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The Agony of Victory
William Oscar Johnson
July 05, 1993
After three violent championship 'celebrations' in 1993, experts are pondering why people riot for the home team
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July 05, 1993

The Agony Of Victory

After three violent championship 'celebrations' in 1993, experts are pondering why people riot for the home team

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David Silber, chairman of the psychology department at George Washington University, says, "These kids live in cities that are virtual prisons of poverty. If a person is angry to begin with and is then exposed to a violent stimulus like a football, hockey or basketball game, that person is far more likely to act in a violent way. Adding alcohol to this mix makes it even more troublesome."

But the U.S. has always been a violent country, and our cities have always had impoverished areas. Why then has the triumph of the home team only recently provoked spasms of violence? "This is not 1950, when most people feared God and their parents and had respect for the police," says John Bryant, a community activist who is the director of Los Angeles's Operation Hope, a redevelopment group founded after that city's riots following the 1992 Rodney King verdict. "This is an era marked by weakened family structure, which means there is a lot less love by virtue of less discipline."

Each of this year's three victory riots was as different from the others as were the three cities in which they occurred.

The Dallas riot began as a massive midday civic celebration and parade on Tuesday, Feb. 9. The crowd was estimated as high as 400,000—far more than authorities had anticipated—and several city high schools reported absentee rates of more than 50% as young people from many neighborhoods thronged the downtown area. Most behaved themselves, but a few black youths, perhaps no more than 100, began harassing whites and Hispanics. They looted liquor stores, stripped vendors of Super Bowl memorabilia and did about $50,000 worth of damage to city buses, the same buses that had provided free rides to the parade site.

The Dallas violence was a day at the beach compared to the bloody street battles of Chicago or Detroit, but the city's conservative citizenry was shocked. The report of a task force that investigated the roots of the riot said the violence had "some racial overtones" and went on: "Post-parade disturbance, assaults and 'wilding' activities were generated by the combination of a sports-excitement atmosphere, the lack of sufficient police presence and mob psychology by groups—and therefore, by race."

Pettis Norman, a former Cowboy tight end who is now a Dallas businessman, and who was on the task force, says, "Dallas will win again soon, and next time the city will spend $3 million to have 10 times the police force out. We should be spending that three million trying to solve the problems that created the climate for such violence in the first place."

In Montreal on the night of June 9, the climate for violence had nothing to do with race and little to do with sports. Nor was it spontaneous. More than half an hour before the Canadiens completed their Stanley Cup victory over the Los Angeles Kings, crowds of young men, virtually all of them white, began swarming out of the subway outside the Forum on St. Catherine Street "like rats out of a sewer," as one witness put it. Many were carrying bricks and steel bars. Some had plastic garbage bags around their waists, soon to be filled with loot. When the exultant spectators tried to emerge from the Forum after the final siren, they had trouble getting out of the building because of the swirling mobs outside. Some 600 police officers, as well as a specially trained riot squad, were poised nearby. But no orders came for the cops to go into action.

The crowds headed east toward downtown. Police inertia was an unexpected boon to the dozens of professional looters who used the celebration violence as a cover for some skillfully organized robbery: After shop windows were broken, trucks backed up to the stores and thieves loaded in merchandise. The rioters did an estimated $10 million in property damage and thefts before the police finally went into action about midnight.

The next day Montreal police chief Alain St. Germain offered a limp defense. "Right now, in the context of human rights and freedoms, we're walking on eggshells," he said. "Police must have sufficient cause to intervene. You have to remember there weren't only rioters in front of the Forum. There were people there simply to celebrate the victory of the Canadiens."

But as Tomas Gabor, a University of Ottawa criminologist, points out, "If police fail to stop criminal acts, there is no one to send the message that vandalism and looting is unacceptable."

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