Friday, June 17, 2011

Thirty-six hours after Vancouver’s latest hockey riot and the question on everybody’s mind is, How did this happen?

For some, it is as literal as a loss: the local team blew it, and the crowd went nuts. For others, like Mayor Gregor Robertson, it was a specific group, “a bunch of losers” who came downtown with only trouble in mind. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason has pointed to “professional anarchists,” like those who smashed windows along Georgia Street during the Olympics, while B.C. Police Commission report co-author Bob Whitelaw blames the VPD for their “complacency, apathy and denial.”

What I find surprising in all this finger waving is the lack of consideration given to the thousands who stood around and watched, a spectatorship so awesome in its physical presence, yet so indifferent to its ability to alter the course of events as to remind me of the Eloi in H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine (1895).

For those unfamiliar with Wells’s story, a man travels to the year 802,701 A.D. where he encounters a pastoral community of childlike people who, periodically, are lured to a cave by a wailing work whistle and enslaved by the troll-like Morlocks. The first time the time-traveller hears this whistle, he is shocked by the Eloi’s somnambulism, just as he was shocked earlier that day when the Eloi stood by and watched as one their own was drowning.

Wells’s story of the Eloi is analogous to those who, at the end of the nineteenth century, did not question the conditions of the capitalist mode and, just as somnambulistically, trudged off to work in the mines. Now, I am not saying that these spectators are on par with the Eloi, but their number did have bearing on what happened, just as a reader has a hand in the production of a text. That this ostensibly benign crowd is not explored further as co-author of our latest riot shows how little those who comment on such things care about our world.

Thirty-six hours after Vancouver’s latest hockey riot and the question on my mind is, Why is the public discussion of what happened the other night so limited?


  1. Michael, I would like to disagree with the idea that the discussion of the hockey riot was "limited." The initial reaction was unquestionably limited, as I gathered from listening to the Vancouver radio stations (CKNW and CBC) on the Internet the day after. Yes, it was the same blank disbelief and outrage (that you mention) at first, but then some interesting attempts at analysis followed.

    In particular, I was interested in the article regarding the "Disconnect between cyberworld and real world" in The Province, and the myriad other articles that discussed the role of Web 2.0 in Internet-era vigilantism. Likewise, the incredible photos published by The National Post painted a very distinct story with their own bit of visual rhetoric (yes, photos can lie, but there was an eerie similarity in all the photos I could find online--it eventually made me nauseous). (There was also an interesting twist on the photos with that middle-class, polo-playing kid who turned himself in.)

    From reports about the crews of volunteers who gathered to help clean up the streets of Vancouver the morning after, to Jimmy Chu's ineptitude, to ironic YouTube videos (such as the infamous "Anarchist Riot Headquarters Discovered"), a serious discussion had begun almost as soon as the shockwaves of our sheltered mentalities allowed us to begin thinking. I quit Facebook years ago, but I'm willing to venture a bet that after the "Look, ma, I'm lighting a police car on fire." posts had subsided, discussion has emerged (albeit, probably in the Facebook lingo du jour).

    To get back to the question of what delayed the reporting and analysis: When I discussed the hockey riot with Derek, he insisted that there were three well-defined groups of participants: group one consisted of the instigators who cleverly manipulated group two (the easily-influenced youth) and group three (the equally easily-influenced, enraged, and alcohol-fuelled adult hockey fans) towards a point of no return at which group one was free to perpetrate their nefarious acts of B&E.

    Although this is an interesting theory, I think the thing none of us can get over is the fact that simple mob mentality overpowered the good reason and otherwise normative instincts of ordinary, middle-class citizens. This is why the first reaction of all Vancouverites, no matter how far we were from the epicenter, was just to drop our jaws. It's not that we do not "question the conditions of the capitalist mode"; it's that (engage cliché mode) we do not question who we are, fundamentally, with relation to ourselves as whole human beings, and with relation to the place where we live.

    Last term I took a course in ecocriticism, here at UWaterloo, and was almost crucified for arguing that the Individual is what drives all in all areas of wants and needs, actions and consequences. "No!" argued my well-meaning classmates, for whom the desired state of affairs had effectively substituted the de facto egocentrism that has, by now, all by devoured the planet whole...and this is where we stand. You're probably going to rebuke me on this, but no measure of bike lanes, composting, or fair-trade coffee is going to solve our problems until we admit who we really are with the lights dimmed and three drinks under our belts.

  2. Sorry for spamming your blog. I've been reading Foucault's Madness and Civilization all evening, and an interesting quotation suggested itself: "For madness, even if it is provoked or sustained by what is most artificial in society, appears, in its violent forms, as the savage expression of the most primitive human desires."