The Vancouver Hockey Riots: What Comes Next?
If hindsight really is 20/20, then now is the time to deconstruct the events surrounding the riots that ensued following the Canuck’s dramatic loss during a mega-party in the downtown core. Vancouver needs to know what went wrong. This dialogue is more than a cathartic exercise; it is a necessary step to ensuring Vancouver moves through this with the capability to deal with the situation better the next time it has the potential to occur. Moreover, it is not only Vancouver who can learn from this important and tragic lesson. Cities all over the world have suffered from the mob mentality that brings this kind of destruction following sporting events or politically charged occurrences. When this happens, it is just as important to have the foresight to put together a plan for the public as it is to have a plan of action in place for the police.
The Vancouver City Police have been trained to deal with these situations by using the experiences of past riots to devise the best method to diffuse them. In the case of the Vancouver riot, the plan was for a patient containment of the crowd, with their safety being the first objective. Very little emphasis was put on stopping the destruction of property. This methodology saves lives and lessens the number of physical injuries during these incidences. While business owners may prefer a more aggressive plan where rioters are confronted as they commit property damage and theft, that sort of confrontation does inevitably lead to more injuries and a longer period of conflict. The VPD used the correct plan in Vancouver on June 15th -one that had been tried and tested in many other mass-social disturbances the world over. It is the best method to date when dealing with this anti-social behaviour. The riot was contained and dispersed in half the time it took to end the last riot in Vancouver in 1994. Considering the number of people involved and the danger posed by the fires and violence, there were not that many serious injuries sustained by the public or the police. Furthermore, the police were not accused of using excessive force, which is quite important in an era where police integrity has been compromised and questioned on many recent occasions. We can call the plan implemented by the police a success; but, what about the plan for the crowds? We didn’t have one.
The potential volatility of the situation at hand should have inspired the city, the NHL, the police or perhaps even the media to offer a plan of action for the attendees in the event of a riot. This type of dialogue should really have begun before the Olympics, when Vancouver began to host mega-parties and the possibility for social unrest from a variety of sources could have occurred. When you gather hundreds of thousands of individuals into your downtown core, things can go wrong, as we have just seen. It doesn’t have to be violence inspired from a lost hockey game either. The anarchist groups that brought us the violence during the Olympics and now have bragged about having been instigators in this riot prove there are those who are willing to impose a violent agenda when the city is prone. These groups are learning from these incidences as well and it’s not just anarchists that are watching either. The faction that quickly moved in to loot London Drugs, Chapters, The Hudson Bay Company and Future Shop were a little too prepared for this event for it not to have been premeditated. These were criminals who came downtown with the intent to steal with the impunity and anonymity this kind of opportunity offers. In this day and age, there is always the possibility of a terrorist attack during one of these events as well. A car bomb going off can cause massive panic in a crowd as large as the one we saw on Wednesday night. When you’re in a crowd such as this and things go sideways, what do you do? That’s the question that should have been answered before the party was underway.
The police have informed us that it was only a small contingent of troublemakers that instigated the violence, theft and destruction. That may be true, but it is the crowd of onlookers that enabled this to happen. Statements made by innocent people who were caught up in the crowds have showed us that most of them wanted to get out but didn’t know how. They were afraid to leave the throngs of people and wander into the periphery, as they didn’t know what violence awaited them on these side streets, out of the view of the police. Buses were not running and rumours that the Skytrain was disabled spread quickly. If they had known what to do and where to go, the small contingent of troublemakers would have been left without the buffer the thousands of onlookers provided.
Before any event like this, and during it, a media campaign should have been organized to explain what to do in the event of a riot or any other type of mass social disturbance. Alcohol, drug and weapon-free “Safe Zones” should have been organized with emergency medical care available and possibly even organized transportation out of the downtown core. People joining in on the mega-party should have known exactly what to do. This information campaign could have been implemented with a dialogue in the media and flyers handed out through the crowds by “Safety Officers” that would be clearly distinguishable in the crowds. The flyers could even pay for themselves with advertisements by local businesses who might also be involved in creating the safety zones. It should have been explained to the public that cameras, both public and private, would be capturing everything that took place and criminals would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The greatest deterrent for crime is the certainty of prosecution. The public should also be made aware of the dangers caused by remaining in the zone of conflict. Just because you only took pictures of the window being kicked in, doesn’t mean you aren’t partially morally responsible. Your presence provided the cover for the crime to be committed. In any dialogue regarding this issue, it is important to tell people not to try and save material items targeted for destruction or theft. Getting between the rioters and the windows of a business might seem like a heroic thing to do (and it was), but it is very, very dangerous. It isn’t worth it to get beat up, stabbed or shot to save a Louis Vuitton handbag.
The old adage, “an ounce of prevention” rings true on this occasion and it’s not too late to take that wisdom to heart. Vancouver will again host these kinds of events, hopefully, and when they do, it would be nice if we were all prepared for any outcome. We are all angry right now and justice for the perpetrators is first on our list, but I wouldn’t count on the courts to stop this from happening again, here or anywhere else. There will always be a contingent willing to abuse this kind of situation. Next time, we should be ready for them –both the police and the public.