Partially by chance I was in Vancouver on game 7 night and wasn’t about to miss the action so I joined the crowd at Georgia and Hamilton an hour before the game started. I wasn’t expecting that much action.
The tension was building early and there was an aggressive edge on by the second period. On my immediate left (like, the guy whose back I was pressed into) guys were threatening to knife each other because of some comment of Boston fandom, and one fight had broken out a little farther away. On my right, guys were readying themselves for when the bunch on my left started to fight for real, and I was exactly where I didn’t want to be, between the two, and couldn’t move. Where I was standing the crowd was as tight as the last Nirvana concert I was at; a guy near me joked that having raised an arm, he couldn’t get it back down to his side.
Trouble started before the game was even over. At the end of the second period there was an outflux of older people, children, and others unable to take the crush of the crowd.
Immediately after the empty net goal, attention whipped around to our right, where we could see people climbing a tree, and white smoke beginning. Someone was spraying a fire extinguisher. My first video (terrible, unwatchable videos) shows the massive surge of the crowd fleeing from the source of the bangs and screaming. My next video, after the majority of people have fled, shows the people left over moving the other direction, inbound with curiosity towards the smoke.
I circled the crowd, crossing the street and moving away from the big screen that was being hastily removed, watching more than taking pictures. The garbage blanketing the street was obscene. Many fans were reeling from the game, sitting and staring, crying, hugging each other. Most people were smiling nervously, eyes wide and standing as tall as they could to see what was happening. Girls were crying and screaming and running, and everyone was on their cell phones, trying to locate others or else shrieking, “It’s a riot! It’s a riot!”
It wasn’t then, not yet. Two cars had just been set on fire.
Police in pairs were plucking young men out of the melee and hustling them, handcuffed in zap straps, down the curved entrance of library square. A helicopter was aloft and men on the roof of the Canada Post building were clearly communicating with the ground to pick out perpetrators. The air was hazy with the sooty tar smell of burning tires.
I started taking pictures of guys jumping towards the cars, into the heat for a moment, to stick out tongues and fingers for a souvenir pic on their iPhones. I thought they were insane, but it turned out that those were the ubiquitous pics of the night, these gleeful self portraits with riot:
the I’m in Vegas/on a mountaintop/wasted at Burning Man poses, the we’re-here-and-you’re-not-and-it’s-so-awesome pics, the we’re-kinda-drunk-but-we-just-have-to-remember-this-forever-and-I’m-totally-posting-this-on-FB pictures, only in front of burning cars and black smoke and garbage. Why?
It was surreal, the juxtaposition of casual interactions and chaos. In front of me, a woman passed a total stranger her DSLR and walked several feet away for her self portrait. Seconds later, a boy dragged his girlfriend who had been maced in the eyes past. Tried to help her but no one had water. I started chatting with another observer about photography as a few overzealous boys were extinguishing their garbage fire by piling the astroturf strip onto it prematurely.
There was opposition. Shouting matches and worse started between outraged watchers and kids starting fires, tipping port-o-potties, blue fences, and newspaper boxes, smashing and kicking in windows. Those I saw resisting the vandalism were scary angry! Furious, loud, and livid. But the younger people quietly carried on lighting fires and running away. I was upset about garbage cans lit on fire under a tree, but they were tied to the tree, so I couldn’t kick them away, and the melted plastic folded like fabric.
The vast majority of people on the street were like me, lurking, observing and taking pictures from the middle distance. There were very few people actually taking action, and they were young guys, just like the mayor said.
I was amazed at the numbers of tiny young women darting around in mini skirts and heels. Not nearly that vulnerable, I got jostled plenty, and had my feet stepped on so many times.
I felt very calm, carefully watching my escape routes, ready to duck quickly behind solid objects and big guys and generally trying to remain invisible. But then, I was stone cold sober.
The crowd was not very thick, and the real risks were utterly random- glass bottles sailing through the air, and sudden rushes of people stampeding from police or explosions.
I watched one swaggering young man pick up a 2×6 and hurl it over the crowd into the police line. That could have killed someone, as it barely cleared the backs of unsuspecting heads.
The police seemed to move very slowly. A thin line of officers in riot garb advanced down Georgia 10 feet at a time, setting off 3 smoke grenades and then taking a few strides, beating anyone who didn’t instantly run. No one resisted them; anyone left standing in front of them scattered in the smoke and ran. They slowly gained Georgia to Hamilton, and then held that intersection for a long time, while more squads arrived, mounted police arrived, and dog handlers.
I was surprised at the horses, because I think of horses as vulnerable in that sort of environment, but I suppose cavalry has had a place in war for as long as we’ve been horseback.
I was scared for a moment when one cop released his dog near me. That animal was a beautiful machine! So large, and so powerful, gorgeously fierce and primal, lunging open mouth with spit flying at the limit of his long leash. That cleared people in a hurry! I ran down to Cambie then, where a crowd was just surging the police cars in the parking lot.
There was a different quality to the night once darkness fell. The choppers droned circles in the smoky haze, their spotlights flickering on the ground. The police loudspeakers droned a recording over and over “…chemical agents will be deployed”. People were jumping both ways over the fences, to join the fray or to avoid it. It was dreamlike, and people lined the fences, staring, the car fires as mesmerizing as campfires.
There were numerous philosophical discussions around the edges. Countless people came up to me and started conversations. Maybe because I was alone, and not talking on my phone. Most commented on the sadness/shame/stupidity/waste of it. What was mentioned less was the fascination. We were all there, after all, riveted.
Where there’s fear, there’s excitement, and this was some of the most real, visceral experience most of the people present have ever been in, I’m sure, all the more thrilling because it was so uncontrolled. I think it’s what we aim for with sports events, action movies, and high risk adventures: those peak, excessive emotions, minus the property damage.
The take home, for me- if it really were a political uprising, the police would not have a prayer. Here, the mob was not mobilized; the mob was drifting along, wide eyed and curious.
A very few people were sneakily causing shit in advance of the police progress, and rarely, half-heartedly, engaging the police. IF, in the event of a mass of people like that, truly angry and united with a political will, the mob WAS mobilized against a police force, the police as they appeared would have been swiftly overwhelmed.
I was exhausted, on my feet for seven hours. Shortly after a rumour passed through that a Boston fan had been killed by being thrown from the viaduct, I left. Clearly I missed the really bad stuff, the looting and fighting with police that I saw later on tv.
It’s really interesting to me now, afterwards, to see the masses of pictures and recognize guys that I saw earlier and elsewhere during the night, and the series of car pictures. For all the thousands of pictures, there still seems to be so much undocumented.