Saturday, June 25, 2011

That Was A Riot

Now now everybody, step away from the panic button.

To read the papers and listen to the news over the last week and half one would get the impression that it is either a sign of the Apocalypse or at least the end of western civilization that a group of young people rioted in Vancouver after the Canucks completed their choke in game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs. To listen to various handwringers it was instigated by rootless anarchists sent straight up from East Hastings Street; bored suburban men and women looking for a bit of excitement and lacking parental guidance; CBC and its evil big screen at Georgia Street or perhaps the police for sending too few (or to many)riot police.

Here's a newsflash for everyone. The price of living in a reasonably open urban environment is that occasionally -- particularly when fed by sports, politics, hunger, alcohol and/or testosterone -- things will get out of hand. In modern times this usually means a few windows are smashed, some consumer goods are stolen, a few comfortable people get a fright and, if everyone is really lucky, a police car is burned. These riots are picnics compared to riots of the not that distant past.

For example, in 1849, a mob of angry Protestant anglophones in Montreal rioted for several days and burned the parliament buildings and government offices to the ground. They were unhappy that Parliament had voted reparations for francophones who had suffered losses in the 1830's rebellions (a measure that had been extended to anglophones years before) and the suggestion that this might lead to true democracy in Canada. Can you imagine a group of twenty and thirty year old Canadians being motivated enough to even burn down a village hall (much less Parliament) these days?

On April 5, 1932, Townies rioted in St. John's and smashed out the windows of the legislature and caused the Prime Minister to flee in fear of his life. These people rioted out of concern about the economic management of the then-Dominion. The resulting Royal Commission resulted in Newfoundland deciding to give up its status as self-governing Dominion and revert to being a colony of the United Kingdom.

Montrealers rose up again when Rocket Richard was suspended on March 17, 1955. There was a race riot in Toronto in 1993 at Christie Pitts and riot that started serious movement the gay rights movement in the same city in 1981 after the bathhouse raids. Almost every real city in Canada has examples of their own riots.

Ancient Rome was long resigned to riots over any number of matters, including food shortages, poverty and bad outcomes at sports events. Julius Caesar's funeral was famously followed by a riot that resulted in a civil war and the final downfall of the Roman Republic (see a clip of Mark Anthony's speech inciting this event) ("friends, Romans, countrymen .." and "cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war" both come Shakespeare's rendition of this event). Some of these riots resulted in change -- some in broken glass.

Indeed in our Criminal Code there is a special provision dealing with riots that essentially requires the police to make an announcement and give people a chance to go home before treating them as rioters (see s. 67 of the Criminal Code):

Her Majesty the Queen charges and commands all persons being assembled immediately to disperse and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business on the pain of being guilty of an offence for which, on conviction, they may be sentenced to imprisonment for life. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.

This formulation of the riot proclamation goes back to the 1741 Riot Act in Great Britain.

Don't get me wrong here: rioting has its price. During the riot rioters stand a real chance of getting beaten, trampled, shot, cut or burned. A friend of mine in Toronto who was a regular protester outside the American Consulate used to say that he did not feel it was a real protest if he did not get hit with a billy stick. Similarly, on the theory of "don't do the crime if you can't do the time", if you get caught, arrested or turned in (particularly if you are stupid enough to post pictures of yourself rioting with a confession attached on a public electronic bulletin board) you should take the usual penalties for doing what you did. These may be quite severe and may extend beyond criminal sanctions to civil sanctions and things like social stigmatization.

Likewise, we should probably think hard about creating situations where rioting is easy -- say a hot button political meeting in downtown Toronto or assembling a bunch of drunken louts in the middle of downtown Vancouver. We should probably study what happened to see how policing can be improved without destroying civil liberties. More importantly we should think about the social conditions which make riots either frequent events or more severe events. It does not take a lot of poking around to see that often entails a mass of people with time on their hands and a well fed sense of grievance arising out of poor social and economic circumstances.

What we should not do is delude ourselves into thinking that rioting can be avoided all times in all situations -- or that this would even be a good thing. Setting that as a target creates a hopeless task and one with a high price tag for even attempting. Rioting could be controlled by banning crowds at sports events; banning protests around controversial political events; and banning gatherings for concerts, fireworks or whatnot. However, would it really be worth living in a country like that? There would also be the real potential that such preventative measures might, in and of themselves, create riots (read about the Winnipeg General Strike for an example of this).

In the meantime, buy property insurance; stay home if it looks like it might be too hot for you; board up your store front when 25,000 drunken louts are gathering around the corner; put your merchandise away and recognize that with all those consumers, workers, students and families comes a few riots now and then.

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