June 22, 2011

I was working the evening shift at The Vancouver Sun the night the first hockey riot broke out.

Depressed about the Canucks losing, we’d just about finished laying out the front page and “put the paper to bed”. Then news came in that a mob was forming at Robson and Thurlow, with drunken fans climbing lampposts and breaking windows.

It was June 14, 1994, and as assistant design editor, I was responsible for laying out the front page and selecting and editing the pictures the photographers brought back. We were still using negatives, then, of course, peering over them carefully with a loupe, selecting the sharpest and the best.

As the night wore on, we stripped apart the front page and inside pages to add more and more dramatic photos of the rioters and the riot police. We worked flat out until 1:30 a.m., doing a triple chaser for the paper.

Media photographers and broadcasters were really the only ones at the riot scene in 1994 and our negatives showed people climbing lampposts, wrecking and looting stores, and assaulting police officers.

That night, we didn’t really have time to analyze the reasons for the riot, or even the consequences of having captured evidence of people committing crimes.

But the next day, I remember how protective we felt about the negatives, and how we even considered hiding them. In our department, we didn’t want to hand them over to the police. We were worried that it would turn our photographers into targets for criminals in the future and also wanted to protect the civil liberties of those photographed, even those committing crimes. That time, the riot police seemed to have charged in aggressively, as well, and we didn’t quite trust the police not to massage their own role in the riot.

I’m sure there was also a less appealing competitive ego aspect to it too: they were OUR negatives.

Of course, the police did come calling, demanding that The Vancouver Sun hand over negatives from that night. “Not without a court order,” our managing editor at the time said, and we were all pleased.

The police came back with signed bits of paper, and the negatives were dutifully handed over in the end. I felt indignant and uncomfortable at the time, and had a good rant. “So much for media freedom. Is this a police state we’re living in? How dare they? “ etc., etc.

Seventeen years later, we have another riot but this time everyone is falling over themselves to name and shame the culprits. The Province even ran pages of pictures of the culprits, the police phone number and a story: “Do the right thing and report the rioters.

I’m not quite sure why I feel so uncomfortable about all this naming and shaming. Maybe it’s because it feels hypocritical, and maybe it’s because I feel there should be a healthy distance between the police and its citizens.

My second thought is that very few of those doing the naming and shaming are 100 per cent innocent themselves. And that includes myself.

I happened to be biking back through the downtown after teaching near Terminal and Main last Wednesday, shortly after the game finished. Police had closed my usual route over the Dunsmuir viaduct, so I went along Pender and cut up Homer to find my bus stop.

“Don’t go that way, there’s tear gas,” one of the bystanders told me. I headed up to Granville anyway and walked along to The Bay, surrounded by the crowds and looking at the huge black spire of smoke from burning cars in amazement.

It was very different seeing a riot live, and not via a negative loupe while inspecting negatives safely inside the Vancouver Sun building. But you know what? As riots go, it was a pretty tame event compared with the Brixton riots in London, which I covered as a journalist in the 1980s. I didn’t really feel threatened for my safety last week, and just gave a wide berth to any idiots looking for trouble.

Around each small group of troublemakers, a huge crowd had developed, enjoying excellent free theatre. Virtually everyone was taking photos and videos and these are the photos being used now to name and shame the culprits. These same people chose to stay and watch.

I walked with my bike down to Dunsmuir again to avoid the crowds. And one block away from the rioting, everything was peaceful. So I know that anyone who wanted to escape the rioting, could do so easily.

Back on Granville, the bus stops had incredible line-ups, so I gave up waiting for a bus and biked over to West Vancouver, passing numerous couples and groups of friends doing the same thing, all wearing hockey sweaters and enjoying the end of the day. By the time I arrived in West Vancouver, it was as though nothing had happened, apart from the crowded buses.

Overall, the riot was a spectacle, and I enjoyed being at the scene of live news, at the centre of things. I always do. I’d like to think I’m 100 per cent innocent of causing trouble that night, but maybe it’s more like 90 or 95 per cent. I understand the allure of being in a crowd and if I’d been younger, I might have stayed to watch longer and take some stunning photos, too. As it was, I felt simply sad at what was happening to my city.

And that brings me to my third point: I think one of the reasons why most of us feel so sad about the riot is that it broke the unspoken contract between the city, the police and ourselves. The contract that says we’ll let you have fun if you behave yourself. The Vancouver police and other agencies handled the Olympic crowds so well, and were models of restraint this time around, and we didn’t fulfil our end of the bargain.

The bottom line is, we can’t be trusted to do the right thing.