I’m conflicted. Tonight marks the beginning of the end for the Oilers' Stanley Cup run. After an eleven-day layoff, it’s time to break out the blue-and-copper wig and root, root, root for the home team.
It’s also time to point the proverbial shotgun at the door, and ready the balcony water hose to spray down firecrackers from the latest “celebratory riot.”
In most ways, the communal celebrations of the past few weeks have been wonderful. Optimism and energy rule the day, and the atmosphere crackles with excitement. You don’t even need a television or radio. A few times I’ve been out of the room when the Oilers scored, but able to make it back in time for the replay. Why? The sound of cheers, bells and air horns rising from the neighbourhood have made the Oilers’ success a celebration for the whole community.
But by late evening and early morning, the game-day atmosphere has changed. The families are gone, as are most people over 30. What’s left is a crowd of 18 to 25 year old drunken white males, upstanding young women like Kaleigh, and tired, restless police force ready to get down to business.
What happens next is entirely predictable: violent antisocial behaviour by a few, witnessed by many, and a police response that either frustrates with its hands-off approach, or escalates through direct confrontation.
The police are, by this point, in a no-win situation. It’s not possible for them to safely intervene to break-up fights or limit damage (a fact I discovered personally while fleeing the Canada Day riot: just 30 yards from the police barricade we were running to for protection, we were jumped from behind; the officers did nothing). And direct intervention via a phalanx of officers in riot gear turns relatively minor vandalism into an all-out French street war.
The only way out of this situation is prevention: a prescription for the great Canadian virtues of peace, order and good government. Borrowing heavily from the work of Dr. Vince Sacco, I suggest the following:
- DON’T TREAT RIOTS AS NORMAL: In a Forum after the Queens Homecoming riot, Sacco argued that “events are made more likely by the widespread expectation that they will occur.” This includes “press speculation, warnings, radio ads.” Quick! Pull those Ryan Smyth ads off the air. They weren’t that good anyways.
- GET OUT THE SIPPY CUPS: Eliminating glass projectiles is one of the best first steps. Party cities like New Orleans long-ago abandoned the glass beer bottle, as have U.S. college towns on game day. Break out the plastic cups at the bars on Whyte, and let open liquor rule on the street: unless it’s in a bottle.
- DIVERSIFY THE CROWD: In the case of Queens, Sacco suggested sending faculty out by the hundreds to engage the crowd. That won’t work on Whyte, but his larger point does: “dilute the crowd and reduce its homogeneity.” How to get the oldsters to stay up late and tame the kids? I’m not sure. Maybe baseball can ship us some of their now surplus Greenies.
- PLAY A WINTER SPORT IN WINTER: Sacco noted the obvious: “these kinds of events tend to occur in the spring and the fall, when the weather is pleasant and the days are longer,” and turned it into a prescription: “Don’t cancel Homecoming – move it to January until the cycle is broken.” The 2006 playoffs mark the first time the Oilers have played hockey in June. Is that a good thing?
It’s not okay to minimize what’s happened so far as minor vandalism – acceptance leads to escalation, and there’s no telling what will happen next time. Torch a phone booth today, and tomorrow we could be watching the Strath go up in flames, or reading about some kid getting his ribs kicked-in. Prevention is better than denial.
But neither is it wise for our civic leaders to break-out the high dudgeon and demand a style of police enforcement that’s been proven ineffective. Self-righteousness may feel satisfying and play well with the media, but it’s bad policy.
I would like to win Lord Stanley’s Cup – rather desperately, in fact; it’s one of our oldest and best traditions, and 1993 (and 1990) are both far, far too long ago. But if the price of victory is seeing Strathcona battered and burned, it’s not a price worth paying. Here’s hoping Game 1 gives us a victory whose cost is paid in full on the ice.