Rioters overturned cars and then burned them in downtown Vancouver Wednesday night.

Splitting up party may have avoided riot: expert

More emphasis on fan zones across Metro Vancouver urged



Vancouver’s Wednesday night riot might have been averted if celebrants were steered to alternate fan zones distributed across the Lower Mainland rather than being concentrated downtown, a retired expert on sports riots argues.

“They invited 100,000 people to attend this, which I think was a big mistake,” said Gordon Russell, a social psychologist from the University of Lethbridge who now lives in B.C.

He cited his past research that roughly three per cent of people who attend large sports events have a predisposition to fight or spark trouble and many of them have antisocial or psychopathic tendencies.

Russell said that means 3,000 people in the Vancouver crowd could be expected to be prone to violence and what happened should not have come as a surprise.

“I would have told them not to invite everybody to Seymour Street,” he said. “Split them up. Have five celebrations.”

Surrey and Abbotsford did have their own celebration sites, but Russell said three more in places like Richmond and other parts of Metro Vancouver could have helped, coupled with a reduced emphasis on the downtown party.

Dividing up the problem would make policing it easier, he said.

“Use sites in wide open areas, not jammed into narrow city streets,” he added.

Russell said Vancouver organizers could easily have had a different nightmare on their hands – a stampede – because of the dense concentration of revelers.

“It’s a setting for a panic when people are confined like that,” he said. “If a bomb or incendiary device goes off nearby you could have a major panic there instead of a riot.”

Scores of people have died before at European soccer stadium or concert stampedes, he said.

He said it seemed the Vancouver organizers were aiming for some sort of attendance record.

Fighters in a riot tend to be young single males who are angry, disaffected and on the outskirts of society, Russell said, but added there’s much more to it than that stereotype.

“These people feed on excitement,” he said. “They act suddenly, without any reason and they will just explode.”

Another three to seven per cent of a crowd typically become instigators, egging on the fighters.

About seven per cent of people pack up and leave at the first sign of violence, he said, while up to 19 per cent become “peacemakers” trying to calm or restrain rioters and the largest group – about 60 per cent – will simply stand around and watch.

An investigator who examined the 1994 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver said key recommendations he provided then were ignored this time.

Bob Whitelaw said the failure to enforce a no-parking zone in the downtown core let fans attack parked vehicles.

He also said fans were allowed to gather in large numbers and should have been quickly dispersed and ushered out of the downtown area.

As in 1994, Whitelaw said, police seemed to be standing around and not taking pre-emptive action.

– with files from CTV