Reading the Riot Act / By Michael Barnholden

By Michael Barnholden. Anvil Press, 144 pp, $18, softcover.

Michael Barnholden became intrigued by Vancouver's riotous existence following the Gastown riot of 1971 and witnessed the Rolling Stones riot the following year. After the Stanley Cup riot in 1994, he began "to monitor the local, national, and international coverage, followed by the official reports [that] did not match what I had observed or was hearing". Out of this combination of direct witness and postmortem comes Reading the Riot Act: A Short History of Riots in Vancouver.

"Every city has its distinct history of rioting," he contends. What seems to distinguish Vancouver's is that the most profound such events are the most distant; specifically, the shameful anti-Asian-immigration riot of 1907, the anti-Wobbly/anti-free speech ones of 1902 and 1911, and most infamously those during the Depression when the unemployed occupied the post office (now the Sinclair Centre) and the court house (the VAG) and the mayor literally read the Riot Act, which threatened the death penalty. In a sense, the city's riots didn't resume being ones of ideas until the APEC protest in 1998.

To Barnholden, however, they all have the same subtext, for his book is far less a narrative of events than a strict ideological interpretation of them. "As long as the powerful and greedy are willing to protect their ill-gotten gains with paid enforcers; as long as oppression continues to be the order of business; and as long as there are marginalized people, there will continue to be riots." Not to mention lopsided investigations, full of "omissions and errors [that] are not merely accidental, but the result of a deliberate, yet unthinking, ideological conspiracy to demean and deny working-class history". You get the drift.

He asks: What constitutes a riot? He answers: In the eyes of authority, a riot begins with breaking glass or fear of it. His most interesting idea is that Vancouver should emulate London and give birth to a group of riot reenactors to commemorate and honour the great riots of the past by means of street theatre.