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The morning after the night before

You know you live in a world-class city when the morning after a massive riot, the streets are covered in shards of broken glass and littered with the detritus of the previous night’s looting; the acrid smell of tear gas still hangs in the air and scenes from the riot are being played (and re-played) on CNN, BBC, and other news networks around the world.

In some cities, people riot over justice. In other cities, people riot about the cost of food. Or they riot to overthrow an undemocratic political regime. Or to protest against a war.

In Vancouver, they only riot after the Canucks lose game 7 of a Stanley Cup final.

I regularly take good-natured potshots at Victoria, where I was born and raised; much to the consternation of my friends, family, and colleagues still alive and hanging around retirement homes or tea houses there, (and sometimes living in the house they grew up in after having bought or inherited it from their parents).

Admittedly, my Victoria friends hate Vancouver just as much, and fire their own good-natured potshots at me in return: “Oh the traffic’s just too terrible over there in Vancouver,” some said when I offered free accommodation during the Olympics. “Ohhh the Hells Angels run the city,” said another, in response to the semi-regular gang hits of 2009. “Toronto begins at Tsawwassen,” said another, insulting both Toronto and Vancouver in the same four-word sentence (and not doing much of a service to sunny Tsawwassen, B.C., either).

But for once I had to agree.

The night of June 15 wasn’t a great one in the history of Vancouver and the following days haven’t been much fun either. Victoria’s gentile “tea-and-crumpets” atmosphere watching a relaxing baseball game in Oak Bay, B.C., may well have been preferable to Vancouver’s hockey night in the bowels of hell.

First to hockey: This is a hockey-mad city, and the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy, which isn’t the Stanley Cup, and which no Canuck would touch the night it was awarded (I was there and noted the fact). But they had the best record in the NHL this year. They were a great team that beat Chicago, then Nashville, then San Jose, and came within one game of beating Tim Thomas of the Bruins for the Stanley Cup. The Canucks were magnificent. Boston was magnificent-er. The better team won. It’s just a game. Get over it.

Second, the atmosphere: Throughout the series, Vancouver was the greatest place to be in the world. On some nights 60,000 or 70,000 happy people were downtown watching games on screens set up by the CBC plaza and elsewhere in town. Police would “high-five” citizens and guide them to the SkyTrain safely. The bars and restaurants were filled to capacity with well-behaved patrons, and the restaurants weren’t complaining about the HST or the “Point-05” (the new drinking-driving laws). In fact, nobody was complaining about anything on game nights. They weren’t even complaining about Luongo.

In a word, the atmosphere was “Olympic,” just like it was the year before.

But on the afternoon of Game 7, I noticed a big change in the “atmosphere.” I walked to Canada Revenue Agency on Pender Street at 2 p.m. to pay my monthly tax instalment, and wondered whether I’d go home to watch the final game, or be ushered into the back door of one of my clients’ restaurants to watch (the line-ups at the front door being way too long).

But the number of mostly drunk 22-year-olds walking past the CRA’s office (a mile or two from the game) convinced me that home was a wiser choice that night. The “atmosphere” felt questionable and potentially dangerous. One could sense a different tone in the fans, as well as a higher level of intoxication.

The game wasn’t great, but as soon as it was over, I started getting tweets and Facebook posts about burning cars (this still during the Cup presentation). Then scenes were shown of chaos on TV: the torching of police cars; the escalating riot on Granville Street and scenes of tear gas canisters being tossed and tossed back; the broken windows; the real-time scenes of stores being looted; the violence; the chaos.

And for the good citizens of Vancouver and indeed Canada, the disappointment. The city’s reputation was shattered, as much as the front windows of the countless stores and restaurants at ground zero.

It seems there were perhaps 30 to 40 people with crowbars, hammers, or gasoline in ketchup bottles hidden away in their backpacks who came to Game 7 from the suburbs to smash, burn, loot, fight, and riot. But the photos and video of that night show perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 people smashing, burning, looting, fighting and rioting.

How did 30 low-lifes intent on causing mayhem turn into a riot involving more than a thousand?

At the time of writing, some of those now being criminally charged include university students, high school honour-roll grads, doctors’ sons, and retail salespeople. Many of the first round charged seem to be first offenders who have never had trouble with the law before and who presumably got carried away; fuelled by alcohol, the excitement of the moment, their youth and the belief in no consequences.

From a legal perspective, the most fascinating issue right now is how the rioters are being exposed on social media sites like Facebook.

If there’s one thing I remember about the TV coverage of the riot, it’s the scores of people taking photographs and videos with their cellphones. These have been posted to Facebook and other sites for “friends” to tag or otherwise identify. There are at least a half-dozen Facebook pages exposing the identities of the rioters such as Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos (102,000 fans) and Canucks fans against the 2011 Vancouver Riots (74,000 fans). Have a look, if you haven’t already. Rioters can be seen turning over cars and smashing them with crowbars, setting them on fire, jumping on cars, smashing in store windows, and looting stores. When they’re in front of a camera, many pose for the photographer or smile. Others wore balaclavas to hide their faces (now why would one bring a balaclava to a hockey game in June?) Web sites like canucksriot2011.com and vancouverriotpics.ca, are also directing citizens to upload their riot photos so police can identify suspects.

The amount of material posted to Facebook or sent to the police is staggering. Businesses such as London Drugs have high-definition video surveillance cameras that caught clear shots of looters in their stores. The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia has offered the use of its facial-recognition software to Vancouver police so images can be linked to driver’s licence photographs to verify suspects’ identities.

And I’d have to confess, there isn’t a lot of sympathy for anyone caught in the camera’s glare during the riot and enjoying their moment of shame (while trying to set a car on fire or smashing in a store window). If ICBC has face-recognition software that will identify looters so charges can be laid, most Vancouverites (including most lawyers I’ve talked to) would say, “Good. Use it.”

Some of these rioters were pretty stupid. I mean “bag-of-hammers” stupid. One guy all over the papers here is the poster boy for bad behavior and self-incrimination. Assuming his Facebook page wasn’t hacked by someone showing him rioting, Brock Anton is one example. His Facebook page read the early morning of the riot “Maced in the face, hit with a baton, tear gassed twice, 6 broken fingers, blood everywhere . . . Through the jersey on a burning cop car, flipped some cars, burned some smart cars, burned some cop cars, I’m on the news . . . one word . . . history : ) : ) : )”

Someone has written a song about him and posted it to YouTube. Yup. I guess he’ll be famous. I don’t know if he can be charged with anything, but will he ever get a good job? Of the idiots who have posted how many cars they burned and stores they looted on their personal Facebook pages, the post below the confession will often say something like “take this down you idiot- its evidence” or “Thanks I’ve just taken a screen shot of your admission and I’m sending it to the police.” Some of these goofballs were trying to sell their stolen Coach purses and other loot the next day on Craigslist (with phone numbers).

So in this age of Facebook and Twitter, where every cellphone has a built-in camera, those who were actively involved in the riot are seeing themselves all over the Internet and the local papers. Vancouver’s The Province published more than a dozen photos last week with the caption: can you identify these people? And they are being identified very quickly.

Certainly the personal reputations of the rioters are being catastrophically damaged by the outrage and the attention. The pictures of someone kicking in a store window or lighting a car on fire will be online forever and they’ll likely be career-limiting. Welcome to the 21st century.

This is putting some employers in the position of having to decide whether the continued employment of someone whose photograph shows him or her running from a store clutching looted clothes or Coach purses, breaking a store window or trying to set a car on fire, will damage that business’ reputation, especially if the person in the photo deals with members of the public.

Water polo star Nathan Kotylak, who was offered a scholarship at the University of Calgary (and who waived confidentiality, so his name is in all the newspapers) is an example of someone whose picture (trying to set a police car on fire) has become famous. His scholarship has been revoked. His future on any Canadian Olympic team is in doubt. And when he appeared on TV to publicly apologize, he was sobbing with embarrassment, shame, and regret. It was hard to watch, because there are probably a lot of 40- and 50-year-olds who did stupid things when they were 19 and fuelled by alcohol, testosterone, and peer pressure. He strikes me as a good guy from a good family who made a real bad mistake. I feel quite sorry for the guy.

But social media can go over the edge. The mob can go too far. When Facebook posts start identifying addresses where the suspects or their parents live or work, (along with threats to their personal safety), it’s a little too much like vigilante justice for me. If the photographic evidence justifies a criminal charge, then those looting and rioting should be appropriately charged and if the evidence warrants it, convicted. And if there isn’t the evidence, then there shouldn’t be a conviction. That’s how the system should work. And the mob should cool down.

Justice should be merciful. The 18- or 19-year-old from a loving family, who has good grades and a great future but who made a stupid mistake on June 15, 2011 isn’t in the same category as the 25-year-old low-life who uses the F-word in each sentence and came to the riot with a hammer and a criminal record under his belt. So convict, and, if warranted, incarcerate the worst of the lot. But show some understanding to first offenders about the mistakes human beings make, especially when they’re young. One can only hope it will make some of them better, more responsible citizens when they’re old.

There are issues with the court system in B.C. and a conviction for the worst offenders is less than certain. This is because the justice system is profoundly underfunded by the provincial government right now. Backlogs and delays in the system may lead to the cancellation of trials or the staying of charges, despite assurances from Premier Christy Clark that those involved in the riots will be prosecuted.

Unless new money is directed to B.C.’s justice system to hire additional Provincial Court judges; to fund more sheriffs, who keep our courtrooms safe and secure; and unless there is adequate funding for legal aid so that those charged aren’t representing themselves and creating further delays and backlogs within the system, then maybe the only justice the rioters will get is Facebook justice.

I’m not sure I like Facebook justice all that much.


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