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Some thoughts on last night

We watched.

We watched on TV. A camera perched somewhere high above the street showed us the scene at the Fanzone on Georgia Street. Wall-to-wall people. We’re glad we’re not there, we murmured.

It was game 5 of the Stanley Playoffs, in Vancouver. I was at the Hurricane Grill in Yaletown — the first bar we’d happened upon showing the game when we hopped off our Aquabus from Granville Island — and I was with a group of urban planning PhD students visiting for a colloquium hosted by profs at my program. Up until now, my investment in the hockey game had been restricted to asking, “What’s the score?” when I passed upon someone transfixed by the sight of little green-blue men scrambling on a white screen for a fast-moving speck of dust. I clapped minimally and made small talk with the other students, asking what their area of focus was and where they’d come from. I know what an icing call is, but I really have little interest in Canucks bandwagonning.

Later, we walked down the Seawall to the Chinatown night market. “Where’s the stadium?” those visiting students asked me. “Where are those crowds?”

Over there, I pointed, vaguely northeast. About … 5 or 6 blocks that way? We later meandered through the downtown eastside — I mistakenly led the group around the block in search of the new 14 Hastings bus and settled for loading them onto a 7 Dunbar instead.

I tracked the mood in the small group I was with, as it shifted over the course of evening. There was a lot of high-fiving going on for the game, of course — people passing us on foot, jubilant after a win on home ice. Parts of our group were nervous but still desiring to see, feel, experience Vancouver. Others in the group wanted to see where the action was and be on the street — the closest we’d come was walking down Abbott near GM Place, but there was ambivalence — the desire to be part of the crowd’s energy, but fear of what it might become as well.

A couple of us mentioned the 1994 riots in passing. There was a sense that we were missing something, but also uncertainty about whether it was something worth missing, or something we would regret. We settled for beers at the Alibi Room, in the basement, the game crowd having long moved on. I left the group waiting in line at the Fortune Sound Club, took my trolley bus the 20 blocks home in my quiet residential neighbourhood, and tucked myself into bed without a care in the world.


I find myself thinking about Game 5 because I had pretty much expected the same for Game 7, win or lose. Maybe a little iffiness here or there, but nothing the police wouldn’t quash in its tracks right away — we’d learned from 1994, right? And we’d shown we could deal with it, as a city, and we were confident we would do it again. Game 7 wouldn’t be different.

These thoughts made watching the actual events of Game 7 that much more startling. To learn that all the civility and positivity of the celebrations would prove to be a rouse was a huge letdown. In its place, broadcast to a city in shock, what people claimed Vancouverites were really made of. Opportunistic, violent, disrespectful displays — doing it for the lolz, mugging for the cameras, the mockery of earned fame.

I agree with everything Alexandra Samuel says in her blog post at HBR.org about what we say about citizen surveillance when we condone its use for this horrific event. I think the key insight and the harsh lesson is that while the riots were not, collectively,  our fault — we have the actual instigators to thank for that, whether they number in the hundreds or the thousands — they are our responsibility to learn from, and to make sure never happen again. All the disowning and finger-pointing in the world based on age, gender, etc. is not going to get the root of the issues and to solve it. Only deep learning and reflection will.

There is so much speculation flying around as to the cause of this. I’m in no position to add to it, but this is the best and most level-headed thing I’ve read on the topic.

I am floored by the outpouring of support for businesses, and social media has proven instrumental in helping people organize themselves into volunteer clean-up crews. I’m also amazed at the stories we are seeing coming out of people who tried to stand up to the looting, smashing crowds. I think Vancouver’s fire and police services did their best, though they were not without fault. And finally, the whole trick with technologies and norms like citizen surveillance is that we can’t just let the cat of the bag when we think we are motivated by it being right. Jonathan Zittrain has made this argument fabulously (this summary makes reference to hockey riots in Montreal in 2008). It will be deployed on us when we like it this time — if we condone its use now, who will be the one to say it is right or wrong next time?

Anyway, getting off social media now sounds like a fantastic idea.

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