Vancouver Riots: Hockey Fans Stick It to Their Own City

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Rich Lam / Getty Images

Riot police in front of a burning vehicle in Vancouver on June 15, 2011.

Updated: June 16, 2011, 3 p.m. E.T.

The police in Vancouver did little at first when drunken and angry sports fans took to making sport of the streets of the city. It all started with the flipping of a car on Georgia Street inside one of the outdoor spectator zones set up to watch the seventh and deciding game of the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup championship between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins. The voluble disappointment over the local team's 0-4 defeat at the hands of the American team had a cheeky undertone to it in the beginning, the crowd entertained by the flipping of the car, by the people who dance on top of the tumbled vehicle, friends tweeting friends about the incident, laughing. Then the glee turned nasty. Fires were lit in trash bins; garbage was hurled at the police. Violence begat violence. The angry fans took apart the blue fencing used to demarcate an alcohol-free zone, turning it into riot gear to use to push back against the shields of the police.

It was only 8 p.m. in British Columbia when the mayhem started. The sun was still shining, but black smoke was rising everywhere. More than a dozen cars were torched, including at least two police vehicles that had also been flipped. The fire deparment was unable to move in to extinguish the flames. Suddenly, lawlessness became the law, and countless mainly young fans chose to obey the new dictum. Crowds started doing more than just flipping cars and throwing debris at police: they smashed glass storefronts and looted stores, including the Bay department store, stealing everything from clothing to chairs to cosmetics.

More uniformed officers arrived on the scene, and then the first tear-gas canisters and flash grenades were launched to disorient and disperse the mobs. It was a tall order. The city had invited more than 100,000 fans to gather on the streets of Vancouver to watch the game on four giant screens on the closed-off streets. Precautions had been taken: more than 2,000 liquor pour-outs took place, and alcohol sales were prohibited before game time. But many of the fans still somehow got the fuel to ignite their already fiery passions over hockey. "We shut the liquor stores down and were patting down people," said Vancouver police chief constable Jim Chu on Thursday, "But it is clear the alcohol was at an extremely high level." He said that earlier on Wednesday, he and his officers had run into a group of 16-year-olds drinking heavily.

The Vancouver police department would need three hours and reinforcements to stop the mayhem. Police marched in full riot gear. Cops from around the region sent extra officers to help quell the madness. British Columbia solicitor general Shirley Bond took to the airwaves to urge people to leave downtown. "What is most disappointing and disturbing is that we have spectators who will not go home," she said. "We need them to leave the downtown, and they need to stop treating this as a spectator sport."

Blood sport. People were seen walking the street with bloodstained clothing. Hospitals reported treating stabbing victims as well as those affected by the tear gas. The streets were littered with debris, the air suffused with a pungent scent of trash fires, burning cars and tear gas. Rioters covered their faces with T-shirts and scarves both to protect their noses and eyes and to conceal their identities. Not all the fans in the street, of course, turned to crime. Many of the would-be partyers showed horror on their faces — some wandering aimlessly, unsure of whether to stay and watch the unfolding violence or to flee. Shooting video on their iPhones was no longer fun.

Chu speculated that some of the trouble may have been planned. "You don't burn a car unless you come to an event with incendiary devices," he said at a Thursday-morning press conference. He said the rioters appeared to be equipped with masks, goggles, gasoline, wrenches and fire extinguishers. Several police officers were treated for human bites.

The city of more than 600,000 people on Canada's Pacific coast was in shock. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called the situation "embarrassing and shameful" and praised the Vancouver police and fire departments for doing an "exceptional job under challenging circumstances." Chu raised the question of parental and broader societal responsibility. "Where were your kids?" he asked. "How drunk were they?" In the Canucks' locker room, an already dejected Henrik Sedin, Vancouver's captain, had to explain why his team fell apart in the loss and then say what he thought of the city's falling apart too. "It's terrible," he said. "This city and province has a lot to be proud of. It's too bad." One thing to take solace in: the rioting this time lasted three hours less than when the local team lost the Stanley Cup finals in 1994 after another Game 7. The looting this time, however, was much more intense.

Now comes a different type of police work for Vancouver. Officers videotaped the rioting while it was in progress. London Drugs, a shop damaged in the looting, said its security cameras had "sharp, clean images of the 200-plus rioters that ransacked the store." Meanwhile, thousands of spectators snapped photos and posted videos from the pockets of disturbance downtown. The Vancouver police has a process for allowing the public to share — even anonymously — images from the riots, inviting people to send everything to robbery@vpd.ca. "The response from the public wanting to help the police identify the individuals involved in [Wednesday] night's criminal activity has been overwhelming," says Vancouver constable Lindsey Houghton. "We are grateful for everyone's help." Social media may help bring antisocial behavior to justice.