Vancouver Riot-Watchers

A Bystander in the Way is an Abettor

The aspect of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup 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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