The Rolling Stones Riot, Vancouver, 1972

There was a lot of excitement in Vancouver when the Rolling Stones announced that they would begin their 1972 North American tour in that city. Vancouver was still a small city, not yet “World Class”, and this was a major event. The mayor was Tom Campbell who favored a harsh law and order regime. The baby boom was twenty-five years old and there were lots of kids in the eighteen to twenty-four bracket which, at any given moment, is most given to criminal acts.

There were two large youth groups that accounted for a fair amount of crime; one consisted of young working class people who had grown up in the Lower Mainland, the other was composed of drop-outs, hippies, street people, rabble-rousers, and beatniks, as Campbell called them once or twice. Both youth segments were excitable and given to sporadic outbursts of anti-authoritarian behavior. From 1970 to ’72 Vancouver had many altercations that might be termed riots. There was the Sea Fest Riot of 1970 (the riots of 1978 and ’79 ended Sea Festival), the Hudson’s Bay demonstrations organized by the Vancouver Liberation Front, the cross-border raid by the Northern Lunatic Fringe of the Youth International Party, the All Seasons Park occupation, and a bunch of others. The mayor meant to bring these kids to heel. The police were supplied with three-foot long riot sticks and had a pretty good idea of how Campbell wanted them used.

In 1971, the police began Operation Dustpan intending to sweep the trash from the streets by aggessive enforcement of drug laws in Vancouver’s newest business district, Gastown, where hippydom flourished. This operation involved a great deal of harassment of people who looked like they might have a joint on them and a great deal of ill-will resulted. The young merchants of Gastown wanted to be friends and not alienate customers so they did not raise a fuss when activists for marijuana legalization decided to hold a smoke-in. So a bunch of kids gather to flout the law in front of cops wielding clubs. What could go wrong?

The Gastown Riot (Vancouver Sun)

Of course heads were clubbed and the good people of Vancouver were appalled. A city council member who had voted for the riot sticks was horrified:

“I’m shocked to see the use the police are making of the sticks… what they
are doing here is not at all like the demonstration we were given in
council when we approved the sticks.”

Opposition councillor Harry Rankin was disgusted: “Of course they hit people! Why else did you give them those sticks?” There were reports of mounted police charging up on the sidewalk and clobbering people who were trying to get away; a man whose leg was broken being ordered to get up and walk — he was beaten when he didn’t; the police swung their sticks with abandon (see video). Pretty much everybody thought that the police had caused most of the problems that night.

Riots in the U.S. — from the urban affairs rooted in racism to the Chicago Democratic Convention — had created a public appreciation of how police, failing to quell a disorder, might contribute to it and make things worse. In Gastown, shopowners — middle-class businessmen — were attacked by police as they stood in the doorways of their own establishments. That was upsetting and the serious citizenry shook its collective head at seeing the police use force to accomplish whatever it was they were ordered to do. Mayor Campbell commended the police but he had few allies.

Part of the mural by Stan Douglas, "Abbott and Cordova, 1971". Grasstown becomes art. It is instructive to compare this with the two previous illustrations in this post.

So, in 1972, the police were alert to the fact that they might be judged harshly if they were caught beating the brains out of young people. Now enter the Rolling Stones.

Since this was a show aimed at young people and since youth was such a noticeable phenomenon and the topic of many many thoughtful opinion pieces, the concert organizers decided to pander to that demographic: They announced a Youthfest (I don’t recall what the thing was actually called) where young folks could show off the cool youth things they were doing and people with something to sell could make a few bucks. That’s how I came to witness the Rolling Stones Riot of 1972.

I was working as a Company of Young Canadians volunteer (actually we were paid, a little). My partner, who I will call A. since I don’t know if he wants to be a part of this memoir, and I were trying to work with debt-ridden folks, especially the low-income variety. Our Staff at the CYC wanted us to organize debtors into a huge payment strike against finance companies. A. and I thought that was lunacy and went for something a little less showy. We did debt counselling and wrote a book. We had an organization called the Consumer Action League. And, as representatives of the CAL we decided to have a table at Youthfest.

I do remember the name of the outfit that putting on Youthfest but I won’t use it because other, legitimate, people have called a later company by the same name. Anyway, A. and I went to the Outfit’s office to see if we could get a Youthfest table and, mirabile dictu!, they gave us a table AND two tickets to the Stones concert. So that was cool.

The concert was in the Pacific Coliseum on the PNE grounds. The Coliseum was where the Canucks played at the time. Boards were laid over the ice and a stage erected at one end — this was nothing like so slick as the way they do it now. There was room for 17000 people. It was really empty in the period before the concert when smaller groups were supposed to play there.

Outside the stage area, a wide concourse ran around the entire building. This is where, during hockey games, they sold T-shirts and hot dogs. That is where Youthfest set up its tables. We had a table covered with gestetnered material (including a comic that had been scratched into a gestetner stencil by hand) and were available to answer questions, if any one had one, which they mostly didn’t. In fact Youthfest didn’t draw much of a crowd. The people who stopped at our table were taking time off from manning their own tables. Over to our right and across was Hare Krishna — they used to hand you a book and when you said, “Thanks,” and started to walk away, they would demand you pay for it. Big bucks, too! I think eight dollars. Tickets to see the Stones were six. To our left and across was a vendor table operated by the Georgia Straight‘s comics division. The Straight was in league with Rip-Off Press and other underground comix distributors — this was part of that famous conspiracy to corrupt youth and bring down western civilization that Republicans are still trying to stop. I got a lot of great comics there including the brand-new tabloid size Harold Hedd which included Rand Holmes’ comics about the Gastown riot.

Youthfest ran for a couple of days before it culminated with the Stones concert. Other groups were supposed to play during this time. I recall a program listing Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen one afternoon. I went by the stage, but no Commander Cody. Perhaps the Commander had worked out that he was unlikely to get paid for this gig. I did see Humphrey and the Dump Trucks, a Saskatchewan group, but only part of their performance. Or maybe it was all they were willing to do for free.

I didn’t want to hang around for the concert. The Six Wives of Henry VIII was going to show the episode about poor Thomas Culpeper and Catherine Howard and I wanted to see my ancestor rogering the Queen. Or as much of that as might be shown on television. Anyway, I was tired of Youthfest and hanging out in the Coliseum; I wanted to go home. I gave my ticket to A. so that he could bring his girlfriend and, when Youthfest shut down and the concert was beginning, I tried to leave. I was told by a Coliseum employee not to go outside, that things were looking hairy. In a little while, he said, the cops would clear the rabble and I could go. So, for the remainder of the concert, I wandered the concourse around the performance area. The area behind the stage was blocked off but the rest of the concourse, everywhere there had been Youthfest, was open.

I watched most of Stevie Wonder’s opening act from the concourse opening directly opposite the stage, looking out across the audience. Behind me was the lobby and the glass doors that were smashed — that happened before I walked up that  way. Our table was back at the very end of the Youthfest area — you couldn’t go any farther because past the Hare Krishnas would take you to the closed backstage area, but I could look up directly at the stage and that is where I watched the Stones perform. Across the way, opposite the Georgia Straight tables was a first-aid station. That’s where they brought the injured cops.

Now, I wasn’t outside but from what I can piece together from newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts, a crowd began building early. Some people had bought tickets that were counterfeit. They were upset and wanted in. Other people were there because it was something happening and they were ready to enjoy it. Others, it was claimed later, were there to disrupt the evening.

The police were lined up outside the Coliseum facing a raucous crowd. Somebody threw a bottle and a cop hit it with his stick. Other bottles started flying, the cops batted them away, then a whole shitload of bottles were hurled at the police. Inside the Coliseum, I saw cops bringing in others that were hurt. I recall one that seemed to have a broken ankle. I offered to help. The cops just smiled and thanked me and dragged their buddy back to the aid station. I realized as I watched them that they were enjoying this in a way: this time the cops were going to be the good guys. At no time did the police that I saw, many of them injured, look worried or upset. This was the kind of event that they could handle.

Things were intense outside. A guy, stoned on something, was brought into the aid station. His head was bleeding. Police truncheon? I don’t know and maybe this guy didn’t either. He got his head bandaged and I saw him dancing around the concourse to the Stones music. Then he danced into the seated area. A little while later he was brought back to the aid station, bandage trailing down his back, blood running down his head. The aid team bound him back up and he went dancing off. The sight of that guy, dancing delirious in his bloody head dressing, stayed with me as an image of the People On Drugs section in my mental scrapbook.

It was getting late and the concert was going to end soon. Aside from bottles, the crowd was also hurling molotov cocktails by this time. The cops pulled the plug and called in the mounted riot police.  These guys ride big horses, not your common cowpony but crosses with big European draught animals. These are big horses and they are quite intimidating. It took the mounted police a not very long time to disperse the crowd.

Meanwhile, as the Stones were finishing their act, a line of crew members, all wearing Stones T-shirts, lined up across the concourse to keep anyone from getting into the back stage area. There was one guy running around organizing this and I heard him yelling about making sure the cops were going to protect the Stones motorcade as it left the Coliseum. [According to Allen Fotheringham, Hugh Pickett pressed for a motorcycle escort for the frightened Stones drivers from about 10:30 on.] Up on stage, Mick Jagger was going through the encore, “Street Fighting Man”, stamping his foot like a trained horse answering a math question.

The lights came up and the audience began to leave. The side doors of the Coliseum were opened and people stumbled out into the evening. I still recall the way the expression on their faces changed as they walked outside, broken glass underfoot, a patch of asphalt still burning from a molotov cocktail, police horses stepping through the litter…

The next day or two I read the theories in the Sun, the Province, and of course, the Georgia Straight (and Georgia Grape, which was new). There were two main lines of thought. First, the riot had been caused by delinquents from Surrey. Now Surrey was often blamed for Vancouver’s problems; it’s very handy to have a nearby locality you can lay all the heavy stuff on. One news report talked about pickup trucks full of beer pulling into the Coliseum parking lot. Obviously those Surrey rednecks — no one in Vancouver drove a pickup truck!

The second theory had to do with the Clark Park Gang and there were two versions of it. Clark Park is one of a number of green spaces that were designed into Vancouver’s city plan. Some parks had swimming pools, tennis courts, a lake area, others were just a chunk of grass where, for instance, people might play boccie on Sunday afternoons, or the Italian Vancouverites meet the Portugese in a soccer match. And they were a place to go if, say, your dad was hammered and looking to try out his new belt or you wanted to hang out and sniff a little glue and meet your friends. Sometimes these groups of friends might get involved in a B&E or other such crime. That was the Gang. Clark Parkers had already been blamed for the Sea Fest Riot of 1970.  After they realized that they frightened people, the guys that hung out in the parks began mugging folks out for a walk. The police started patrolling the park and, shortly before the Stones concert, two cops were beaten in Clark Park. That meant war.

 The Clark Parkers and others like them were idolized by certain bolsheviks who thought revolution was imminent and that these skids would become shock troops. They were proletarian, they were tough, and they were cool. There were stories in the Straight quoting breathless young women saying that they knew a guy who packed a chunk — i.e., was armed. See, that was a big deal then and excited the revolutionary types no end. 

So one theory had it that the Clark Park Gang had instigated the Stones riot, just another example of wayward youth and alcohol. But a second theory had it that the Clark Park Gang was incited to cause a riot by the Youngbloods. The Youngbloods were one of a number of Vancouver’s self-proclaimed revolutionary groups. Supposedly, they were mentoring the Clark Park Gang, going to mold these lumpen kids into a shining revolutionary vanguard. This represented a certain vision held by the police, too, who hated both the commies and the local hoods. Superintendent Ted Oliver said that as many as five different groups were involved in the riot: “They had smoke bombs and they had stink bombs and they had molotov cocktails.” Some of the Clark Parkers were (and are) ready to take credit for the riot.  The Youngbloods, of course, accepted all the credit that they thought they were due which was all of it.

About thirty police officers were hurt, one with a broken sternum. Some say that injury came from a railroad spike launched from an air cannon wielded by a Clark Parker. Others that it was a hurled bottle. More than twenty arrests were made. The addresses of those arrested were from all over the Lower Mainland, not concentrated in Surrey or around Clark Park. Some of those arrested claimed innocence but, as others have pointed out, if a riot is building up, then you get out or you’re part of it.

One column I read in the Sun claimed that, as the crowd gathered outside the Coliseum, organizers tried to get the Stones to agree to having a live video feed of their act shown in the Agrodome which was set up for that. The idea was to placate the folks with counterfeit tickets and generally calm things down. The band refused.

The police came through as heroes. They made up for the Gastown incident and showed themselves to be the benevolent face of community order after all. Shortly afterward, the police decided that it was time to destroy the Clark Park Gang. A special unit called the H squad was set up to that end. H stood for Heavy. Usually the H squad worked in groups of three.

The Clark Park Gang, the Riley Park Gang, and the rest all disappeared over the next decade or so. They were destroyed not so much by the police as by changing demographics as Vancouver became a Big(ger) City. The word “gang” has a whole different meaning today.

Later that summer, the Youngbloods had a run-in with another revolutionary group, the Partisans. The Youngbloods ripped off the Partisans’ gestetner machine. They and the Partisans then held a self-criticism session overseen by the staff collective of the Georgia Grape. The Youngbloods admitted to adventurist tactics. The Partisans agreed to share. Not long after, the Youngbloods disintegrated as its members got real lives.

Council was frightened by the entire episode. This was a demonstration by maybe 2000 people at the outside. The police were well able to handle it. Even so, Council shortly afterward refused to allow Led Zeppelin a license to perform.  That was small city Vancouver back then.

The Outfit that organized Youthfest didn’t pay its bills and bankrupted.

Tom Campbell left politics in 1972.

The Rolling Stones continued their tour. They romanced Margaret Trudeau and Keith Richards OD’d in Ontario (according to Margaret’s account). In Montreal there were separatist bomb scares, one of them forcing the frightened Stones to cut short a concert. Street fighting man, my aunt fanny! Bunch of jet set jerkoffs. They couldn’t even handle a tour of the Peaceable Kingdom of Canada. It was a long time before I could listen to a Stones song at all and even now the memory of that guy calling for police protection gets in between me and the music.

Links:

Past Tense has a good post on the Rolling Stones Riot and another on Vancouver gangs of the day.

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3 comments on “The Rolling Stones Riot, Vancouver, 1972

  1. jenn (Teece) Pearce says:

    My cousin Danny was with the Clark Park gang and he was shot and killed by the Vancouver police.

  2. Philip says:

    I certainly remember that, Nov, 28th 1972

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