Terror and rage

Demonstrators throwing rocks and bricks at the post office after marching up Granville Street; the post office riot; Vancouver.
Riot at a Vancouver Post office, 1938

We were wiped out from the wedding. The trip to the nation’s capital was in itself exhausting, and a long day had played out getting the groom’s side into a bus, across town to the event, and out in the hot sun for the festivities. It was well past dusk before all fifty of us were ready to leave, huddled together in our formal attire.

The chartered bus crawled down the road in Sunday congestion, the lack of signals at an intersection causing a jam where none was necessary. Our driver stopped, tried to inch forward past motorcycles attempting a u-turn, stopped again. At some point he got into an altercation with several young men. I didn’t see what instigated it, but both sides became agitated, screaming at each other.

We wanted to go home. Several fathers had returned by their own motorcycles and the groom’s friends took him back in a car, so the bus was full of complaining children, faint mothers, elderly folk who had been up for too long.

Suddenly the young motorcyclists were out in front of the bus, blocking its path. What are they doing? This is stupid. I just want to get home! The driver is yelling, the groom’s older brother has joined the argument. But they won’t budge. There’s enough room for cars to inch around us but the pileup soon stretches back for miles. Why? It’s already late. This fight is stupid.

And then the bricks started flying.

For reasons I don’t understand, the young men began chucking bricks and stones at the bus. The projectiles crashed into the windshield, shattering and indenting the glass, only failing to burst through.

There’s a mental delay when someone crosses a line you didn’t imagine would be crossed. i didn’t know how to process the fact that bricks were hitting our bus. The front windshield was targeted until little of it was fully intact. What-ifs ran through my mind. How bad could this get?

Little kids began crying in fear. Several women were in tears as well. None of us knew what was going on or why it had escalated, just that we had nothing to do with it. Yet we couldn’t move and the windows were getting smashed out on our bus.

For a long time I did nothing. Little Sakeenah sleeping on my chest was a major reason. But perhaps even more important was that I felt constrained by my social position. We were guests in the group, attending a wedding away from our hometown. I wasn’t an “insider”, in their eyes I was the naive foreigner who should be protected rather than a protector.

But once the bricks started flying I knew that something was better than nothing. I handed Sakeenah to Peregrine, moved up to the front of the bus, watched a piece of masonry crash into the windshield, spiderwebs reaching out but the glass again holding together.

For some time up front I debated what to do. The main thing holding me back was my assumption that everyone would be upset if I put myself out there. But it was going so poorly, and the options seemed so poor, I finally just stepped off the bus.

There were four young men standing there, bricks and masonry in hand. I considered dialogue, then went for monologue instead.

“What are you doing? Look, there is a whole bus of people here, women, children inside. The little ones are all crying. You are scaring everyone. Look at the huge line of traffic, look how far it goes back! You are angry at one person, you are mad at the driver, but you are causing so much harm to so many people. Please, just let us go. We are tired and we just want to go home.”

If they had any reply, I don’t remember it. But whether it was my words or the shock of such words coming from a foreigner, speaking in their own language, it had an immediate effect. First one, then two, then all of the young men stepped to the side.

Mildly triumphant but weary, I went back to the bus and told the driver, “Please, let’s just go.” There was visible relief inside.

And then the police showed up.

On a major road, in the main city, with a huge commotion and impeded traffic for miles and multiple occupants (including Peregrine) calling the emergency numbers, it had taken 45 minutes for any police to arrive on the scene. I waited to see what they would do and was confused by the response. In fact, everyone on both sides appeared confused. The police weren’t really doing anything. Some of the young men began spinning a story to them. Someone from our bus told our side. Not sure what was going on and wanting justice to be done, I went back outside, pointed to the main instigator who had done the most brick-throwing, and said, “He is the one. He is the main one that smashed up the bus.” The quite hefty young man looked around with concern and then took off down the road with ultimate urgency, his legs churning underneath him like an anime character.

The police did nothing.

“This is not our jurisdiction. We are the state police, this is a city matter. This is not our jurisdiction.”

And they went away.

I was aghast. There had been a riot in progress, a smashed-up bus with its window destroyed right in front of them, terrified women and children at risk, and they did nothing and walked away because it wasn’t their jurisdiction.

The lack of action by the police reinvigorated the instigators, and they again blocked the bus and began berating the driver (with the exception of the heavy guy, who never came back). All the work I had done was erased.

For perhaps another thirty minutes we sat in a stalemate. Reinforcements showed up to support their effort. Thankfully, no more bricks were thrown. For a third time I got out of the bus but couldn’t make any impact. Over time they just lost interest. I was concerned that the bus may have been too damaged to continue, but after some cautious checking the driver drove off, careful not to jostle the windshield.

The night was so frustrating. I sat stewing at the young men who could act with such violence and not face repercussions. I sat stewing at the police who could demonstrate such indifference. I kicked myself for not having gotten involved earlier, when I might have been able to cut things off more rapidly. I regretted not having taken pictures of the stone-throwers so that we could file some sort of meaningful report.

This was the fifth or sixth time I had encountered this type of mob behavior. A small group of people, angry at some perceived slight against them, chooses as a group to escalate the violence against those who have upset them. Where does this come from? And how can we address it at the roots?

One thought on “Terror and rage

  1. Oscar Delaney

    Interesting, and saddening for one of my gender, how it almost always seems to be men involved in these situations of rioting and violence. I suppose a combination of genetic predispositions to aggression and environmental factors promoting dominant, assertive behaviour in men as acceptable or even desirable are to blame.
    You’d hope that these toxic group dynamics where the instigators’ boldness is redoubled when they are supported by others thus forming a self-sustaining mob, could also work for good: a few people’s courageous actions of civil resistance or creative confrontation of corrupt systems inspiring and mobilising others to do likewise. I suppose the obvious examples would be the Civil Rights movement and Indian independence struggle, where people at times accepted physical violence against them without retaliating, perhaps because of being part of a large supportive group. Somehow it does seem a lot rarer than mobs forming though.

    Like

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