On Any Given Saturday

It’s amazing how quickly a crowd can become a mob.

Even in Vancouver, a relaxed, laid-back city,* it doesn’t take much to tip the scales from peaceful protest to riot.

This was something I apparently had to find out for myself last weekend.

Now, besides being chill, Vancouver also prides itself on being a progressive, multicultural city, where everyone is welcome regardless of their race, culture or religion.

This might be because pretty much everyone here is from elsewhere. Since arriving, I’ve met about a dozen people actually from Vancouver. Everyone else has immigrated here, drawn either by the job prospects (non-Canadians) or the fact that it doesn’t get covered in thirty meters of snow every winter (Canadians).

And for the most part, everyone gets along. It helps that Vancouver is a young city, settled by immigrants from all over the world that came to pan for gold, log trees or build the railway, so it never really developed its own identity. Instead Vancouver just borrows from everyone else’s, resulting in a melange of cultures, ethnicities, and – most importantly – great restaurants.

I went to a St Patrick’s Day celebration a few years ago that had Chinese dragon dancers, a kebab truck, and skateboarding demonstrations. Pretty much the only Irish component of the day was a couple of very confused looking Irish wolfhounds.

And that’s generally Vancouver’s approach to multiculturalism. If New York is a melting pot, then Vancouver is a mosaic, where the different cultures and religions steal each others recipes and then go skiing together on the weekend.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems – we have a long way to go to make up for all the things done to the First Nations over the years, and Chinese immigrants are shouldering the blame for the shit show that is our housing market – but overt racism is pretty minor here compared to other places I’ve lived.

Mostly, we’re happy to embrace different nationalities if it means a good taco truck within walking distance from the office.

So, it’s no wonder that, with everything that’s been happening south of the border recently, Vancouver’s felt a little smug.

This came to a head last week, when an alt-right hate group calling itself the “Worldwide Coalition Against Islam,” lead by a couple of muppets from Calgary and Manitoba, decided to come to Vancouver and hold a white supremacist rally at City Hall.

Local Vancouverites caught word of this, and decided it was Really Not Cool With That Shit Happening Here. So, a counter-protest was created, which also happened to be at City Hall, at pretty much exactly the same time as the WCAI protest.

Gosh, what a coincidence.

Since this was only a week after Charlottesville, I though that this was one protest I should probably head along to. Also, it was a nice day for a bike ride over the bridge.**

I arrived about half an hour after the rally had started. There was no sign of nazis or white supremacists at City Hall, just a sea of counter-protestors holding placards espousing love and inclusion. I felt a certain Vancouver-esque smugness at the sight – See! This is how we deal with nazis! We hug them to death! None of that violent left-wing militarism here, just handmade signs and tolerance!

A Vancouver sign at the edges of the rally

I spent a few hours wandering around the crowd. It was a beautiful sunny day, music was playing, and everyone was relaxed and having a good time. The police were studiously ignoring the faint smell of pot in the air.

A counter-protester holds a sign saying "love" at the Vancouver Stand Up To Racism Rally

A Vancouver protest sign

It felt like a typical Vancouver Saturday.

I worked my way around City Hall until I found myself on the north side, away from the main counter-protest. Here, the atmosphere abruptly changed, becoming charged with tension. I could see pushing and shoving from the steps.

Huh. This looked interesting.

I watched as two white supremacists, surrounded by a phalanx of police officers, made their way towards City Hall. Around them, a small knot of counter-protesters yelled and screamed.

The two protesters – an Asian man, who was apparently quite blind to the obvious, and an old white guy who believed that personal grooming was Something That Happened To Other People – started hollering about banning immigrants from Canada.

This did not go down well with the crowd. Probably because it was about 95% immigrant.

The crowd turned ugly, pushing and shoving at the two protesters, before breaking out in a chant. “GO HOME! GO HOME!”

I tried to join in, but I didn’t really have it in me to scream at complete strangers. It just felt weird.

I turned to the guy next to me, an older white man who was yelling at the top of his lungs. “Isn’t this normally what these guys yell at immigrants?” I asked, over the din of the baying crowd.

“Yeah. Good for them to hear it themselves,” he shouted back with a European accent.

Uh. I guess…?

The two protesters passed me. I could feel the hatred coming off the crowd like waves. For a brief moment, feeling myself be rocked back and forth by the tidal mass of the counter-protesters, I wondered if this rally might turn violent. I could taste the anger in the air, and realised how easily the mob mentality could flip a peaceful gathering into a bloodbath.

I moved back, away from the pushing, the shouting, the red faces twisted in anger as the group rounded the corner of city hall. There, the main mass of people from the rally caught sight of them, and swarmed down the hill towards the mini-procession. It was unsettling, like watching a pack of animals sense weakened prey.

Well, shit.

The police, deciding that, yeah, this was probably going to end with way too much paperwork for a Saturday afternoon, swiftly made the call and removed the two WCAI protesters from the area.

The target of their rage gone, the crowd’s anger vanished, and within a few minutes, everyone had returned back up the hill, to instagram funny protest signs, and talk about inclusiveness.

Without the police presence, could this have turned ugly? Vancouver is one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever lived, but the hatred directed towards the neo-nazis was palpable. For all the “lets hug it out” signs, racists were definitely not welcome, and as soon as one showed up, the crowd became a rabble.

I can see how things get out of hand in other cities.

But overall, the Vancouver counter-protest is being hailed as a success, with Vancouverites patting themselves on the back that this is how to deal with racism. And, for the most part, they’re right. In total, four neo-nazis turned up, compared to four thousand not-nazis, giving white supremacists a pretty clear message about exactly where Vancouver stands on the whole racism thing. Similar protests and counter-protests across North America have turned violent, while the only casualty in Vancouver was a torn sign.

While it might not have been perfect, maybe this was the best we could hope for right now.

A protester holds a Death to Fascists sign at the Vancouver Stand Up to Racism Rally

Okay, so not all the protesters were up for hugging it out with neo-nazis.

*That may or may not be permanently semi-stoned

**Note to self: cycling to a left-wing peacenik rally is a terrible idea if you’re hoping to find somewhere to chain your bike up. You can guarantee about four thousand other locals have had exactly the same idea.

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