Vancouver Riots: Do Pictures Really Tell a Thousand Words?

There have been a number of photos posted all over the web of individuals who played a role in the riots following the Vancouver Canucks’ Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final on June 15, 2011.  These photos are all over Facebook but also on a number of different web sites and blogs that focus on these riots.  The pictures seem to be of young people (I will use this term throughout this post however I realize some of these folks may be adult and not technically “young people” under the Youth Criminal Justice Act) who headed downtown to watch the game and participate in the festivities that ended up making some incredibly poor choices that evening.  To me, it does not appear that these young people were part of the “black bloc” anarchist group that seemed to start the riot, but were part of the group of purportedly ordinary young citizens that wreaked havoc over the city’s downtown core in the hours following.  Many of these pictures include names of those in the photos as well as some very detailed biographical information.  All of this information will live on in infamy on the web.

Over the past several hours I’ve been having some interesting discussions in response to one of these photos posted on Facebook by a friend of mine from Vancouver (a wonderful gentleman who was instrumental in making me feel so welcome during the Olympics).  The focus of the discussion was what should happen to some of these young people.  There seem to be some varied opinions, as is evident by exploring the different sites throughout the web.

The main concern I am having is that there appears to be somewhat of a mob mentality against these young people.  Assuming they are found to have played an actual destructive role in the riot I am in no way suggesting there should not be serious consequences.  Public villification may not be the appropriate response though.  These young people, many of which would have the fact of any charge protected from publication under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, are now largely revered throughout Vancouver.  They are all over the Internet.  Any potential employer or an admissions committee for a post-secondary program who searches them on Google or another search engine will find tons of negative information about them.  In the whole scheme of things, I question whether there transgressions is worthy of such publicity while many of those charged with much more serious criminal acts, or even those who behave questionably and unethically but do not break any criminal laws, will go largely unnoticed.  On the other hand, an argument could be made that being publically shamed in such a manner, assuming the public has its story straight (which they very well might not), is an effective means of justice.

I can appreciate that the fine people of Vancouver are embarrassed about what happened to their city, so I don’t necessarily blame them for their anger.   There are definitely wounds here that go beyond public embarrassment:  there were injuries, and businesses suffered property damage and, perhaps more notably, may suffer in the ensuing years as some tourists may decide to stay away from Vancouver (Toronto did easily recover from the G20, although, as I will explain in a future blog post, that was a very different event from the Vancouver riots).

The question I have is how should the justice system deal with these particular young people – the local citizens who decided to join the mob.  I would suspect a number of factors led them to do this.  Alcohol and mob mentality are at the top of the list.  Each individual may also have their own story to tell.  They could come from broken homes, have social issues, addiction problems, etc.  Participating in this riot may have nothing to do with such issues, or they could be the root cause that led to the decision.  On the other hand, some of these young people may just be “spoiled brats” that do not care, and never did care, about the city and should be treated with a similar brush when suffering criminal penalties (the folks who came home and boasted about how “cool” the riot was on Facebook may very well fit into this category, but we can’t say for sure).  My personal feeling is that the justice system should consider whether there were any root causes and see if a consequence can be constructed that is appropriately harsh, serves to deter others, but also helps some of these young people as they seek to move on with their lives.  The reality is that any charges laid against these particular young people would not be overly serious.  I could see arrests for things like mischief and destruction of property.  The fact that these offences occurred during a serious riot would definitely be aggravating.

My opinion on the most appropriate legal consequence is some sort of intense diversion program.  This resolution would hold the young people sufficiently accountable but also recognize that they may be good people who somehow got themselves caught up in a mob mentality.  I’m not suggesting an easy program but rather many hours of community service, speeches to community groups, intense counseling for any underlying issues, etc.  Once a program like this is sufficiently completed the criminal charges could be withdrawn.  I would expect the program itself to be more harsh than any potential sentence and probation order, but it would provide an opportunity for the young people to move on with their lives.  I note that such an alternative I see as being appropriate for those involved in the acts of vandalism who were not part of the group that started the riot.  Any incidences of assault or violence against individuals may not be appropriate for such a program.

Others I spoke with will likely disagree with my suggestion above.  Many in Vancouver will feel that these young people need to be made examples of and that punishments should be extremely severe.  It would not surprise me if a large number of citizens call for some serious jail time.  My main concern is the long-term consequences.  I feel very strongly that, even if dealt with extremely harshly today, there should be efforts made to avoid saddling people with a criminal record when their are alternatives to doing so.  I feel this way about many criminal charges I see in the courts but see this incident as a good example of how the criminal justice system has the potential to do good things for the individual charged while also ensuring that communities do not suffer further harm and others are sufficiently deterred from behaving in a similar fashion.

Please share your thoughts on how to appropriately deal with these young people in the comments section.  All viewpoints appropriately expressed will, of course, be respected.  I’m also interested in the thoughts of anyone who may have played a role in the riot and how they might be viewing their behaviour a couple days later.  Given that some of these young people may be minors, in deference to the Youth Criminal Justice Act I will not approve any comments that provide any identifying information.  I realize major media sources have been posting names, but I will not be doing so.

This blog post was written by Toronto Criminal Lawyer Adam Goodman.  For more information on Adam’s practice, please see his web site at www.aglaw.ca or contact him at 416-477-6793.