While police and politicians continue to lay the blame for this week's Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver on professional anarchists and hardened thugs with deep-seated criminal tendencies, the blogosphere and social networks such as Facebook have been revealing a much more uncomfortable truth.
Many of those who participated in the riot were not these types of people at all. They were, in many instances, the sons and daughters of good, upstanding citizens who today must still be in shock over what they've learned.
The picture of a young man attempting to set a police cruiser on fire by lighting a rag stuffed in its gas tank has received widespread Internet attention. He's been identified as an academic all-star who was supposed to be heading to the U.S. in fall on a water polo scholarship.
Water Polo Canada announced Friday that the 17-year-old has been suspended as a member of the junior men's national team. He has apparently turned himself into police, although the Vancouver Police Department refused to confirm this.
The parents of another 17-year-old high school student from Burnaby, B.C., forced their son to give himself up after a photo surfaced that showed him looting a high-end fashion store. A teacher at an area high school told me Friday that students were abuzz over shots posted on Facebook of classmates riding home on the Canada Line holding items obtained during the looting.
By the time the investigation into this week's Stanley Cup riot wraps up, there will be dozens of people implicated in the disturbance who do not fit the narrow profile of the riot perpetrator that public authorities have created. The fact is, it's easier to blame hooligans and professional nihilists for what happened than confront the more disturbing possibility that under unique conditions that wonderful teenaged boy who lives next door is capable of coming unglued.
The identities of many of these young people are now being revealed by others who have recognized them in photos and videos that have surfaced online or been published by media outlets. This has created some ugly tension of its own.
Those revealing the names of people seen in the photos have, in some cases, been threatened and intimidated by friends of the rioters upset that their pals have been outed.
Underlying this dynamic, however, is the more pressing reality that we all must begin to grapple with soon. That is that hundreds of otherwise normal, seemingly well-adjusted kids looked at the riot as an opportunity for a type of social and cultural timeout where the normal rules of behaviour and social interaction did not apply.
Richard Gruneau, a professor in the school of communications at Simon Fraser University, said Friday that one thing that has struck him about the continual references to hooligans and anarchists being responsible for most of the damage is the extent to which that characterization papers over the banality of the bad behaviour.
"It seems pretty clear that those guys jumping up and down on cars, screaming at cops, tearing off shirts and making spectacular displays of their masculine credentials: 'Dude, look at me, I actually jumped on a flaming car and everyone cheered,' are actually the sons of good solid suburban citizens," said Prof. Gruneau. "Some of them are likely our students."
For Prof. Gruneau, watching the riot on television was like watching a bizarre reality television show where the performers kick, punch, destroy and attempt to steal as much as they can before police close in. Like Jackass on speed.
While it certainly seems plausible, and maybe even likely, that Wednesday's riot may have been incited by a small group of insurgents expert at taking advantage of potentially violent situations, it's impossible to say exactly how much of the damage was caused by these small-time hoods and losers. That is, as opposed to that larger and amorphous group of mostly male twenty-somethings (and younger in many cases) with too much booze in their systems and carrying a repressed need to display their masculine identity.
Many years ago, a study by criminologist Alan Listiak into poor fan behaviour during Grey Cup week suggested that the truly oppressed are often the least likely to exhibit the kind of actions witnessed in Vancouver this week. Rather, time and again in North America, violent behaviour at festivals and sporting events tended to be more accurately identified as "middle class blowouts" than rational political protests.
"This riot is not the result of one single factor," said Prof. Gruneau. "It is an ensemble and certainly far too complicated to explain in a soundbite. At the very least to say that it had anything to do with hockey as a game leaves far too much out of the account."
And doesn't begin to address the question of who was responsible for much of the violence that we witnessed.