Vancouver Riot-Watchers

The aspect of the Vancouver riots that most struck me was the bystanders. I had always considered that a lack of direct involvement exculpated one from guilt, but looking at the footage of the riots, and particularly some of the raw footage, what I found more disgusting than the riots themselves was how crowds outnumbering the actual rioters many times over simply stood back and watched.


If one man jumps on a car and begins to kick in its windshield on an ordinary street, someone will stop him, yell at him, or call for help. Those who fear for their safety will simply leave the area. That is an ordinary crime. But when one man jumps on a car and one hundred people cheer, other men think it is a good idea to jump on the car and join in. When one man jumps on a car and one hundred people say nothing, they are offering that person silent consent.


You can express disapproval simply by leaving. But the presence of a bystander who does not condemn, does not intervene, and does not call for help is the presence of a silent abettor. There is no escaping culpability. Had all the bystanders simply gone home and left the “few bad apples” to do as they pleased, how long would it have taken for the police to bring an end to the riot? One hundred peaceful people between police and rioters is not an unrelated assembly—it is a barrier preventing the police from bringing the situation under control.


A sea of bystanders around a group of rioters is no different from an environmental activist chained to a tree—except in this case, the thing being protected is a group of people breaking the law. Then these same bystanders complain when the police have difficulty distinguishing between people actively doing wrong and people silently giving their consent. If you truly do not condone the actions being undertaken in your presence, you will stop them, or you will leave. I didn't see anyone preventing people in Vancouver from leaving.


Would you watch a rape? Would you watch a murder? Just because one hundred other people could stop the situation and choose not to, does it excuse you from not doing so?


Here again is the danger of silent consent—those who might otherwise intervene do not know whose side the crowd will be on. It takes a great deal of courage to be the first to stand up. You may look stupid. You may be attacked yourself. A few people in Vancouver stood up anyway.

Then a few conscientious people helped to clean up afterwards. Including Boston fans.


Then there were the cameramen—the people who justified standing back and watching because they were documenting, thus aiding in the identification of perpetrators after the fact. There are times when this is a valid action. But I cannot help but feel that some of these cameramen were simply too cowardly to get up and break something themselves, and instead enjoyed the action voyeuristically. Reading this cameraman’s response to criticism from “AirsickMoth”, I had difficulty distinguishing his own point of view from those of the people he was documenting.


Nothing flatters or justifies like a camera. Yes, cameramen were attacked. People breaking windows do not like to have their faces on the news. Yet pulling out a camera tells someone, “You are newsworthy.” It is flattery. And when you pull out a camera and film rather than raising a voice to stop what is happening when your voice or intervention could affect the situation, you are abetting the action. And yes, you may be only one voice. But you may be joined by others. You may turn the tide. You may not. But whatever the outcome, at least you did what was right.


I cannot see this as comparable to war journalism. War journalists cannot turn the tide of a battle. That is part of the deal—they are unarmed and neutral, so they are afforded protections under international law. War journalists go into areas at the threat of their lives to uncover truths and suffering that would not otherwise be seen. They expect to be in danger, and while they are afforded official protections, they cannot complain of unfairness when they are the victims of random violence—that is the expectation with which they enter the area (institutional violence is another matter). Their information can rouse public attention and bring suffering to an early end. Dahr Jamail, for example, spent months in Iraq during some of its worst periods without any official protections at all.


Taping a riot on your iPhone does not help the police resolve the situation. It helps them find people afterwards. But would it not be better to leave the area, relieve people breaking the law of your silent consent, and perhaps reduce the amount of damage that will have occurred in the first place?


Rather than documenting horrid events, would it not be better to ensure that no event occurred?


The underlying principle is akin to the controversy raised by Kevin Carter’s 1993 photo of a vulture lurking behind a starving Sudanese childMany asked whether Carter could not have done something to help rather than merely taking a photo. And while the stark image brought attention to the plight of the Sudanese people, even here the culpability of the photographer was brought into question. Journalists do not have a universal, unquestioned right to only observe when they might intervene for the better. They are asked to use their judgement. A camera is not a carte blanche to leave your conscience at home. And today, when nearly everyone has a camera at all times, we cannot all be unrelated observers. 


The girls at 37 Frames Photography have helped in Tohoku while taking some of the best photos of the area I have seen. If necessary, you can do both.


I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s words from his 1970 Nobel speech regarding the responsibility of art and literature:


“Who will create for mankind one system of interpretation, valid for good and evil deeds, for the unbearable and the bearable, as they are differentiated today? Who will make clear to mankind what is really heavy and intolerable and what only grazes the skin locally? Who will direct the anger to that which is most terrible and not to that which is nearer?... Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof - all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature.


“They can perform a miracle: they can overcome man's detrimental peculiarity of learning only from personal experience so that the experience of other people passes him by in vain. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on Earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all its burdens, its colours, its sap of life; it recreates in the flesh an unknown experience and allows us to possess it as our own.”


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Write a comment

Comments: 6
  • #1 (Thursday, 23 June 2011 20:27)

    Mike, I suggest that you watch the movie "The Bang Bang Club" which is about Kevin Carter and three other photojournalists.

  • #2

    thekanert (Friday, 24 June 2011 03:01)

    Someone mentioned it to me recently... it was part of why I thought of the vulture & child photo. I'll take a look.

  • #3 (Friday, 24 June 2011 12:01)

    Thanks for writing down your sentiment about the riot. I can only _hope_ that most Vancouverites support your argument, but when I think back about the thousands of riot-watchers who refused to leave the scene, I must say that this is only a _hope_. Something seems fundamentally wrong in the way the Internet generation grows up.

    Police should invite those who are still in defiance about their lack of judgment when they refused to leave the riot to an educational seminar on this issue. The camerawoman you are talking about (Tiger Moth) still believes she was a victim of a violent rioter who damaged her camera lense as she followed them during the evening and night. Unbelievable as it sounds, but she honestly won't get it that SHE and the other thousands of riot-watchers were the problem.

    Also, I am very disappointed about the Canucks. They should come out and speak MUCH more forcefully against violence. After all, hockey and the violence on the ice is a part of the problem, too.

  • #4

    thekanert (Friday, 24 June 2011 18:13)

    Tiger Moth was a girl? Interesting. Should have checked details a little more, it seems.

  • #5

    the Tiger Moth (Friday, 24 June 2011 23:52)

    Yes, you make good points, but if everyone leaves the area, can you guarantee the riot would have ended? The rioters where hell bent on destroying things and would have done so with or without cameras. Given, an audience may have motivated them to carry on, but that doesn't excuse the rioter any less.

    Maybe the police could have moved in faster if less people were there but that's the should of, could of, would of world. As long as you want to go there, would there have been such a show of love for Vancouver the following days if no one was able to see what had happened? There are riots all over the world which go unreported and if no one hears about them, nothing is ever done. Changes are never made.

    Then there is the very basic principle which most of the guys who have been harassing me either don't get, or disregard, or are guilty of. Assault is assault, and the situation it occurs in does not change that. Whether I'm in church or a riot, does not give anyone the right to attack me. To blame me for being attacked is akin to blaming the rape victim for wearing a short skirt. It's victim blaming, but according to the "logic" being spewed at me, it's my fault someone attacked me. What an absolutely ridiculous notion. I am not responsible for the actions of other people. If I'm not a victim, then why are the police pursuing assault charges against the guy who attacked me? I really don't understand why so many people can't understand this most basic of common sense. YOU CAN NOT ATTACK ANYONE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE!

  • #6

    thekanert (Saturday, 25 June 2011 03:11)

    There is no such thing as someone deserving of assault, and no situation justifying it beyond self-defence. But in situations of social breakdown, the law can only be applied after the fact. Law can result in justice, but it cannot undo the damage that has been done.