Stupidville: A Georgia Straight feature on the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver
By John Masters
[This article originally appeared on June 24, 1994 in the print edition of the Georgia Straight]
The Night We Disgraced Ourselves began, for me, at 9:30 p.m. as I was walking along Granville Street. Two girls, about 14, trudged by and one of them, without breaking step, hurled a beer bottle to the pavement. They didn't look happy, they didn't look mad; she just smashed the thing without any look at all on her face and they kept trudging.
My office is at the corner of Robson and Granville. Tuesday night, after the hockey game, I went downtown to do some work, thinking that things would be quiet. We had, after all, lost. There would be a Canucks-appreciation afternoon two days later at B.C. Place, and fans who wanted to cheer the home team one more time could do it then. There was, to my mind, no good reason to party that night.
But soon after 8 o'clock the first revellers hit the streets, honking and whooping. Four hours later, at midnight, about 150 stores, mostly along Robson, Granville, Georgia, Seymour, Alberni, and Thurlow, had been looted or had their windows staved in for the sheer joy of it. The streets were filled with broken glass and strung-out rolls of toilet paper, the stench of beer and piss and tear gas. We had become Stupidville.
A week later, new glass and short memories have already all but erased the blemish of that night. But the riot pointed up a problem that requires more than cosmetic attention, a few clucks over rowdy youths, and inquiry into whether or not the police should have used tear gas. The events of June 14 laid bare some fundamental shortcomings of how we do things here. There are fingers to be usefully pointed, I believe, and the first one is at ourselves.
What, exactly is Vancouver? Say what you will about Toronto, it's a city with a very firm idea of what it is, and a great many people take pride in its achievements as a city.... It believes itself to be a compassionate city, and, more important, it has a long tradition of its inhabitants getting involved in civic politics because they care about the city and want to do their bit to make it a better place.
We in Vancouver can define ourselves by our geography and our weather, but not by very much else, not in positive terms. Yes, we have some fine arts festivals; yes, there's some outstanding architecture; yes, there are some lovely neighbourhoods but, although they're good components, there's no bedrock they're built on, no irreducible ur-Vancouver. We're more of a staging area than a city, a place people start from to go skiing or sailing or hiking or to make money to take somewhere else.
Part of the reason for this has to do with media reinforcement. In Toronto, the daily media, and especially the Toronto Star, have a love for the city that is conveyed every day to its citizens. I've never gotten much sense of that here. The Vancouver Sun is an accurate gauge of the city only insofar as it reflects and amplifies the polarities of the citizens. Too often, its voice is appallingly negative....
When the Globe and Mail commissioned a study recently to see what people in the Lower Mainland thought of the local newspapers (the Globe was thinking of launching its own West Coast edition), it discovered, to its surprise, that many of us don't even think of the Sun or the Province when we're asked how we feel about "our" newspapers.
We think of the Courier or the West Ender or any of a dozen other weeklies. Those are the papers that speak for us. But they speak only to their neighbourhoods.
The big picture is missing.
The Saturday after the riot, the Sun's top page-one story was the irrational behaviour of former football star 0.]. Simpson, charged with the death of his ex-wife and her male friend. An unusual story, certainly, and on another day perhaps the top news story, but not four days after a major riot in downtown Vancouver. At the bottom of the page was a puff piece on how Robson Street is still a swell place to shop. Pushed back to page 4 was the first story we should have been reading and thinking about over croissants and cappuccinos. In it, [B.C. Supreme Court] Justice [Wallace] Oppal is quoted as saying that anyone who feels he or she was a victim of police heavy-handedness Tuesday night will have a hard time getting a fair inquiry into the matter, since the cops investigate themselves. "Let's assume you are down there and you are roughed up by the police;" Oppal told the Sun."You would go to the police station and complain. You can ask yourself: How objective is that?" How objective, indeed?
The Sun—and everyone else in town—should be all over this story, and should stay on it until fundamental changes are made.
Here is a good quotation from social critic Paul Goodman, the author of Growing Up Absurd. "The society in which I live is mine, open to my voice and action, or I do not live there at all. The government, the school board, the church, the university, the world of publishing and communications, are my agencies as a citizen. To the extent that they are not my agencies.... I am entirely in revolutionary opposition to them."
The crowd Tuesday night had by no means thought things through enough to call itself "in revolutionary opposition" to anything, but when the cops moved in and the looting started, its reaction to these events seems to me to speak clearly of a large group of citizens who don't feel that the society in which they live is theirs, open to their voices and actions. For many, I think, when the party turned ugly Tuesday, the fleeting feeling of having belonged to something was lost. The crowd that remained broke into two groups: those who merely feel disconnected from the city and can stand by and watch its stores being looted and its police firing tear gas, and those-a much smaller number, but not insignificant—whose simmering opposition easily becomes pronounced, who respond to an overt display of authority by saying "Fuck you" with a wrench through a window.
When the lawlessness started Tuesday night, there were three sides: the vandals, the police, and the audience. A fourth one said: "Hey, this is our city you're destroying. How dare you. Stop it." It was minuscule to nonexistent. My argument is that if we had taken a healthier interest in our city all along, there would have been no sides at all, and no riot.
When the official inquiries are made into the causes of our June 14th disgrace, Mayor Philip Owen and police chief Ray Canuel had better look seriously at ways to make the cops a part of the community instead of apart from it. And the rest of us had better decide what we want this community to be about, besides pretty vistas when it doesn't rain. What shared tasks can we undertake whose achievement will fill us with civic pride? What conditions are needed to come to unconditionally love this place, not for where it is but for what it is? "We are all reflected in what we see" was the elegant observation painted on the plywood covering the windows at Second Skin on Robson the day after the riot. It would be wonderful to find a way to repair the glass so the next time we look at it as we march en masse through our downtown streets what we see reflected back is something nobler than a mob heading to Stupidville.