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Riots in Vancouver

2011 June 16

As many of my readers will know, the streets of downtown Vancouver erupted into riots last night, mostly directed at property but also some interpersonal violence, after our hockey team lost the championship game. The mainstream and social media that I’ve come across has widely characterized the riots as the work of a tiny minority of moronic hooligans. To invoke an idea that I got from the late, great Geoffrey Rose, the most violent members of the crowd are only the tail end of a continuous distribution that includes all of us. I sent the following letter to the editors of a few major newspapers to explain this perspective. UpdateThe National Post printed it.


Dear editors,

Most commentary on last night’s Vancouver riots assumes two distinct types of people in Vancouver: peaceful citizens and moronic hooligans. However, I spent the evening watching the riots from an apartment building near the epicentre, and any “hooligans” were only the tip of an iceberg.

Some walked away early; some stayed to watch, or to record; some did so while grinning, joking, or cheering; some considered joining in, but were talked out of it by their surprised friends; some wanted, just once, to throw a bit of garbage into a crowd; some looted only after others smashed the window; some joined a crowd to tip a car, others initiated the tipping of a car, others torched cars; some picked fights with cops, others picked fights with ordinary people just for wearing a Bruins shirt. Many of the latter looked to many of the former for validation and encouragement.

Peace merges gradually into violence, and a great many people fall somewhere in the middle. They may have instigated nothing, but their implicit approval fuelled the fire; or they wouldn’t normally do anything like this, but they are suggestible under the right social circumstances; or they might be on a path towards more extreme behaviour in the future. Dismissing this outbreak as solely the work of an isolated minority accomplishes nothing. Preventing a recurrence requires understanding why so many people take pleasure in destruction, even if just vicariously, and why so many people are susceptible to a temporary shift of social norms. The answers do not involve only the deviant few: they involve us all.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011 June 16 19:08

    “Dear sirs”? I’m assuming that was a typo and you meant to say “Dear editors”.

    Otherwise, really great letter.

    • 2011 June 16 19:25

      Thank you, you’re right. “Dear sirs” is traditional, and I’ve come across some contexts where “sir” seems to be not necessarily gendered (analogous to how “actor” can now refer to females too), but I guess it usually is, so it’s better avoided.

    • 2011 June 16 19:47

      I suppose it all depends on context. My first impression upon reading (let’s pretend I don’t know you) was that the letter was addressed to a group of men, presumably because the author thinks editors of all newspapers are men.

      But I can think of many instances where I would not be offended by the plural masculine form used to refer to a mixed-gender group, e.g. “hey guys”, “these actors”, etc.

  2. 2011 June 17 05:59

    Very nicely put. I especially appreciate your contribution of an interesting and novel (not commonly expressed, at least) idea to the conversation. To it I’d only add the possible additional explanation of group conformity; that unhelpful vestige of human nature presumably arising from human evolution in mainly small groups that succeeded by defense from outside groups. There is huge pressure exerted by one’s immediate peers to play along and individuals’ resultant great fear of rejection and social exclusion. From this, I believe, arises acute, horrific violence against close neighbours with (often constructed) identifiable differences: genocides in Rwanda, the Balkans, Cambodia, Europe, the Americas, the list goes on. But the tendency to primarily identify with our immediate peers may also explain the chronic and no less horrific structural violence arising from the difficulty a great many of us have empathizing with people far away, overseas, down South, up North, Downtown, East Side, living lives remote in many respects from ours.

    Thanks for taking the initiative to write this up and send it out, Andrew. Please update us if it gets picked up.

    • 2011 June 17 09:51

      It’s true. More than any reaction to the outcome of the game (except by default) or tribal warfare between supporters of either team, my sense downtown was that in a massive crowd (which provides a large validating audience), destruction becomes possible; in a city with a history of riots before, destruction is expected; and then as soon as it’s happening and nobody is stopping it (out of fear of rejection or retaliation) and some people are cheering it on, it immediately becomes accepted.

  3. Georgina permalink
    2011 June 17 15:37

    Well said. Was heartened to see brave young women standing up to the marauding crowds as well as the crowds of people cleaning up the streets of Vancouver early Thursday.

  4. 2011 July 29 02:43

    I just stumbled upon this now but really appreciate your eloquent contribution (and Geoffrey Rose quote) Andrew and am so glad that it got published in a national forum! I also really enjoyed the healthy debate it provoked which has made me miss you, SB and MG and the different perspectives/ideas you share so very very much!

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