Michael Barnholden’s Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver is not a great book. But it’s a useful corrective to the notion that this city is (or even should be) immune to social disturbances. This June’s bit of social disorder may have been unusual, but it was far from unprecedented. Even the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot was far from the first of its kind–or the most significant.
We learn, for instance, that when it comes to sports riots it’s the 1963 and 1966 Grey Cup (Canadian Football) riots that were Vancouver’s largest, at least in terms of the number of participants and arrests. The 1963 melée started with a bit of over-zealous policing in the Castle Hotel beer parlour, and ended with 319 arrests, mostly for public drunkenness but also for unlawful assembly.
But it’s not just sports games that provoke Vancouverites to manifest their discontent. They also riot over music (the Rolling Stones Riot of 1972; the Guns ‘n’ Roses Riot of 2002) and even good old-fashioned politics. Or rather, bad politics as much as good. Barnholden’s survey begins with anti-Asian riots in 1907, when Chinatown and Japantown were both trashed. But they are followed swiftly by the Free Speech riots of 1909 and 1911, when the city authorities came down hard on agitation and organization promoted by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies).
An annotated list of other disturbances follows. There were then unemployment riots in the 1930s, anti-internment protests in the 1940s, counter-cultural riots in the 1970s, and anti-APEC riots in the 1990s. Barnholden doesn’t restrict his survey to the streets: he points also to a long history of prison riots at the BC Penitentiary.
So this is a useful aide mémoire to a century’s history of violent social protest (or protests that have been violently repressed) in Vancouver. Ultimately, however, the analysis of these incidents is both superficial and dogmatic.
It’s dogmatic in that the book provides us with a fairly schematic class analysis that purports to explain each of these incidents equally: “What all these events have in common is that they are essentially episodes in a larger ‘class war’ between the ‘governed’ and the ‘governors'” (18). And yet the very use of scare quotes around the key terms “class war,” “governed,” and “governors” already suggests that not even Barnholden really believes what he’s saying. Though class undoubtedly plays an important part (not least in the panic that arises when property is destroyed), almost each and every one of these outbursts of violence is rather more complicated than a simple face-off between governed and governors.
And the book is superficial precisely because it doesn’t want to get into complexities. Supposedly, we’re told, its aim is to redescribe these incidents from the bottom up, “to reread and rewrite a people’s history” (15). But this is a history that doesn’t, for example, involve interviewing any actual people or doing much if anything in the way of archival research. Instead, we get a précis of contemporaneous press reports followed swiftly by the ritual declaration that of course it was all about class.
Beyond the clichéd denunciation of capital, there’s hardly any attempt to embed this series of rather varied violent confrontations within a broader narrative of the city and its class politics, working class history, race relations, or the impact of mass culture (to take only a few obvious elements). By highlighting the brief, spectacular moments in which violence flares and glass is broken, Barnholden reminds us that there is a history to be told here. But he doesn’t tell it.