouver Police Dept.



One month before the Van. 2011 riots, Bob Whitelaw told The Sun in an interview he was concerned about a repeat of the 1994 riot.



Both Vancouver and Ottawa had the potential for dangerous Stanley Cup riots,

... but only ONE city's police force took Bob Whitelaw's advice and stopped mayhem from destroying downtown streets...



When is a simple riot ^NOT a riot?



"Once the incidents began to start, the police, in my opinion, many of them just stood to the side waiting for the next order."



I am dismayed at the calls for curtailing of our liberty because of the riot.

We should not be willing to surrender any of our freedoms or liberty because of the actions of a minority.


Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.
~ Benjamin Franklin, 1706 - 1790



Q What did you recommend in that report that you noticed was not followed through on Wednesday night (Vancouver Riot Night 2011)?

A Number one, we recommended the streets three or four blocks away from any crowd have no parking on them, no cars at all.

Secondly, if a crowd is agitated, as it was in '94 and this time,

agitated by alcohol and also with tear gas,

which is a lethal combination that breaks down people's behaviour, cars will be damaged.



The wrong questions will inevitably get asked in the wake of all this, and the wrong solutions applied.

Expect "tougher policing", and a ramped up culture of intolerance in a city that already turns a blind-eye to a tsunami of social ills.



An investigator who examined the 1994 riots in Vancouver says key recommendations went unheeded by local police. Bob Whitelaw told CTV News that many of the 100 recommendations he helped draft were blatantly disregarded.

Those suggestions include a no-parking zone in the downtown core, something that could have prevented frustrated people from taking their aggression out on parked cars. Whitelaw also recommended that fans should have been quickly dispersed and reminded they have to get out of the downtown zone.

"The police, in many ways, as they did in '94, seemed to be standing around, not taking any pro-action," he said.



Whitelaw said he emailed the Vancouver Police Department on June 1, 2011, with 15 points identified in the 1994 report and pitched himself as a consultant.

He didn't get a reply.

The 1994 B.C. Police Commission report was never released publicly. Reporters who have asked for it since have been told to submit a freedom of information request with the City of Vancouver.

Chu has been stung by criticism that his force should have been better prepared for a potential riot.




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