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Gastown Riot

Prompted by articles in the Georgia Straight, an alternative newspaper in Vancouver, hundreds of youths had converged on Maple Tree Square in the popular area of Gastown in downtown Vancouver in the summer of 1971. For the previous week, writers Kenneth Lester and Eric Sommer had been promoting the gathering to protest drug laws and recent drug raids in the area (Operation Dustpan). Hundreds of young people, many described by the media as hippies, had assembled in the square; some were smoking pot, others playing music or just wandering around. By 10:00am, combined with people on the street, the crowd had expanded to almost 2000. Inspector Abercrombie, who was the senior officer in charge at the scene, decided to clear the crowd after receiving false reports of windows being broken. He ordered the crowd to disperse within two minutes. When his first warning was ignored, Abercrombie ordered four policeman on horseback with riding crops to disperse the throng. They were followed by police officers in riot gear supported by plain clothes officers scattered among the crowd. Absolute pandemonium broke out. People coming out from stores and restaurants in Gastown found themselves caught up in a battle between police and youths, some of the latter throwing rocks, pieces of cement and bottles. Abercrombie quickly realized he was faced with a riot in the making.

Combined with police reports, it is possible to reconstruct some of incidents following Abercrombie’s order to clear the streets:

1. Officers on horses driving people into doorways and pinning them there while they lashed out at them with their sticks;
2. A young woman being dragged, screaming, by two officers who held her by the hair and one arm, about 100 yards over broken glass to a waiting wagon;
3. A police officer struck on the right leg, just below his knee, by a large chunk of cement. The crowd jeered as he staggered;
4. A young woman marching towards a group of officers shouting “You might as well take me too.” They took her. As they shoved her into the wagon, bent over so she was almost touching her toes, an officer shoved his riot stick into her seat, pushing her inside;
5. A young man cut down by a blow to his kidney area from a stick. As he slumped on the street a young woman knelt beside him crying;
6. Another youth held down on a parking lot and struck three times with a policeman’s stick. Still another boy loaded into an ambulance. He had a bloody bandage on his head;
7. A bottle flying out of the crowd and shattering between an officer’s legs. He sprinted into the crowd, raised his stick, but did not strike with it;
8. A man approaching an officer in a police line and asking permission to go by because he’d lost his wife. He was allowed to pass;
9. An elderly Chinese woman picking vegetables out of the shattered plate glass from her grocery store window;
10. Police horses galloping down sidewalks filled with pedestrians, scattering them in all directions;
11. Rocks, stones and bottled thrown at police by gangs of youths who roamed streets within six block of Maple Street Square;
12. Youths and middle aged men and woman dragged, lifted and thrown into the rear of waiting paddy wagons;
13. No police badges or numbers on officers uniforms;
14. Numerous groups of youths shouting obscenities;
15. Police entering shops and restaurants to grab people who ran from the streets;
16. Several plate glass window in stores smashed;
17. Pools of blood at several locations throughout the Gastown area;
18. Riot equipped police standing guard outside the public entrance to the police station at 312 Main. [Source: Vancouver Sun, 9 August 1971.]

Seventy-nine people were arrested and thirty-eight were charged with various offences. There was an immediate public backlash. Newspapers lined their front pages with details on the riot and its aftermath. The Vancouver Sun called for an inquiry, noting that the “volume of rhetoric and abuse that has been pouring out ever since [the riot] ... has so confused the public that only a detached, impartial and coherent assessment of the whole affair will now suffice to put blame where it belongs.” The Province was convinced there would be “deepening suspicion and hostility between young people and the police – unless Attorney General Peterson steps in at once and orders an independent investigation of the whole affair.” Naturally, the Georgia Straight was quick to condemn the police and point to the riot as evidence of a police force hostile to youths. Mayor Campbell defended the police and claimed that a conspiracy by Sommer and Lester was responsible for the violence; however, he publicly stated his support for an inquiry into alleged police abuses. Gastown merchants, sympathetic with those caught in the riot, organized a bail-fund and planned a social gathering for protestors and
police to ease tensions within the community. In late August, the Attorney General ordered Justice Thomas Dohm (a provincial Supreme Court judge) to investigate the causes of the Gastown riot.

The Dohm inquiry lasted for ten days and heard forty-eight witnesses. Dohm acknowledged Abercrombie’s overzealousness, and he agreed that the crowd had not degenerated into a mob and that individual officers used “unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive force.” His recommendations to the Board of Police Commissioners included: banning demonstrators from taking over public streets, training squads of police officers specifically for crowd control duty, using horses for crowd control except on sidewalks and store fronts, and eliminating the use of plainclothes officers for crowd
control. Responsibility for the riot, however, was placed squarely on the shoulders of Sommer and Lester, who’s “true motivation is their desire to challenge authority in every way possible ... Any popular cause serves their purpose if it enables them to gather a gullible crowd who may act in such a way as to defy any authority. The harassment of young people by the drug squad police and the resultant hostility was grist to their trouble-brewing mill.” Dohm, George Murray of the policeman’s union, and Mayor Campbell all blamed the riot on an anarchist conspiracy to cause havoc on the streets. The Province considered the “root cause of the whole ugly business ... two dangerous yippies [trying] to use a protest against marijuana law as a means of gathering a crowd for a confrontation with police.” This sentiment was shared by the Vancouver Sun, which lambasted Campbell for his inflammatory rhetoric but which laid blame at the feet of a small group of troublemakers.The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and other advocacy groups sought a deeper explanation. They pointed to the underlying strain emerging from the nature of the youth protest movements, with their illicit drug use and hippie culture, and the attitudes of the state and media towards them.

The CBC on-line archive includes a video clip of the Gastown Riot.


Further Reading

Campbell, Lara, Dominique Clément, and Greg Kealey, eds. Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-1982. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

British Columbia, 1971. Report on the Gastown Riot.






©Dominique Clément