The G20 Protests vs. the Canucks Riot

Posted on June 17, 2011

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Comparisons between the two are flying fast and furious on Twitter, so I think it’s time to lay out some basic facts. I’m feeling lazy tonight, so I’m going to go over the similarities, most of which are pretty superficial, in point form:

  • Both riots originated from events that are entirely acceptable and even praiseworthy. Peaceful protest directed at world leaders is fundamental to democracy, and public commiseration after a crushing defeat in an important hockey game can do a lot to bring a city together.
  • Both were caused by a comparatively small group of asshats who decided to take advantage of the crowds in order to act out their childish whims, to the detriment of everybody else around.
  • Both groups of asshats were cowards who were quite happy to blend into the larger crowd after they had acted out their childish whims.
  • Superficially speaking, the targets were similar: mailboxes, department store windows and cars. That’s probably because these are the easiest targets to be found on any given urban street.
  • In both cases, the police utterly failed to contain the mob and stop the violence.

That’s about it. Now let’s look at the differences. There are two big ones that come to mind, the first being that the rioters in Vancouver were not anarchists. This can’t be stated strongly enough. Anarchists do not loot department stores, and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing corporate merchandise from a hockey team. When the black bloc gets together to break shit, they are almost certainly sober. Not so with the rioters in Vancouver, many of whom could barely walk. Perhaps most importantly, the Anarchist Black Bloc does not physically attack people. They attack property, and they might throw a few bottles at the police, and those are all terrible, obnoxious things to do, but they are not out to cause injury. Anarchists tend to make a very explicit distinction between violence against property and violence against people, being strongly in favour of the former and against the latter. That in itself is an important distinction between the two events: The only people who caused injury during the G20 weekend were the police. The rioters in Vancouver, however, had no qualms about physically attacking people who stood in their way.

The other important distinction between the two events is the response. The 36 hours following the G20 riot saw the arrest of over 1100 people, most of whom were peaceful protesters, journalists or innocent bystanders, and all of whom were taken to a detention centre run by the world’s worst logistics personnel, where they were kept handcuffed for no reason, strip-searched as a punishment, and not given enough to eat or drink. I wasn’t in Vancouver today, and so I may have my facts wrong, but I think we all would have heard if the Vancouver police were currently engaged in rounding up everybody wearing a Canucks jersey.

The G20 riots were less destructive, but suffered a harsher crackdown. Why is this? The easiest answer is that the Toronto police had more people on hand for the G20 than the Vancouver police had for the Stanley Cup, and so a brutal crackdown was easier to orchestrate. There is probably a grain of truth in that explanation, but I think there is something deeper at work here. Canucks fans cannot be rounded up wholesale because the vast majority of Vancouverites, including the police, are Canucks fans. During the past two weeks or so the vast majority of the country have been Canucks fans. Not only would the Vancouver police have their work cut out for them; they would be facing a political shit-storm like no other when the populist hockey-rage found its way back to them. This is not the case with the often ignored and perpetually misunderstood left-wing activists commonly found congregating around political summits.

The lesson here is that the intentions, motivations, and socio-political makeup of a crowd are at least as important in determining the police response to them as their actual behaviour. A mob of drunk, angry hockey fans can get away with some pretty nasty stuff because they represent a greater cross-section of society than a mob of radical left-wingers who mostly did nothing wrong. This fact has been known by members of marginalized communities for decades, but case studies like this bring it into sharp relief for the rest of us. The old adage that the police enforce the law rather than writing it is clearly not entirely true. Laws are enforced according to the political demand for laws to be enforced. And that’s a problem.

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