A quantum riot
In my night job, I work as a news editor for the Province newspaper in Vancouver. News in Vancouver for the last few months has meant Canucks hockey coverage — until the hockey season finally ended with a Canucks loss in the Stanley Cup, and Vancouver’s second favourite sport, rioting, began. My newsroom is only a few blocks away from the riot zone, and I wasn’t surprised to see smoke rising into the sky moments after the game ended.
But I was surprised at what happened next: a riot that seemed to be less about violence and fan frustration — although there was plenty of that — and more about a celebration of, well, the riot itself. It was a spectacle that fed itself, or perhaps was fed by social media and the proliferation of smart phones. People rushed to broadcast the riot and thus swelled the numbers of the rioters, and encouraged the more violent and destructive members of the crowd to engage in ever more outrageous — and spectacular — acts. The whole time, I watched the riot trace its path across the skyline of the city in smoke signals, scanned the panicked tweets and Facebook messages flooding my feeds and, of course, watched it live on television even as it was happening outside.
The day after, I tried to make sense of events, like so many others around the city and even around the world. But it’s difficult. As Robert J. Wiersema tweeted at me, “Sometimes it’s like we live in Warhol Gang world.” And I was struck by some of the similarities between the riot and what I’d predicted in my novel The Warhol Gang. I also thought fellow writer Timothy Taylor had touched on some of the same issues in his latest novel, The Blue Light Project, about a city/society gone mad in a different way. We decided to have a conversation about the riot, to see if we could better understand it, and the National Post was kind enough to post the discussion online. An excerpt:
Peter Darbyshire: I’m not surprised many of the perpetrators have been identified so quickly. When you watch some of the videos, everyone has a camera and is filming the scene. It’s the most authentic iPhone ad I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like you couldn’t participate in the riot if you didn’t have a smartphone — it was your key into the fan/riot zone. When I was watching events in the newsroom as they were unfolding, though, I was struck by how many people were willing to perform crimes in front of all the cameras. I know there’s a bit of de-individuation that takes place during such events, where you subsume your identity to that of the mob and do things you wouldn’t normally do, but this seemed to move into a new territory. Everyone wanted to pose in front of the burning cars and flash their devil horns, or flash their breasts as some women did, or kiss like that couple on the ground (likely staged, I think). In some ways, this riot more theatrical than others because of the presence of all the phones. The riot itself was changed by the act of observation — a quantum riot? — and seemed to turn carnivalesque. It was like this weird mix of Mardi Gras and Burning Man and UFC. Like the riot was a black hole that sucked in all other forms of social disruption and spat them out again in a jumbled mess. Was this the first real 21st century riot in Canada?
It’s funny you mention Debord. I was thinking about Baurdrillard as events were starting to unfold. In my night job I’m a news editor at the Province and I was in the newsroom at the time, a few blocks away from the scene. We knew something was going to happen because 100,000 people in the downtown core is going to be an event and spectacle of some sort. We just didn’t know what kind. Then the tweets started flowing about burning cars and people started calling in tips. You have to try to filter these in a newsroom because the first news reports you receive are almost always simulacrums, if you will, of what’s really going on. Then we saw the smoke rising between the buildings and we knew something really was going on. But what? We received multiple reports from different callers about Canucks fans throwing a Bruins fan off the viaduct. We received multiple calls of a dead cop. And so on. We were trying to report the news, but the news that was being fed to us wasn’t real, even though people obviously believed what they were telling us. The whole event was hyperreal for everyone involved, including the media. I think that’s what maybe led to people rushing to join the riot rather than leave it. Something historical was obviously happening and people wanted to witness and understand it. And participate in it, of course. One of the moments that stays with me is a reporter interviewing people on video about why they’re rioting and a man holds up his bleeding hand, as if that is justification itself. Look, I have the mark of history on me.
Timothy Taylor: My take on both the mimetic power of the crowd and the impulse to photograph and pose link back to Debord. When those who manufacture “spectacle” are the most celebrated people in our culture (e.g. actors and athletes), you can expect the aspirations of individuals to quickly fall into line, where every person takes spectacle-creation to be the highest possible aim. Facilitate this tendency with social media, and you arrive the phenomenon of people posing in front of burning cars or taking pictures of themselves smashing windows at the Bay. They’re making secondary use of the spectacle — feeding it into FB and Twitter — in order to advance their own position as creators of spectacle.
What’s troubling about all this, aside from the property damage, is the speed with which the whole thing unrolled. Some broader disindividuation at work in our culture is at work here. When the cultural values prevail as I describe above, that is, when all people are in pursuit of the same objective — which I posit to be the status to which spectacle creation attends — then all people are likewise in competition. Competition which leads to envy which leads to rivalry which leads to escalation and violence.
In this sense you could see the crowd turn into a melee that was at once the work of a single organism — the beast composed of surrendered individuals — as well as that of competing individuals, each one fighting for a piece of the main action which is profile, recognition, status, renown.