Helmets, Broomstick Men & the Police Riot of ‘71

Posted on January 5, 2010


If you are a child of the sixties and early seventies in Vancouver, you will have heard of Tom Terrific.  He was a little poorly-drawn cartoon character who wore a tin funnel for a hat.  He was also—in the world of three dimensions—vividly embodied in the person and personality of Tom Campbell, Vancouver’s then-mayor.

Tom Campbell was elected on a reform ticket to replace the loathed Mayor William Rathie.  But Rathie possessed only a banal incompetence compared to his successor.  Campbell had failings on operatic scale, and fittingly, after a brief moment of glory, and after being welcomed as a hero, the brash new mayor was quickly dubbed Tom Terrific and outed as a fool.  His political career came to a sudden, noisy and violent conclusion in the Police Riot of August 1971.

Rand Holmes captures mood of Tom Terrific’s Vancouver

The seed of Mayor Tom’s downfall was his war on the hippies.  It was common sport in that era among certain demographics to harass and deride hippies, and there were parents who even raised their children to fear longhairs as if they were bears or mad dogs.[1]  Tom Campbell loathed hippies with a mouth-foaming intensity, and declared a civic civil war against Vancouver’s counterculture, using the Vancouver city police as his all-too-willing Cossacks.

The hippies had already infiltrated the Kitsilano neighbourhood (long before it ever became trendy and expensive) and seemed poised to overrun Skid Road.   Why anybody wanted to preserve the integrity of Skid Road, I don’t know.  But I guess in the comic character brain of Tom Terrific, this was a problem and had to be stopped.  Someone needed to take a stand against the burgeoning of the hairy unwashed, and Tom Terrific decided that such a someone would be him.

I was present that warm August 7th, 1971, to witness the event which brought down the mayor’s career, attracted there by a notice in the Georgia Straight.  The occasion was that now-venerable Vancouver institution, the annual smoke-in in support of the legalization of marijuana.  The event had in those days more of a newly-minted flavour, and as such it attracted tourists who came down there slumming from the more respectable parts of town in order to stand on the sidelines and watch the hippies—gathered in peaceful assembly—as they exercised their constitutionally protected right to mock both the law and the police.  A gigantic joint had been promised by the organizers, and was delivered too, and the watermelon-sized doobie passed from mouth to mouth through the crowd.  It was in fact herbal, and symbolic merely, being THC-free.

Sarcasm and irony.  Street theatre.  How could a cop tolerate such a thing without breaking hippy heads?  Was not a man a man?

The smoke-in took place in Maple Tree Square in Gastown, centred on the little patch of pavement in front of the flatiron-shaped Europe Hotel.  There were onlookers who had actually crawled out onto a upper balcony of the Europe to get a good view, and it was one of these who inadvertently provided the police with what they were looking for, an excuse to act and attack.

I saw what followed close up, since I had a position right in the midst of the demonstrators.  A spectator dangling his legs over the edge.  A little piece of neon sign being accidentally broken off by his foot.  (It was an old defunct piece of neon from a sign which had not been capable of lighting for years.)   And quickly after that, the police charging and chasing the scattering crowd on horseback.

I got out of there.  A friend of a friend had a room overlooking the square and a few of us escaped to watch, crowding around the window, looking down at the riot as it continued.  Watching the police roil about the square swinging their clubs and beating heads.

The officer who had been in charge that day later claimed that the police actions were justified, and that they had to disperse the crowd because property was being damaged.

The trouble with this argument is that the property was damaged by an onlooker not a demonstrator.  Also it was obviously an accident, obviously trivial, and only tangentially related to the demonstration.  And finally, the issue could have been dealt without in any way involving the demonstrators—since where the crowd was gathered, in front of the Europe, did not in any way block the police from dealing with the problem if they wanted to, because the hotel entrance was not in front but along the side.

The officer in charge also claimed to have read out the Riot Act whereby the crowd was legally obliged to disperse.  The crowd didn’t obey, he said.

Yet I was no more than nine or ten feet away from the police officer in charge.  I was positioned to hear, and in fact had heard the officer speaking earlier to the crowd, and yet I heard not an inkling of the reading of the Riot Act.  If the officer read it at all, it must have been at a whisper, with no intention that anyone would hear it.  As far as I was concerned, the police attacked the crowd without a warning of any kind, and I was well positioned to hear a warning if one had been given.  Violence first, explanations to follow.  That’s what it looked like to me.

And there are reasons to think that the police intended to attack the demonstrators from the beginning, whatever happened.

Something I remember vividly, but which I have never heard anyone mention in previous accounts of the riot, is the presence among the onlookers of a number of men wearing football helmets and carrying sawed off broomsticks.  They were standing along the wall where Carroll Street joins the square, by the entrance to Blood Alley.  Off-duty cops.  Obviously.  You could smell it from half a mile away.  And they hadn’t donned football helmets and taken up broomsticks the better to prepare for an adventure tour of historic Gastown.  No, here were some of Vancouver’s finest come down especially on their day off in order not to miss out on the longhair-beating fun.

Because, you see, being police officers themselves, they knew exactly what was going to go down.

The guys with the football helmets and the broomsticks are all the evidence I ever needed that the Gastown Riot of ’71 was indeed a police riot.  The police came to the demonstration intending and expecting to break hippy heads, and break heads is exactly what they proceeded to do.

Tom Terrific, hizzoner the mayor, after all, had told them that they could.

What I most vividly recall seeing from that window overlooking the riot was a policeman dragging a woman across the street by her hair.  Elsewhere I heard that a man’s leg was broken.  But most importantly, at least in respect of the career of Tom Campbell, was the way the mounted officers attacked the crowd, making no distinction between demonstrators and lookie-loos.  You see, among the lookie-loos from uptown were one or two aldermen who did not appreciate being herded into doorways by frenzied mounted policemen on a hippy-beating tear.

Thus died the political career of Tom Terrific.

Oh yeah, and whenever I hear an argument that upholds the police as heroes because of the violence they face on the job, I remember the riot of ’71, I remember mufti cops in football helmets with sawed-off broomsticks, and I answer in reply,

“For cops violence is one of the perks of the job.  Honey, they’ll do that part for free.”

[1] I myself thought hippies were a little silly.  Still do.  But I had nothing against the basic hippy message, which, given the realities of global climate change, turns out to be more relevant than ever.  If they had been able to make a go of their anti-consumer philosophies then, the world might be in a better position to deal with climate change now.

Posted in: memoire, politics