A Short History of Car-Tipping

Slate's Culture Blog
June 16 2011 6:38 PM

A Short History of Car-Tipping

When Vancouver's beloved hockey squad, the Canucks, lostGame 7 of the Stanley Cup finals last night, the team's hometown fans took partin a time-honored ritual: the sports riot. Videos show violent Vancouveritestaking out their anger on the usual scapegoats in such situations: storewindows, the police, one another, and of course, cars.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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The flaming undercarriage of an automobile has become such afamiliar image in the aftermath of riots, sporting-induced and otherwise, thatit has long since lost its shock value. These days, if a bunch of hooliganscongregate and all the cars are right-side-up at the end, it hardly counts as ariot. But when did car-tipping become derigeur?

In the pre-Henry Ford era, street mobs tended to make theirfeelings known mainly through the hurling of ballistic objects. The BostonMassacre, for instance, was touched off when restive colonists chucked sticks,stones, and snowballs at redcoats to protest the Townshend Acts of 1767. That practicemakes sense: It's instantly destructive and it's easy, even for those in thecrowd who may be less than sober. But toppling a 3,000-pound Toyota?

"That requires a real coordinated effort," says ClarkMcPhail, a University of Illinois sociologist who specializes in the study of crowdbehavior. "It takes some people pushing and other people lifting just in orderto get the car rocking. It's not something you can do in an instant on a whim."

It makes sense, then, that some of the earliest historicalexamples of angry crowds upsetting large transportation vessels had a practicalpurpose beyond simple chaos. In the American railroad strikes of the 1880s and1890s, irate workers (or possibly opportunistic thugs) overturned Pullman carsin order to block the tracks, inflicting direct economic harm on the industry.From there, it was not a great conceptual leap to modern-day car-tipping,although here in the United States, the exercise seems to have really taken offwith the race riots of the 1960s, when burning chassis provided irresistiblevisuals for news accounts. McPhail hypothesizes that this widespread, massmedia exposure is what led to the acceptance of car-tipping as standardpractice.

The Canucks' demise, painful as it may have been forCanadian fans who haven't sniffed the Stanley Cup north of the border since1993, would seem to offer a weak excuse for mayhem compared to the plight ofpoor urban blacks in the 1960s. But the sports riot has a long, not to sayproud, history of its own. As early as 1879, Australians stormed a cricketpitch in rage at an umpire's contested call. More recently, Chicagobasketball fans and OhioState football fans , among others, have shown that victory can spur human-on-carviolence as readily as defeat can. And Canada, despite its peacefulreputation , has never been immune to hockey-related hell-raising. Nor has Vancouver ,despite its reputation as theworld's most livable city .

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