I am not surprised that there were riots in Vancouver last night. The pent up emotion from the Cup run and the loss in game seven, along with booze and early end of the game, made a riot very likely. Canadian hockey team fans are unlike anything you find in the US.
Sports are the home of tribal identity in many cities around the world. They are one of the only acceptable manifestations of "Us versus Them" in democratic societies. There is no rational reason to support one team over another one. I am a Canucks fan, not a hockey fan. Many people are like this. When our team is out of the playoffs, our interest in the NHL season is over.
Fan is short for fanatic. Fanatics are not driven by rational thinking processes. When you get enough young males together that are fanatics, there is an energy that takes over the whole crowd.
I was there in 1994 for the riots, not in them but only a block away. Shortly before the riots started I had walked through the areas where the riot would take place. I remember what the crowd at the corner of Robson and Thurlow was like after the end of game seven against the New York Rangers. This was a crowd looking for an outlet for their pent up tribal anger. It was only a short time later that something happened.
In my life I have been in one full scale riot. In a riot there is an energy in the crowd takes over, men do things they would normally never do but are driven by the dynamic around them.
It was in 1985 when I was living in London. I decided to go to an anti-apartheid march. In 1985 there were several riots in London in poorer black dominated housing estates in London. This march was only a few weeks afterwards.
I met up with a part of the march starting at Hyde Park. I ended up joining with the Broadwater Farm Defense League for the march. Broadwater Farm is a housing estate in Totenham which had had a riot shortly beforehand in which a policeman was killed by the rioters.
The crowd was angry against the police, against Margaret Thatcher, against capitalism, against the rich.
The whole route was barricaded with police in riot gear all along the route. All the demonstrations I had been to before that in Canada had police directing traffic and there was no negative energy.
The first time I got scared in the crowd was when our section of the march stopped on Whitehall where it meets Downing Street. There were a lot more police at Downing Street and behind their front ranks police on horses. The crowd was screaming and yelling and directing all their anger at the police. The crowd felt like it wanted to rush the police.
I was yelling along with the rest, I was getting caught up in the energy. I was scared that something would start.
I could not leave the march because the route was completely barricaded, but I also felt to have left would have been disloyal to my comrades that I had been marching with.
We moved along and reached the end location, Trafalgar Square - the South African Embassy is located there. Our march met with two others and something like 100,000 to 150,000 people converged on Trafalgar Square.
I have no memory of the speeches, there were some. I was caught up with the crowd that was screaming and yelling at the several hundred police men in front of the embassy. We were all being worked up. There was testosterone and adrenalin at work. There was the righteous anger of the oppressed There was a desire to start a fight with the police.
The police obliged.
For the next hour or so there was battle between the demonstrators and the police. The demonstrators threw anything they could at the police, the police used their clubs and shields on anyone close enough to them to reach them.
Once the riot was under way the "us and them" tribal mentality took hold completely. This was a battle between a mob and the police. The police would charge to try and clear the square, the mob would surge back.
I saw people that were not doing anything being hit hard enough by a police club to knock them to the ground bleeding. Seeing these sort of things fed people to be more defiant.
Eventually the square was cleared. About 200 policemen were injured, no numbers were ever stated on the mob. Because of the 1985 Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots, this event is forgotten.
Being in the crowd at age 20, I can tell you that the energy of being there is an amazing high for a young man. I did nothing more than yell, shout and use my shoulder at times to push back on the riot shields - yes I was at the front of the mob for awhile. The only thing I could have done to reduce the energy of the crowd was to not have been there. Simply being their contributed to the energy, but I was only one out of tens of thousands.
Mob rule, mob mentality - these really happen, the mob is much more than the sum of its parts.
Back to Vancouver last night.
The energy many men feel about their sports team is deeply rooted in primal tribal emotions. There is an energy in the fans that amps up when you get a lot of people in one place at one time. When you get huge crowds, which make people feel like a part of the crowd and not an individual, it takes very little for that crowd to become a riot if there is a spark that sets the emotion alight.
Vancouver really has only one major league sports team. US cities of the same size have at least two and many of them have four. Hockey is a bigger sport in Canada than any sport is in the US. Canadian hockey team fans are much more like European soccer team fans than any sort of fans of any teams in the US. A city of more than two million in a province of four and half million people that follow a single team creates the focused fanaticism.
You only have to think about all the jerseys, face painting, and flags to get sense of how much this province is wrapped up in the Canucks. That energy supporting the team is the same energy that is needed for a riot to start.
You can see the difference in the energy between the 2011 Cup finals and the 2010 Gold Medal game. The nation wanted the Canadian Mens' team to win, but it is not a team people had been following for years and years knowing every nuance of the team. No one is a fan of the Canadian Olympic team.
As long as Canadians are wildly passionate about hockey, there will be a constant tension and danger of riots happening. We have seen hockey related riots in Canada in 1955 in Montreal, 1986 in Montreal, 1993 in Montreal, 1994 in Vancouver, 2006 in Edmonton, 2008 in Montreal, 2010 in Montreal and now 2011 in Vancouver. Riots will remain a threat in Canadian cities with NHL teams as long as there passionate young men supporting their team.