Like many Canadians, I watched the riots in Vancouver live on television. And like all Canadians (except a few contemptible rioters) I'm greatly ashamed that this happened here. By now, we've heard theories on what prompted the riots - the current pet theory being that it was the acts of a few determined, premeditated vandals (or "anarchists") with drunken masses spurring them on. I think these things are more complicated and multifaceted than most discussions of the issue are acknowledging, so I won't attempt to offer a definitive take on the events.
Riots aren't a new phenomenon. But what did struck me most while watching the live footage was the great many people taking pictures on their mobile devices of the riot. At times, it seemed like a few number of vandals were surrounded by a wall of mobile-wielding people.
There were two types of these people - those who posed inanely for photos in front of the violence and those who were photodocumenting the experience. The latter group did not have the gleeful facial expressions proudly displayed by the former. The main difference between the two were that the first group were clearly enjoying the riot and possibly encouraging it, while the other group appeared to be shocked or enthralled by the events.
I can understand the allure of a riot. They are a rare and powerful spectacle. And if such an event happens in one's city there would be a certain amazement that would incline people to stop in their tracks and watch the unbelievable and dramatic events unfold.
This is what happened to me when I witnessed my first (and only) riot. I was a teenager backpacking through Europe when a riot broke out in downtown Athens. There were emotional crowds, yelling, fights, and fires. It was classic Greek drama staged in the streets. As a kid from the 'burbs, this experience was like nothing I had ever encountered, so I, like many others in the vicinity, stopped and stared at the events. It seems human nature to be inclined to document and communicate such remarkable events. As I did in Athens. If I'd had a mobile back then I would have been uploading pix and status updates online. Instead, I took pictures on the device of the era - film camera. And later I shared what I observed to friends via the appropriate medium of the time: postcards. So I understand to some degree the behaviour of these riot paparazzi.
But when the Athenian police arrived to break up the riot, I knew it was time to leave - as should have all Vancouverites once things clearly were out of hand. Some Vancoverites no doubt did leave the riot area early and others intervened to try to stop the rioters - but, as I noticed with the live footage, many stood by continuing to take pictures. The gawkers who remained on the scene prevented the police from stopping those causing the riot. Thus, these seeming passive witnesses also bare responsibility - and shame - for their role in the riot.
I've been trying to understand the behaviour of these people. Certainly, the spectacle of the event captivated some people past the point of feeling any civic responsibility. Copious liquor no doubt did so too. Perhaps there is also a degree of bravado in displaying evidence of one's eyewitness position to extraordinary events - history in the making. Also, as we have seen with other riots, people are also motivated to produce catch criminals in the act to provide evidence to the police. But I think there is more to than just these factors.
My research lately has examined how fundamental one's relationship is to place. Having a sense of place is central for humans as it is a leading way for us to know and remember our world. Such a violent upheaval of one's place - whether a neighbourhood, city, or country, would produce incredulity. As in 'I can't believe this is happening - here!!'
I think that taking pictures and videos of such shocking events is a way for people to comprehend the events and to make them real, whether or not they want the events to be real. The more attachment one feels to a place, the greater the reaction such an event would provoke. And hence I believe this leads to a compulsion to remain, to continue photo documenting the personal attack on one's place - and to stay until a degree of equilibrium is restored (or the degree of violence is untenable).
Doubtless not everyone's motivations were so benign, but I do think this helps to partially explain the recent events in Vancouver.