Rereading The Riot Act LRB Blog
Last Wednesday evening, when disappointed hockey fans rioted in the streets of Vancouver, I was at a performance-art cabaret I’d curated called Rereading the Riot Act II, an interrogation of the events of 23 April 1935, when the mayor of Vancouver, Gerry McGeer, read the Riot Act to protesters from the Relief Camp Workers’ Union and their supporters who were gathered in Victory Square.
The ‘relief camps’ were set up by the federal government during the Depression to absorb the high numbers of single unemployed men, and to remove them from urban centres to make it harder for them to organise effectively. They were put to work for 20 cents a day, and lived in appalling conditions. Eventually the workers rose up and 2000 of them descended on Vancouver. The protesters, who enjoyed the support of most Vancouverites but had next to nothing to live on, resorted to demonstrating in food shops to draw attention to their situation. On 23 April 1935, they entered The Hudson’s Bay Company department store and an altercation broke out as the police tried to remove them. A delegation of protesters went from Victory Square to City Hall to talk to the mayor. He had them arrested for vagrancy as they left the building, then walked the few blocks to Victory Square to read the Riot Act.
Last Wednesday, as the small audience arrived at our event so did the news that ‘they’re burning cars, they’re rioting, the city is burning.’ A woman looked up from her iPhone. ‘They’re reading the Riot Act,’ she said. Throughout the evening the sounds of sirens and helicopters merged with the performances. I later learned that the angry hockey fans had looted designer handbags from the Hudson’s Bay Company department store.