Heartbreak and Hooliganism in Vancouver

Between Wednesday night and now, about a million column inches have been devoted to the Stanley Cup riots in my hometown of Vancouver.   The city I live in, and love, got a big black eye that night.  Like so many others I sat transfixed, watching police in full riot gear lobbing flash bangs and pepper spray into crowds right on the streets where I walk every day, where I eat my lunch, pick up my coffee, visit with my friends.  Cars burned outside our beautiful main library, a place I visit several times a week. I buy my books at the Chapters, I shop at Sears and The Bay and I sat watching them being smashed and burned and looted. It was surreal and it made me so angry.

The '"Fan Zone" post Game 7 of the Stanley Cup in Vancouver

Friends who went down to watch the hockey game left during the second period because the crowd was becoming so unruly.  We were texting each other and they described the “fan zone” as being totally overcrowded with people trying to shove their way in past people who had been sitting there for hours. The so called “security” was a joke; people were openly bringing in liquor and drinking in the fan zones.  The downtown bars had been lined up since before they opened, so by game time at 5pm, there were lots of people who had already been drinking all day.   “This place is getting ugly and I’m getting out” was the common thread.  They described fights breaking out in the crowd and zero police presence within the incredibly overcrowded Fan Zone to control anything that was going on.  They were shoved and pushed as people tried to force their way in.  One fan tried to yank the towel they were sitting on out from under them  – because it had the colour yellow on it. They were fully dressed in Canucks colours and sweaters and had just happened to grab a blue and yellow towel and this “fan” of the Canucks wanted to grab it off them and destroy it. And this was BEFORE the game even started.

I left work early and headed back to the North Shore – I’ll admit at the time I was a bit disappointed, but as I walked the streets and got a feel for the crowd, I was no longer disappointed but thankful.   As another friend said to me, “The whole city was different.  You could feel the tension and unrest in the air.  It wasn’t like the other games.  Trouble was brewing and you could feel it”.    I have to agree; as the office buildings emptied early, the city was a sea of Canucks colours, but it wasn’t the happy, excited atmosphere of the past few weeks.  There was anticipation, but you could also sense that the crowed felt defeat was imminent – there was hope too, but not even the most diehard fan would have thought a win anywhere near a sure bet for the Canucks that last game.   And as the same friend said, “If I could sense the troubled atmosphere, which was so pervasive, why could the police and other emergency services not sense that too?”  A great question.

And when trouble started, it exploded in all directions.  I was making notes on my blog as I watched on TV:

Pockets of violence all over the city. People being stabbed. St Paul’s emergency closed because they cannot take any more emergency patients.

Emergency tear gas stations set up at St. Paul’s and VGH

Roving gangs moving from point to point around the city smashing windows, looting.

Buses no longer running in or out of downtown. Skytrain is running outbound trains only but after the initial crush stations are empty and these people are not leaving downtown. The Seabus is running back to the North Shore but no Seabus into the downtown.

Cambie Bridge closed. Burrard and Granville bridges closed to inbound traffic.

As I sit now on Sunday morning writing this, I realize I’m still incredibly angry; angry at the stupid people who tried to destroy the city I love.  I work about 3 blocks from riot central and right outside the Burrard Skytrain station, one of the main transit centres. We have a beautiful courtyard  where we eat lunch and sit in the sun, and that night idiots were wantonly yanking plants out of the gardens and throwing garbage into the fountains (which had to be shut down for the rest of the week) while building security tried in vain to keep the rioters away.   These were not anarchists or a small group of organized hooligans – these were just regular people acting very, very badly.

And that’s what makes me the angriest; the denial.   The police, the Canucks organization, the media or the average person on the street can say it was not “true” hockey fans that did this, but quite frankly I don’t buy it.   I think that to some extent,everyone who was caught up in the Cup run excitement feels just a bit uncomfortable that we are all a tiny bit culpable.  I will freely admit that I’m not a “true” fan, that I’m a total bandwagon jumper, that I don’t regularly follow any sort of professional sports (that’s another whole blogpost) but I was loaned a Canucks sweater and I wore it to work on game days and I, like so many others, left work early and raced home to watch the game.  I was totally caught up in it.  So the thinking, conscious or not, goes along the lines of “I don’t want to be identified with any way, shape or form with those who participated in the rioting – so I guess they can’t be a “true” fan,
because a “true fan” like me wouldn’t do that”.

This shadowy group of organized “anarchists” being blamed for inciting the riot by VPD Chief Chu – I’m calling total bullshit on that one.  Even his own officers are embarrassed at that piece of blatant deflection and the most pathetic attempt at spinning a story I’ve heard in years.  Really, does he think we are all that stupid?  That we didn’t watch all of it live on TV and haven’t seen the thousands of photos and videos posted on the internet? Give us some credit.   That some people came downtown prepared and intent on starting trouble – absolutely.   That they were dressed in hundreds of dollars worth of Canucks gear – again, absolutely.   That they were “disguised anarchists”, not real hockey fans – give me a break.

One image that has stayed with me was about 15 minutes of live footage shot by CBC right outside their studio at about 9pm on Wednesday night.   Across the street in the plaza of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (where people attending Wicked were trapped for hours) a 50ish man got into a heated confrontation with the police.  This was somebody’s dad, an older man, his wife and another couple.  All were dressed head to toe in Canucks gear. Their faces were painted blue and the ladies were wearing, like lots of other people, goofy blue wigs.  They had come downtown to support their team and hopefully be part of an historic victory – Vancouver’s very first Stanley Cup.   I watched as this man pushed and shoved at police in full riot gear.  His wife and friends tried to pull him away, and what struck me was how very, very angry he was.  His face was swollen and red, his eyes literally sticking out; an unrecognizable stranger to his family and friends (at least I hope so).   This continued for about 15 or 20 minutes until one of the ladies took him by the arm and tried to physically pull him away from the police, at which time he threw her to the ground where she lay, not moving. At that point the police jumped in, dealt him a few swift blows with their batons and slapped on the zap straps.

It’s this little vignette that I can’t get out of my mind and find so very troubling. What is it about professional sports that gets the fans to wound up, so angry, that they would behave like this?  And it’s not an isolated incident – its common practice for hockey fans to yell, scream and swear abuse at their TV’s during games.   My poor little dog still runs and hides whenever he hears the music for Hockey Night in Canada come on – in a past life the anger, swearing and yelling during the hockey game was just a regular part of Saturday night in my house.   And among all hockey fans abuse of the on-ice officials is as much a part of the game as what actually happens with the puck.  I once asked a hockey fan whether there had ever, in the history of hockey, been a well refereed game, because from what I’ve seen the answer is no.  I even heard a conspiracy theory being talked around that that NHL had conspired with the referees to call the game against the Canucks because for monetary reasons “they” wanted an Eastern US team to win, not one from the West Coast of Canada.  I’m not kidding.

So far, no mysterious anarchists have been outed or arrested for rioting in Vancouver, but a lot of regular people have been.  The high achieving athlete who was headed for a berth on our Olympic team that was caught stuffing rags in car tailpipes and setting them on fire – people just like that.   Our sons and daughters, our husbands and friends who got caught up in the violence and made a choice, that’s right, a choice,  to stay and participate rather than leave.  Because of the 100,000 people that were downtown that night, I’d guess that 80,000 plus chose to, and were able to leave, but the rest of the people down there made a decision to stay and participate.   Standing in front of a burning car or a looted store laughing and snapping pictures is no better than actually setting fires, smashing windows or running off with stolen property.  By participating they condoned those actions.   There are no excuses and one of the bright lights in all this is that by and large there has been no acceptance by their peers of their actions. It’s friends and acquaintances who are turning in and tagging photos of the rioters  – calling them out and shaming them for their actions.  And for that bit of sanity, in the midst of the craziness, I’m profoundly thankful.

These are my own thoughts and opinions and I don’t think they will win any popularity contests.  But being a highly democratic person, differing points of view are more than welcome, I’d love to hear them.

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