Forget Freud, Forget Marx. Rioting, above all, is fun.

Everyone is over-thinking the Vancouver riots way too much


Photograph by Simon Hayter

White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own

— The Clash, “White Riot”

There is nothing better than a good old-fashioned downtown hockey riot to get everyone’s ideology pumps working overtime. Probably the most predictable analysis came from Adrian Mack and Miranda Nelson over at the Georgia Straight, who took a bus in from 1969 and blamed the alienating character of capitalism. In trashing the downtown of their own city, the rioters were simply rehearsing the violence that is inherent in the system: “The market practices institutional violence on every single one of us, every day, just by virtue of existing,” they write. Meanwhile, demonstrating the law of conservation of rhetoric that holds that for every idiocy there is an equal and opposite idiot, Don Cherry apparently claimed that the Vancouver rioters were left-wing pinkos (which, come to think of it, is not necessarily at odds with the Mack/Nelson view of things.)

Getting into the shallower ends of the thought pool, the Vancouver police officially blamed “anarchists” for starting the riot, and drunken youth for making it worse. And in a column that has been widely circulated and praised as the best thing written on the riots, National Post sportswriter Bruce Arthur took the most direct route, daring to suggest that of course the rioters were hockey fans, largely those possessed of an overload of “machismo and rage and nihilism.”

Arthur is closest to getting it right, but even he feels the urge to take it further, wondering what it is about the Lower Mainland, why  “this strain of poison leaches from a city that, while it has a bright line between rich and poor that grows brighter every day, is generally a good place.”

Everyone, Arthur included, is over-thinking this way too much: Any proper discussion of the riot and why it occurred has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun. The only reason there isn’t more of it is that if you do it by yourself or in a small group, you’ll almost certainly get caught. It’s like the old joke about owing the bank money: If you do five million dollars damage to downtown, you’re in big trouble. If a hundred thousand people do five million dollars to downtown, the city is in big trouble.

The point is that if you can get enough people to riot, then you all get away with it. The trick, then, is getting enough people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time, to create a tipping point effect. And so when it comes to starting a riot, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem.

A coordination problem is a situation where all the relevant actors have a common goal, but there is imperfect information. We are collectively trying to achieve the same general outcome, but don’t know how each person is going to act to get to it. In the 1950s,  the economist Thomas Schelling described a situation in which two people wish to meet in New York City on a given day, but cannot communicate the time or place at which they should meet. How should they act? He suggested that beneath the clock at Grand Central Station at noon would be an ideal time and place– this is what he called a “focal point” for coordination. (He no longer believes this to be the case, though; it is interesting to think of where the focal point would be in New York City today, or in a given city of your choice.)

Back to the riot: Particular events, like Stanley Cup Game Sevens, become natural social focal points for  “reliable riots” — or reliable opportunities to riot. This is especially so once a city has an established reputation for hosting (and to some extent tolerating) riots: this is what is going on in both Montreal and Vancouver, in contrast with Edmonton and Calgary, for example.

Once a city becomes a known focal point for rioting, then a bunch of people show up to just to riot (indeed, they will even  travel great distances to do so), precisely because they know that a bunch of other people are also going to be showing up to riot. This is exactly what happened with the G20 in Toronto (and the antiglobalization stuff in general) and what happens now with the Stanley Cup final.

In principle, social media have the capacity to increase the amount of rioting, since “flash mob” technology can be used to solve the coordination problem – there is probably some of this at work in the Arab spring protests.  On the other hand, technology also tends to work against the rioters, by reducing the impunity that comes with the anonymity of crowds. The most important thing the Toronto police did, with the G20 riots, was not all the head-cracking and detentions, but going after people who were photographed committing crimes. The Vancouver police are currently gathering videos and images of the rioters and crowdsourcing their identities. They won’t catch everyone, but they will probably identify enough people that it will serve as a huge deterrent to future riots.

In the meantime, the chief lesson is to keep in mind that there is no reason to delve into the depths of class warfare, or to psychoanalyze the culture or the city, when there is a far simpler explanation for what is going on. As a rule of thumb, never invoke Freud or Marx when Hobbes is at hand.


Forget Freud, Forget Marx. Rioting, above all, is fun.

  1. In order to boost ratings the CBC and other media decided to to elevate the final series of this increasingly brutal and violent sport to the level of a national cause in the quest for a more fervent unthinking level of Canadian unity. Night after night we got huge sections of the national newscast devoted to this event no matter whether really important things were happening in the Canada and the world.
    I was shocked that long before the riots, newscasts would put microphones and cameras in front of painted imbeciles shouting and screaming in a sick twisted version of devotion to Canada’s team and by implication Canada itself. The CBC stirred a lot of this attitude of blind wild hooligan behaviour long before the final game. Now they are pointing fingers everywhere else. 
    And finally after the series is over a nice story about how the east coast mainly supports Boston, and so the whole two week Canada’s team nonsense was a lie from the start. Great ratings though.

    • If it wasn’t for Hockey the CBC would be dead

      • I watch and listen to the CBC all the time, except when the HOCKEY game is on

        • That is because you are a REBEL!

        • I only watch the CBC for Hockey Night in Canada and the Rick Mercer Report (and that’s only for “Shooters”). I have pretty much pulled in my antennae and decided to find something else to occupy my time. We’re only here for four score and ten, if we’re lucky. 

    • Note the CBC logo on the poster being held by the person in the photo which accompanies this article. Didn’t notice it at first.

    • Like the article said, over thinking way too much and trying to tie in what happened to your own political theorys.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  Simplistic but true.

      • On The National Friday night, the CBC invited viewers to visit their website where they could see, and I quote, 
        “A panoramic video which puts you right in the centre of the riot”.

  2. Young men…beer, testosterone, and a disappointing loss, so anger.

    Add to that this new cultural ‘tude we’re fostering….phrases like….’in yo face’….’own the podium’….’kick ass’….’lefty pinkos’…..’killing scumbags’….’rock em sock em’…..and the recipe is complete for a mob mentality.

    One man was knocked down and stomped by the crowd…very un-Canadian. At least in the culture we used to have.

    • in yo face? kick ass? lulz

      • Yup….Vancouver was lotsa

        • No, but your comment is funny

          • K….just summing up a ‘tude

          • I think Potter gets it right – I never did anything as over-the-top as lighting a police car on fire, or looting a store but when I was 20-21 years old and super-pissed up, I did some stupid things…. so I guess the first part of your  comment (beer and testosterone) is right.

          • @TSYM:disqus 
            The part that concerns me is where is all the anger coming from?  Anger to the point of violence.

            We are a wealthy society….the majority are not deprived or in hopeless poverty or discriminated against.  And the future is wide open for them…they can get an education, travel anywhere, go into careers that didn’t exist just a few years ago…..we’re not Somalia or Iran…so what are people so angry about?

          • Emily you are right about opportunity, safety, lack of challenge etc. It’s all dished up on a platter for them and what’s more they don’t need to experience adversity, failure or anything like that and that’s the problem.
            Challenges are what makes us appreciate life, take away the challenge and it’s a saccharine, MacDonaldsisation of life. Life becomes the median or even the mean and ambition is forgotten.
            Ambition is critical, the need to improve and improve society and take risks is what gives life its flavour. Take away the unexpected the dangerous, the risky and what is the point?
            This was the attempt of some of the pampered and spoon fed to experience raw emotion. To feel alive. To the young the virtues you espouse are boring and dull, it takes a few whacks to appreciate them. But until you have had those whacks, well it’s so tedious.
            As the poet wrote, “I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all.”

          • @openid-71016:disqus 

            Well that guy on a scholarship from U of Calgary photo’d torching a police car is about to experience a great deal of challenge and raw emotion. LOL

    • Leave it to you to make ridiculously overreaching references to own the podium and Afghanistan.  Reading comprehension FAIL.

      So when is it that we had this “other culture”?   The 1994 riot happened with a Liberal government in Ottawa and a NDP provinical government in BC.  Violence and misbehaviour has been with us since we were living in caves.  Get a grip.

      • You could be the poster boy for the ‘chip on the shoulder’ crowd.

        • The fact that one has a problem with head-smacking, eyeball-rolling, ideologically-driven hyperbole does not mean that one has a chip on one’s shoulder.

          Just sayin’.

          • Yes,  you post ‘head-smacking, eyeball-rolling, ideologically-driven hyperbole’ all the time….and you do it with a ‘tude.

            Which makes you the poster boy for it.

            Jes sayin’

          • When did you start posting in a Jamican accent?

    • Ah yes, the “culture we used to have,” the culture that rioted and attacked Jews after a minor league baseball game. That culture? How about the culture that rioted after Rocket Richard was suspended, maybe that’s the culture that changed?

      This sort of violence may not be common in Canada but it certainly isn’t new.

      • There are always idiots, but the mainstream culture was quite different.

        Canadian politeness is a global byword….or was.

        • Poor Emily; not only living in the past, but in a candy-coated fantasyland version of it, at that.

          • Your talking points haven’t arrived?

            You’ve overused that one….keep up willya?

      • There have always been thugs, I agree.  The difference now is that we have “intelligent, well brought up” idiots from upper middle class backgrounds who have been raised in total unreality.  They have never experienced consequences for their actions and as someone who has to deal with the little a holes entering the workforce I fear for the future.  These idiots not only riot and engage in stupid distruction but aren’t even bright enough to hide their faces which are posted on line for years.  No wonder some are going to the extent of changing their names when trying to get a job.  A generation of losers.  No wonder 60% of CEOs in Canada are coming up with programs to retain older workers as they can’t get junior to integrate into the workforce.  “Work my way up!!!  Mommy didn’t tell me that”

        • you mean those CEOs with their BIG bonuses, salaries and expense accounts who  rape and plunder the planet with their endeavors?
          great role models,eh!

        • Riiiight. Because the rioters in ’54 (when the Rocket was suspended) or in ’94 were so much more clever than the rioters last week? Come on. Idiots are idiots. 

          Might the drive to retain older workers have more to do with the economic reality that the mass retirement of baby boomers will lead to enormous holes in the workforce because there just aren’t as many young people?

          Sure, there are plenty of stupid young people but that’s always been the case. 

    • We’re sounding more like Americans, eh?

      • Yup….but then again a great deal of money and effort has been put into making us sound more ‘American’.

  3. While a simple explanation for human behaviour often appears too elegant to ignore, it rarely holds up to sustained analysis. Young drunk males are a great catalyst for a riot but require several other factors in place before the first window is broken.

    The only factual error I’d point out in your piece is an overestimation of the opportunistic rioters at the G20 summit in Toronto. One hour of focussed vandalism was not the cause of mob mentality, rather the deliberate actions of a focussed group of perpetrators. Most of the weekend was spent in passive resistance to the shock of the extreme over-reaction by law enforcement occupying the city.

    • Disagree.  The people who showed up to watch the party in reality aided the black block by being there and alowing them to blend back into them.  They protected them by being there and not outing them.  How many times do the police have to tell people to disperse?  By being there in my opinion they were no better than the thugs, just like the rabid eyed middle agers and others who helped wreck downtown Vancouver.

      •  these are 2 very different scenarios
        the G20 was a peace march
        not a blood sport

      • “The people who showed up to watch the party” you mean the people exercising their constitutional right to protest?

  4. Andrew has a point.  One way of looking at this thing is as a glorified “home wrecker” party, which a certain breed of young males goes in for big time.  The only difference is, with most home wrecker parties, the scale of destruction is smaller and more concentrated.  Still, it’s also clear that a certain class of professional rioters and looters were involved, as well as hard-core anarchists.  People who come downtown with fire accelerant etc. in their backpacks are quite a step removed from your average young male yahoo out to let off steam.

    • so where are the photos of these guys?
      idon’t see any black blocers
      just youth  like the Maple Ridge Dr’s son

      • I’ve seen several people in riot photos in the classic black get-up.  I agree that drunk, testosterone-charged young men were the bulk of the damage-doers, but I think Jim Chu might be right that the instigators….the people who effectively made it ok for the drunken mob to to start wrecking stuff….were the same anarchists behind the Olympic vandalism.  

  5. “this strain of poison leaches from a city that, while it has a bright line between rich and poor that grows brighter every day, is generally a good place.”
    Arthur is pretty much bang on in both his assessment of the real cause of the Green Melee and in the vivid quote above. Vancouver is a beautiful, often opulent place. But every visit there confirms the vestigial remnant of its  rough n’ tumble port town past. No Fun City, indeed.

    • Never been there so won’t comment much on the place, but over 800 grand average home price? True? What does that tell us?

  6. It seems as if the previous riot somehow gave people “permission” to have another one–in the sense that large scale destruction such as this would be unthinkable in most cities, but not in those which had a precedent. I think certain people came prepared for this, and if the team had won they would have done the same things.

    • I agree that the 1994 riot set a precedent.  That riot has almost been elevated to the stuff of legend, as it’s brought up by the media every time a big event is set to happen downtown. 

      I do feel good about two things though:   First of all, the lingering legacy of this riot will be the outrage of average Vancouverites and the almost mob-like desire to root out and get revenge on the perpetrators.  While some of that is getting a little creepy in it’s own right, it will certainly serve as a deterant to anyone thinking of doing this again.

      Secondly, for all the criticism, I thought the Vancouver police were fantastic. After being — I would say fairly – criticized in ’94 for escalating the situation, their patience and restraint was a beautiful contrast to the thug-like mentality that dominated the G20.  When people are hell-bent on destroying property, there’s only so much you can do to stop them without risking innocent lives.  The cops I think did the best a force could do in a bad situation, and I really think they deserve more credit than they’re getting. 

  7. The Canucks threw it away with that fist check to the back of the head. This is more of the same.

  8. It’ll be interesting to find out to what degree this was organized or simply spontaneous. There certainly seems to be evidence of a planned assault on the city, which is worrying. I remember being quite shocked to find out how organized so called spontaneous riots were in Berlin when i lived there; they even went to the trouble of trucking in and stategically piling loads of rocks for the throwing of – how’s that for an organized mob? 
    Hopefully the morons have gone too far this time – posing for pics and bragging on facebook. I wonder if it will even be possible to shame some of these clods? They should certainly be made to pay for every cent of damage they’ve done. [I just wish there was a way to banish them from the city.] 
    The damage to Vancouver’s reputation is another matter. I’m glad to see some of the media highlighting the volunteers who came out to help clean up, sign bill boards with expressions of regret, remorse and anger. And the few lonely brave folks who tried their best to stop it.
    That wasn’t the real Vancouver on display – i’m there every summer – it’s a great city; a beautiful city and a tolerant city – maybe even a little too tolerant at times.

    • au contraire
      the beauty of the city is marred by all the traffic6^
      i feel like i’m in a war zone everytime i go there and the suburbs are worse with wall to wall malls and everybody drives everywhere
      we ignore the violence created by our car culture

  9. Having attended Saturday afternoon football matches in England in the 80s, you are right it’s fun.
    I also have to agree with beer and testosterone thing as being a sound foundation for mob violence. It reduces the inhibitions and lowers the thresholds for certain behaviour. Throw in a focal point that allows a large homogenous group to gather together, then include a tribal identity motif and you have a keg ready to blow. All you need then is a bad result and/or the wrong person saying the wrong thing at the right time and it’s a go.
    Add to that the inherent boredom of the daily grind for most folk and here goes the most exciting thing to happen to them in some time. It was a performance that got the heart racing and made the participants feel the closest to really living that they will have felt for a fair while.
    Society is organised, safe and easy, battling the opposition and risking serious injury isn’t. Society frowns on all kinds of unsafe activities and it has defined so much behaviour as “inappropriate” that there is no edge any more. We are not allowed to take a chance in case we offend someone, kids can only partake of organised activities with insurance and hand sterilisiers a must.
    In the end it’s about feeling alive and back when I was a teenager I always felt alive on Saturdays and that was fun.

  10. Good article, Andrew.  Leave it to the Georgia Straight, BTW, to do lefty ideological overreach of the highest order. 

    I was interested in what you had to say about certain places and occasions becoming predictable places where and when one can riot.  I’m reminded of what goes on in many European cities every year on May Day — they have a riot.  A very ritualized, predictable, and usually somewhat contained riot (partly because the police are so used to it and prepared for it), but a riot nonetheless, complete with anarchists, spray paint, tear gas and rubber bullets.

    • right wing non environmentalists think everything is simple

      • WTF does that comment have to do with the content of my post?  Go take a reading comp course, pronto.

      • WTF is leftie and WTF is rightie?

        • Well, to give a couple of examples, Mother Jones and The Georgia Straight are lefty.  The National Review and Mark Steyn are rightie.  Does that provide sufficient interpretive guidance for you?

  11. “…. Freud or Marx when Hobbes is at hand.”


    I have been reading book about world languages – one chapter was on Norman and Anglo Saxon words – Churchill used anglo words in his best speeches.  Anglo Saxons understand human nature, Normans are flimflammery and over intellectualized. Many of our journos and chattering classes need to read Politics and The English Language.

    Potter: Just finished watching Agenda from last night. Very interesting discussion – I liked your point about not being able to create new identity when you leave home town. Never thought of Facebook that way before.

    I taught english in S Korea and I was different person over there because no one knew me and societal norms were completely different. Weird experience and I glad there are no photos online to document it. Just one example – temples in Korea have Buddhist swastika which looks a lot like nazis swastika. Somewhere in my things, I have many photos of people posing beside swastika at temple doing heil hitler pose. Funny 15 years ago after getting drunk on rice wine at temple, not funny now.

    And I never heard of Jane McGonigal until today. McGonigal was fascinating – interesting way to view world, I am going to look into her later.  

    George Orwell ~ This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

  12. Not quite the same thing but highly recommended for a look into a time
    and place that is truly weird. The most bothersome comparison might be
    the jingoistic tub-thumping cranked up for different purposes …

    • That was a great book.  I read it many years ago, shortly after it first came out.  Of course, Brit/Euro football violence has a bit of a different cast, in that there are usually three main actors, i.e., the two “firms” (organized groups of fans for each respective team), plus whatever local police force is around.  In Vancouver, it was really just rioters vs. cops.

  13. so then, the same thing would occur if it was Womens’Hockey?

  14. I would call the rantings of Don Cherry opportunistic and baseless, no partisan politics were involved here, just a means for testosterone(and estrogen,as well) overloaded drunken young fools to offload their frustrations

  15. Accept it Canada. Your National sport is violent and your cities riot over sporting events. Canadians are capable of evil like any other society. Remind yourselves of this truth before  another event like this or something worst does.

  16. I’ve heard so many different analyses of this event I don’t know what to think anymore.  I agree that the official assessment by the police that the riot was caused by “anarchists and criminals disguised as Canuck fans” is ludicrous.  Does that imply that anarchists and criminals don’t watch hockey?

    Beyond that, though, I don’t find Potter’s commentary any more compelling than any of the others he is criticizing.  Until someone does some proper study and analysis, nobody knows why the riot happened.

  17. Vancouver is more in thrall to health and safety than anywhere I have ever visited. So fearful are they of causing anyone harm that the local-authority-imposed instructions for the hotel Jacuzzi stretched to five pages, at least three of which detailed the many conditions – from athlete’s foot to a runny nose – which precluded its use. 

    This is a city that boasts the cleanest Chinatown in the world, where the pavements are steam-blasted nightly to remove unsightly pads of chewing gum and the merest hint of litter is likely to induce moral panic. Everything is carefully ordered, properly scheduled and perfectly planned. So much so, that even riots seem to arrive as if by rote.

    Not for Vancouver the spontaneous outpouring of political rage now afflicting Athens. When the Canadians hit the streets, they do so because of ice hockey. More specifically, they get shirty when their team – the Canucks – get beaten in the Stanley Cup.

  18. If nothing else, Wednesday night’s rioting in Vancouver proves that the city is still pretty provincial. All the hoopla before and during the series culminating in that disgrace proves this, therefore for the mayor to call the city “world class” is way over the top. World class when applied to a city is not measured by a beautiful setting and in Vancouver’s case is just a malady called realestateitis and both the mayor and the city have caught it.

    • Only buttheads use the term “world class” with a straight face.  The first time I started hearing that term used ad nauseam was in Toronto in the 1980s — it was a favourite term among Toronto city boosters.

  19. Shallow end of the thought pool for sure… Potter poses riots as “fun”, and then doesn’t ask or explain why rioting is fun. The moment you ponder why so many youth found entertainment and catharsis in destruction, you’re left with the very answers provided by the people Potter accuses of over-thinking. Just so you know Andrew, it is possible to under-think something as well.

  20. I once had a friend who was present at the so-called Gastown riot, I believe about 1971. What was that like? “It was a lot of fun” he said. Exactly.

    My daughter went to a house party a few years ago, which turned into a “trash the house” party. Apparently it’s not uncommon. That was the point where my daughter understood why we never allowed large parties at our house.

    Andrew Potter is spot-on. Ideology has nothing to do with this. This is all about controlling the crazy impulses we all get, or not. I would like to see the perps gone after in civil court for the damages. A lifetime of wage garnishment would send a better message than 30 days in jail ever could.

  21. Correct analysis. I saw the same thing happen in Kelowna in 1986 and 1987. It stopped when grass root citizens took matters into their own hands, organized a community campaign that put 1000 ordinary people (adults) in the fun loving crowd on the evening of the predicted riot to “watch” the young people. There was no riot in 1988! I hope Vancouver can figure that out before the Grey Cup game in November.

    • Simple explanations begat simple solutions.  If twas “fun” that caused the riot, surely making rioting “less fun” will curtail them in the future.  The trick, of course, is making them “less fun” in an acceptable way.  Personally, I favour water cannons and rubber bullets, but then again, I’m not from a city that looks the other way when drug dealers and hookers openly ply their respective trades a few blocks from that city’s core.

  22. No, just a bunch of stupid bums

  23. the Tyee has better posts on riot perspectives and I like the CBC MacDonald’s post

    • i like this post here
      by better i meant, compared to other places, such as the Straight

  24. “CTV News talked to a friend of the guy who lit the first truck. It was his truck. He planned to burn it if the Canucks lost.”

    • It’s still illegal to light a vehicle on fire, even if you own it.

      • so be it but what do we know about this guy?
        was he wearing a hoodie, a mask?

  25. People do not run amok, break shop windows and overturn cars just because their team lost a hockey game that everybody will forget about a week or two later. While the Vancouver Canucks were being embarrassed in front of the home crowd, Canada’s postal workers were engaged in “rolling” strikes at major branch offices throughout the country while the mechanics at Air Canada threatened to walk off the job. Now, I don’t think it’s as simple as a few anarchists and communists trying to stir things up, but a few of these types tried to disrupt the G20 Summit in Toronto and the G8 Summit in Quebec. Okay, you could say it’s a few people having “good, clean fun,” but a lot of people in Canada are afraid that this country is going in the wrong direction. 

  26. If we must use the hackneyed term “world class” there is only one city in N. America which can accept the label and that is the Big Apple which by the way has teams in all major sports in addition to galleries,museums, theatre, etc and headquarters for many major industries. In other words many tourist draws, so Vancouver – cool it – but to rub it in, Toronto is higher on the list of potentials.

  27. This is a lot of intellectual BS. Imagine if police started having “FUN” and started shooting the perps like in New Orleans for trespassing on private property that they are sworn to defend. Ideology is what is happening in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia and where people are dying for their cause. What we had in Vancouver was a yuppy spoiled kids riot with too much money to spend on sports and gadgets all paid for by their yuppy baby boomer parents who forgot to give them their dose of Ritalin or Prozac before letting them out of the door with too much unearned money and too much time amusing themselves to death like their yuppy parents have introduced in this society. After the fun and games, these perps can now start their five year sentence of daily community work and enjoy seeing their time given to a good cause. Sorry Andrew, we the people are not all deluded and “dumbed” down to a point of not recognizing a real demonstration for an ideological cause versus blatant rowdiness and gratuitous violence and looting for FUN. Of course we all realise that the Media is running out of stories to cover and need to boost ratings and getting the public riled and mixed up on facts. Try covering the real riots in the Middle East where journalists and citizens are getting killed and not because of a dumb hockey game being used as an excuse to destroy Vancouver pretending to be oppressed. Try real oppression, like what the Harper government is doing to young and older workers by introducing orphan clauses and reducing wages and benefits. Funny we don’t see the Media making a big issue out of this nor young yuppies rioting to support worker causes and their own futurs if the Harper government can get away with their regressive policies towards workers and the middle class.