Vancouver Riots

by Rob Horning

17 June 2011


I think this photo tells us a lot about the riots in Vancouver after the local hockey team lost game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at home.

(Image: Anthony Bolante/Reuters)
Here we have a photographer taking a picture of a bemused-looking videographer as a car burn picturesquely in the background. The destruction was devoid of political purpose, but this photo seems to convey it as a collective expression of the citizens’ desire to put themselves into a recordable moment. The semi-iconic photo of a couple making out in the street as the world burns (authenticity questionsaddressed here) reinforces the impression that the riot was primarily a stage set for striking images of quirky individuals expressing their dynamism in the streets rather than challenging anything about the existing order. Rioting, we learn from these images, is mainly about getting good souvenirs of one’s participation. When rioting, you should be sure to be fully yourself and make sure you take lots of pictures. (It’s worth looking at these photos of the riots in Greece for a contrast. That is how “bad riots” go down in distant, less privileged places, as opposed to the party out of control atmosphere here in the first world.)

That seems like a pretty good way of ultimately neutralizing the political potential of riots, not merely because it reduces the collective aspect to pretense rather than the end result (solidarity is not forged but dissipated) but because it embeds street protest in the heart of a self-surveillance ideology. Writing for McLean’s, Andrew Potter makes the point that “Any proper discussion of the riot and why it occurred has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun.” Rioters just need to know that a bunch of other rioters will be around—they need a known occasion and an accepted focal point for where to start, flash mob style—and then they are off: “Particular events, like Stanley Cup Game Sevens, become natural social focal points for “reliable riots” — or reliable opportunities to riot…. Once a city becomes a known focal point for rioting, then a bunch of people show up to just to riot (indeed, they will even travel great distances to do so), precisely because they know that a bunch of other people are also going to be showing up to riot.”

The best way to fight that, he notes, is to use images and video of the riot, some of which can be culled from social media, to prosecute enough people for their behavior to make subsequent rioters think twice. Potter writes: “The Vancouver police are currently gathering videos and images of the rioters and crowdsourcing their identities. They won’t catch everyone, but they will probably identify enough people that it will serve as a huge deterrent to future riots.”

I think there is something generally applicable about this apparent contradiction, in that we apparently enjoy the perks of self-surveillance and exhibitionism as emblems of our spontaneity enough to forget how they may eventually be used against us.

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