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.
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.
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.