Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot of 2011 is routinely treated as a morality play. The “bad” rioters, mostly teenagers and very young adults, went on a rampage, setting fires, smashing store windows, and looting merchandise. And a few good people, usually older adults, tried to get in the way of the hoodlums to protect lives and property. Then, some fine citizens showed up the next morning to help with the clean-up.
A new ESPN film, I’m Just Here for the Riot, reinforces this atomized view of the riot as a series of individual acts, albeit with a twist. This time we hear from several participants in the mayhem, who speak about the pain of being repeatedly mobbed over social media.
Co-directors Kathleen S. Jayme and Asia Youngman, both from Metro Vancouver, also bring forth the views of a firefighter, former police chief, and a current deputy police chief, as well as high-profile media people and heroic figures who intervened. I’m Just Here for the Riot comes with a whole lot of judgement on-screen about individual responsibility.
The documentary, which is being screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival, occasionally hints at larger forces at play. One of the 2011 rioters—now a thoughtful young man—admits to losing himself for the first couple of hours.
“I was kind of at the mercy of the mob,” he says. “You look around. People are either drunk or so excited. The air is dark. It’s smoky. Your heart is racing. People are screaming, people [are] chanting, people look angry, people look happy. There’s a heightened energy.”
Riot resembled a stampede of animals
Documentary maker Thom Stitt, who took photos during the melee, also speaks about the strange sensation of being in the midst of a riot. He even recalls the “peak”, where there was “maximum sensory overload”.
“The alarm is screaming over here,” Stitt says. “Something’s blown up over there. People are banging on a drum. And they’re howling, screaming—some people are jumping around, just freaking out. Something almost wants to crack.”
Rather than seeking out neuroscientists and group-psychology experts to analyze what was going on inside rioters’ brains, the directors rely on two people who’ve written books on social media to provide context. It’s a missed opportunity to recast this event as something more than a series of individual acts.
In reality, riots are more like stampedes of bison or schools of fish swimming madly in unison. It’s as if a “group brain” sets in. The mob becomes highly energized due to the stimuli that Stitt referred to in his comments. This scene has been replayed in other cities.
The City of Vancouver set the stage for the 2011 Stanley Cup riot by placing Jumbotrons in the downtown core and inviting masses to gather for the benefit of local businesses. The city did not set density limits on crowds packed like sardines into giant pens with blue metal fencing. Then the mayor, the police, and the premier framed the aftermath in a way that suited their purposes.
This goes unremarked in the film and in the vast majority of previous media coverage.
Prefrontal cortexes switched off
There’s a lot to like in I’m Just Here for the Riot. It’s a quick-paced film with sensational imagery. It’s well-edited, with the appropriate video footage reinforcing the comments. We also get to see the former rioters as three-dimensional people.
Moreover, thoughtful viewers will gain a more nuanced view of the actions of the police. In addition, the film has a lot to say about the morality of the public that sought vengeance over social media.
However, it’s heartbreaking to watch likeable young adults still feeling so personally and uniquely responsible for their actions in 2011.
For the most part—and with some exceptions—the rioters were brain-impaired at the time. On a very hot day and evening, they were fuelled by alcohol and had probably not eaten a decent meal in hours. And they were being subjected to once-in-a-lifetime sensory bombardment at the invitation of the city.
Because they were so young, they did not have fully developed prefrontal cortexes. This part of the brain—which regulates thoughts, actions, and emotions—doesn’t reach maturity in young males until they’re about 25 years old.
As a result, the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain, was free to run wild. It overrode the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a lot of very bad decisions.
That’s why some good kids did bad things that night.
The Vancouver International Film Festival presents I’m Just Here for the Riot at 8:45 p.m. at the Park Theatre and 12:45 p.m. on Sunday (October 8) at the Park Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the VIFF website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.