Posted on 14 December 2011
CBC has chosen its top B.C. news story: the Stanley Cup riots.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty dismissable choice. It’s Vancouver-centric. It’s flashy, rather than substantial. It’s just hockey.
But think back to when those riots started. Think back to the moment that you realized that the core of B.C.’s biggest city, a city widely viewed as one of the best in the world, in one of the most peaceful countries to ever exist, was descending into chaos. Short-lived as it wound up being, it raised some pertinent questions.
This was a look ahead at what a surveillance society of the 21st century might be. Rather than government monitoring us from security cameras and satellites, we monitor each other from Facebook and YouTube. Rioters happily filmed their actions. Immediately following, fellow citizens began identifying those they could, and turning them into police. Online lynch mobs sprang up. The consequences of this are still not clear.
Also at play was the role of the citizen journalist. Police asked non-rioters who were nonetheless in the midst of the riots to stop filming, stop Tweeting, and go home. Meanwhile, news organizations encouraged people to send in their pictures and observations. The lines of this sort of participatory coverage are still being drawn.
But deeper than this is the question of how this could happen. Is it hockey? Is it young men? Is it capitalism eating itself? (an interesting observation was that retail outlets were attacked while other buildings in the same neighbourhood were left basically unscathed). I remember in the days and weeks afterwards reading the Tweets of Vancouverites talking about the fear they now had of large public gatherings, and of the suspicion with which they now viewed the stranger on the bus, the barista at the coffee shop. How could so many people descend into this so quickly? Not to overstate the point, but this event touched on questions of order, man’s inhumanity to man, and how tenuous our grips on civilized society actually are. As I wrote immediately following the riots:
“If these people, minority though they may be, turned that dark that quickly over something so trivial, what do you suppose the odds are they would keep their heads in the event of a real disaster? Or in the face of a prolonged period of chaos? These people were doing this while they (presumably) had homes to go to, jobs to attend, ready access to food and fresh water, and the visible presence of law enforcement. How would they behave in a darker situation? How many others would join them?”
The two runner-ups to this story were a kidnapping and the HST referendum. The latter is about what the people of this province can do if they ignore their leaders and rise up on their own. The former is about what can happen when a person, for whatever reason, skirts the rules of society and causes great damage to a fellow human being. The Stanely Cup riots are about what happens when you combine both these: a mass of people giving in to their dark side. I still don’t think we’ve fully tackled what happened, why, what should be done about it, and whether it could happen again.
And that’s about much more than just hockey.
Vancouver Riots (thoughts immediately following)
Social Media, Crowd-Sourced Justice and the Vancouver Riots (delving into the mob justice/surveillance society of all this, plus a good list of other articles on the subject)
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