There was a time not so far in the past when the primary objective of our police forces was the protection of persons and property—or so most of us believed. Judging from the riots at Toronto during the G20 meeting a year ago and this past week in Vancouver, police now seem to prefer tactics by which they let riots burn themselves out, and spend the days following trying to identify and arrest participants.
I admit this is an oversimplification, for the police reportedly arrested more than 100 people and nine officers were injured during the Vancouver riots. So police certainly were on the job. But not enough was done by them to stop property damage in the downtown core, as businesses were left to fend for themselves while police focused on dispersing the crowd, rather than rushing to hotspots as rioters bashed in windows and damaged and looted stores. And how dare they stand by as residents’ cars were overturned and burned?
The next morning, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu laid the blame on a small group of “anarchists and criminals.” And he, the mayor and the premier have all vowed to make sure the perpetrators are caught, prosecuted and publicly shamed. If, in fact, only a small group was responsible for the mayhem, why couldn’t the police handle them more effectively, preventing the property damage and looting? Rioters burned several cars, including two police cars, on public streets, and nearby police did little to stop them.
What happened in Vancouver was a disgrace—both the rioters and the police who failed to contain them should be ashamed of themselves for what, by many accounts, were the worst riots in the city’s history.
For months after similar riots in Vancouver in 1994 following the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss to the New York Rangers, investigators probed the events looking for answers and preventive measures. Seventeen years later, we have a night of even more serious riots following a Stanley Cup loss. So, let the investigations, soul-searching and blame game begin all over again.
Chu said police gathered thousand of minutes of recordings and were getting more video evidence, photographs and personal accounts from witnesses who captured images on cell-phones and cameras. Already, several dozen arrests have been made and charges laid for breach of the peace, public intoxication and other Criminal Code offences including theft, mischief, assault with a weapon and breaking and entering.
But what about the complicit majority, the thousands of young people behaving like animals, who reveled in the violence and cheered as cars were burned? Or those vapid youngsters who struck poses for one another’s cameras? Even those who did not participate in the worst of it can be seen in photographs and videos showing them smiling and laughing as they watch the destruction. They pose as though oblivious to the fact they are participating, however passively, in immoral and illegal acts.
As Michael Den Tandt of Kingston’s Whig Standard put it:
“The onlookers laugh, as though they’re at a picnic or a ball game. What have we done wrong as a society, that so many young people in one place at one time could be so bent? This was not the work of a few. Hundreds participated while thousands stood by and smirked or cheered.”
What will the consequences be for them? Without question, they should shoulder a share of the blame as enablers for the minority who arrived on the scene equipped with goggles, gasoline and other tools to create damage. Most likely, however, they’ll emerge unscathed, and that’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of these events.
Their friends, of course, know who they are—and some family members too. But I doubt they’ll they be shunned or in any way held to account for their roll, sad though that may be.