‘WHO CONTROLS THE PAST, CONTROLS THE FUTURE…
WHO CONTROLS THE PRESENT CONTROLS THE PAST.’
GEORGE ORWELL, 1984.
. . . AND THE PIGS WENT MAD!
THE GRASSTOWN POLICE RIOT OF 1971
all photographs courtesy of the Vancouver Sun and The Province, published by Pacific Press
BY DAVID MALMO-LEVINE
WITH DANA LARSEN
The solution to a traffic tie up was to
break open heads. The mayor kept predicting a riot, it never came, so the police
supplied him with one. If someone isn’t sacked over this one we live in a rather unpleasant town. Pigs is a dirty word and no one likes to use it, but there were some pigs loose in Gastown on Saturday night.
Allan Fotheringham, Vancouver
August 9th, 1971
Bottom line? A bunch of anarchist rabble-rousers used the
Georgia Straight to promote a protest against an escalating war on soft-drug users.
Two thousand people blocked the streets for about an hour. Some people smoked
pot openly. The police were sent in, in riot gear, without badge numbers.
They went berserk. Reporters took photos. It made the front pages. The public was outraged.
The inquiry into police brutality turned into a whitewash. The question
as to whether or not the police should have been used at all fell into a deep Orwellian memory hole.
Now, twenty five years later, this event, this question, has resurfaced . . . just in time.
ALL COPS NOW NARCS
March 14, 1969, Georgia Straight.
Don't carry cannabis in your car. Don't walk around with it on your person. You might me stopped and searched at any time,
not by a narc, but by an ordinary traffic cop, a cop on the beat, or one driving a paddy wagon.
Quietly, without the usual fanfare, every policeman in every major Canadian city has been trained and ordered to search
every young person who might possible be a head. Anyone with longish hair. . .
Genocide is a term poularized by the trials of the Nazis at Nuremburg. It's reality is as old as history, still with us, still practiced in various forms by US and Russian imperialists. But genocide is not homocide.
Consider the roots of the word: genus, type or kind, and cedere, to kill
thus, to kill, not individuals, but their individualistic traits, their
community, their kind . . .
Essentially genocide is the utmost expression of
cultural imperialism - the practice of stripping a people of their particular
cultural characteristics, and imposing on them by force the "proper way
of life." Thus in practice the powers-that-be use minimum force - arresting
enough to dampen enthusiasm, but not quite enough to provoke resistance.
Our power structure prefers to rule with that special mix of police terror
and material reward which is the trademark of modern "democratic"
totalitarianism. BRAVE NEW WORLD has been married to 1984.
The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a turning point in the development of Canada’s cannabis culture.
Despite the fact that the penalties for possession of the herb were second only to those for murder,
the use of marijuana became more widespread among Canadian youth than it ever had been before.
Nowhere in Canada was this change more apparent
than in Vancouver, where free-thinking and disaffected youth from across the nation
gathered to enjoy the good vibrations and work for what they felt to be positive social change.
Many Americans also emigrated to Vancouver at this time, seeking to escape being drafted for the Vietnam War.
The heart of the youth community in Vancouver was Gastown, popular among Vancouver’s youth because of its abundance of low rent apartments
and saloons. Gastown was named after John “Gassy Jack” Deighton,
a riverboat pilot who arrived on the shores of Vancouver in 1867 with a canoe and a keg of whiskey.
Legend has it that the local sawmill workers constructed a makeshift saloon within 24 hours. Deighton earned the name “Gassy”
because of his gift for the gab. He was always “gassin” his customers. When marijuana came onto the scene, Gastown became known as Grasstown by the locals.
THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT
The most vocal and eloquent outlet for Vancouver’s counter-culture
was the Georgia Straight, which published its first issue on May 5th, 1967.
The Straight was an eventual member of the Anarchist Press Movement, a loose collection
of publications that didn’t believe in copyright and stole material from
each other. Every two weeks the Straight brought forth a dazzling array of articles
and artwork from the perspective of the Gastown freak scene, consistently
attacking prohibition, censorship, racism, and capitalism wherever it could find
In Vancouver, these traits were found in Mayor Tom Campbell, who
had an extremely antagonistic relationship with the youthful freaks in the Gastown area.
The Straight described Tom Campbell as a tinhorn, crackpot nazi dictator,
and Mayor Campbell delighted in repeating the title with some pride during
his speeches. Tom Terrific, as he was also known, was a member of the Non Partisan Association
(a coalition of wealthy West End voters which still dominates Vancouver politics)
and was often referred to as the most succesful BC politician after Premier WAC Bennet.
Tom Campbell served three consecutive terms as mayor, finally leaving politics in 1972,
after deciding not to run again.
Terror Tactics Used:
POLICE WRECK HOME
February 8, 1971, Georgia Straight Front page headline
. . .8 to 10 plainclothes RCMP and Vancouver City Police, accompanied by 4 uniformed City Police staged
a raid on a house at 2176 West Seventh Avenue . . .
As one group of cops hit the front door another group smashed in the back
door, breaking it into nineOA pieces . . . one plainclothes cop was carrying a shotgun . . . One cop went downstairs
where Sherry, a woman resident, was reading in bed. He told her to go
upstairs. She asked "Can I get
dressed?" and he said "sure" but didn't move out of the room.
Another cop found a bullwhip in a room. His imagination (?) stumbled into
action and he made one of the women in the house expose her back so he could
"check her for whip marks." Walker, the narc, was offended when the people
used the word "fuck." Doug Dorin then told him that he (Walker) "couldn't
do anything without the word." He said Walker then took him into a room away
from everyone else and hit him in the gut a few times, smashed him against
the wall, and backhanded him in the face a few times. Then he was allowed
to return to the others.
Tom Campbell positioned himself as the candidate for law and order, and it was
during his final term as Mayor that Vancouver police were issued the three foot sticks which they
used to such devastating effect during the Grasstown Police Riot. “If you give a man a three foot stick, he’s going to hit people. We got along without them
before. We never needed to get them,” said Harry Rankin, a notoriously leftist
The Le Dain Commission was appointed by the federal
Ministry of Health in May of 1969, to undertake a complete study into the
"non-medical use of drugs" in Canada. The final results of the study were
presented to the government in 1973, after four years and four million
dollars worth of research.
In October of 1969 the LeDain Commission held
public hearings in Vancouver. The testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of
a more tolerant drug policy.
Among those who gave testimony was reknowned
geneticist Dr. David Suzuki. The Georgia Straight's in-depth coverage of
the hearings provided such memorable Suzuki quotes as "I feel marijuana
is not harmful in pregnancy," and "We must admit our present hypocrisy
in banning marijuana and LSD while our governments are making money off
worse things like alcohol and tobacco . . .the results of scientific studies are
now being distorted to fit public opinion - a situation not unlike that
in Galileo's day."
In April of 1970 the Le Dain Commission released an
Interim Report which dealt solely with cannabis. Among its recommendations
was this passage:
"During the initial phase of our inquiry, we have heard
bitter complaints and criticisms of the use of entrapment and physical
violence to obtain evidenceIwe believe that such methods are not only
a serious violation of respect for the human person, but they are
counter-productive in that they create contempt for law and law
enforcementIwe recommend that instructions be given to police officers
to abstain from such methods of enforcement"
In July of 1971 Mayor Tom Campbell was halfway through his term,
and had already announced that he would not run again. He decided that
his parting gift to the city would be to clean up Gastown once and for all,
and thus began “Operation Dustpan.” Undercover police donned wigs, fake tans and ratty clothes,
and attempted to infiltrate the Gastown scene to make as many
arrests as possible. On the first weekend 33 busts were made.
Raids driving out
August 2, 1971, Vancouver Sun
"Since Operation Dustpan began 10 days ago,
police assigned to the special detail have swept up a total of 109
persons suspected of possessing or trafficking in drugs. . .59 of them were
from the Gastown area."
End drug paroles
August 4, 1971, Vancouver Sun
B.C. Attorney-General Les Peterson urged the federal government
Tuesday to cancel parole and sentence remissions for drug traffickers
in Canada . . . drug pushers, he declared, are the worst criminals in
the country. His telegram did not distinguish between soft drugs such
as marijuana and hard drugs such as heroin.
Drug raid wrecks young people’s cafe
Auguest 7, 1971, Vancouver Sun
A drug raid by more than a dozen narcotic agents left the Last Chance
Saloon, 2064 West Fourth, in a shambles Friday afternoon.
No arrests were
made in what was the second raid at the same establishment in less than
24 hours. Thursday night, however, five people were arrested.
This time property damage of more than $1,000 far exceeded that from
any previous search.
A police spokesman refused today to comment on the damage but
said "some damage is bound to happen in a drug raid."
"A cop poured
a can of paint on a box of fruit," said Philip Hugli, 26. "They figure
if they wreck us often enough we'll quit. They want to destroy us by
destroying our property. Well, this won't stop us."
. . .Two men, both in their twenties, lit up a marijuana cigarette and exchanged puffs as
they surveyed the damage. "Anytime a cop wants to come here they'll
find grass," said one. "At all times in history there have been laws
that didn't make sense. Then people break it until it's changed."
The increased police action was applauded by the Gastown Merchants Association. Although these local storeowners generally relied upon
the youth community as a customer base, they were not overly fond of
the demonstrations and wild behaviour that came alon
g with the freaks.
THE GRASSTOWN SMOKE IN & STREET JAMBOREE
In response to the police harassment brought on by Operation Dustpan,
the Gastown community set about organizing a “Grasstown Smoke-In & Street Jamboree,” which was advertised and
promoted in the Georgia Straight.
The August 6th Straight printed that the Smoke-In would be put on by “a group of concerned Gastown People in
co-operation with Vancouver’s Youth International Party.” The Smoke-In was to be in support of
the following five point program:
Total solidarity with the more than 100 people
arrested so far in Operation Dustpan.
An immediate end to the harassment and intimidation
campaign which is being carried out in Gastown by Tom Campbell’s police
under the codename Operation Dustpan. We want an end to campaign which is
designed to drive all poor people out of Gastown. We want an end to arbitrary
police questioning and illegal searches. We want an end to Gestapo practices such
as blocking the doors of a pub and searching everyone – without exception – who
happens to be in that pub.
- An immediate end to the physical brutality currently
used by Vancouver police against long hairs in Gastown, Native people in Gastown, older residents of Gastown, Hip People in the Fourth Ave. area, and poor people generally.
Legalization of marijuana. We want marijuana legalized so that the drug laws can no longer be used as a weapon to drive poor hip
people out of Gastown, or even send us to jail, while more affluent people
who may also smoke marijuana are made welcome in the area’s emporiums of plastic.
- We want Larry Killam, Ian Rogers, and the other big businessmen who own and control Ga$town to donate at least 10%
of their profits for the next month to a legal defense fund for the
victims of Operation Dustpan.
An accompanying article, titled “How Not to
Get Busted at the Grasstown Smoke-In,” advised protesters to arrive in
groups and cooperate in destroying each others evidence in the event of a bust. It also
explained how to identify and defuse “agent provocateurs,”
get the badge and license plate numbers of violent cops, and in the event of a police show of strength, to not play “24 hr. stand-off,”
but rather go for a pub crawl.
The article did not promote any kind of antagonism or violence,
and asked those who attended the rally to give the police no justifications for arrest.
It encouraged restraint and withdrawal against any attempts by police to “manufacture a police riot.”
Gasstown crowd. . .before the police onslaught
THE GRASSTOWN POLICE RIOT
The evening began peacefully enough. About two thousand
people gathered, many of them tourists and passers by who stopped to join the
celebration. A ten foot joint was passed around, there was music and singing,
and young and old alike peacefully protested the increasing brutality of marijuana
prohibition and Operation Dustpan.
Demonstrators milled about in the square, listening to the beat of drums and chanting words like “power to the people.”
The slogan “power to the people” was made popular by the Black Panthers. Huey P. Newton,
Minister of Defense for the Panthers, explained the true meaning behind the
slogan when he said that “Power is the ability to define phenomena.”
At about 10pm Vancouver Police Officers charged the crowd on horseback. The description of what
happened next filled the front pages of local newspapers.
Riot-equipped police scatter Gastown pot protesters
A mounted police officer charging into a terrified crowd
August 9, 1971, Vancouver Sun
Sun reporters on the scene at the time the disturbance started did
not see anything broken, nor anything thrown until the four officers
on horseback rode into the crowd.
initial charge by police took place at 10pm, just after several youths
had gained access to a balcony of the Europe Hotel and hung two flags.
About 100 persons were sitting in the centre of the square at the time.
They scattered, screaming, into the rest of the crowd that packed the
. . .
The initial clash between police and the people in the sqaure
lasted about 10 minutes. At the end of that time police were in control
of the square, with the crowd pushed back to the sidewalks.^MDuring the
next three hours Sun reporters saw:
- Officers on horses driving people
into doorways and pinning them there while they lashed out at them with their sticks;
- 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;
. . .
- 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;
- 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
. . .
- Police horses galloping down sidewalks filled with pedestrians,
scattering them in all directions;
- Rocks, stones and bottles thrown
at police by gangs of youths who roamed streets within six blocks of
Maple Street Square;
- Youths and middle aged men and women dragged,
lifted and thrown into the rear of waiting paddy wagons;
- No police badges or numbers on officer's uniforms;
- Numerous groups of youths shouting obscenities;
- Police entering shops and restaurants to grab people who ran from the streets;
- Several plate glass windows in stores smashed;
- Pools of blood at several locations throughout the Gastown area;
- Riot-equipped police standing guard outside the public entrance to the
police station, at 312 Main.
. . .
Alderman Sweeney said "I've seen some pretty primitive
police methods down here tonight."
He said the police should have been wearing their badges.
Police break up riot, hold 54 in Vancouver
Undercover cops struggling with a protestor
August 7th, Globe and Mail
Eighteen eyewitnesses said yesterday that
riot police clubbed dozens of innocent people, many of them late night
strollers and shoppers, in clearing the Gastown area.
The eyewitnesses told an impromptu press conference in Gastown that
several police on horseback charged the crowd at least four times,
clubbing left and right.
Peter Fox, one of the owners of a shoe store in Gastown, said the
demonstration was peaceful, with a gospel group singing at one point and
bongo drummers entertaining the crowd, until police charged. He said there
was "almost a satanic arrogance" about the police as they cleared Maple
Tree Square, as the intersection of Water, Carrall, Powell and Alexander
Streets is called.
Charles Traynor, who runs the Tin Ear Record Store
on the opposite side of the square, said he saw police club to the ground
a woman who was pushing a paraplegic in a wheelchair. "Police went clubbing
women and children off the sidewalks. There was a woman pushing a
wheelchair, and they beat her senseless then pushed her into the paddy
Police Chief John Fisk yesterday ordered an investigation into
the riot. Eyewitnesses were asked to give information to four detectives
and a senior officer conducting the probe.
Mayor Tom Campbell yesterday defended the action of the police,
who were equipped with helmets, face guards and riot sticks before
the incident ended. Mr. Campbell said the police had the right to go
into the area. The only point at issue were separate incidents that
individual officers might have become involved in.
Witnesses tell of police beatings
Alderman Sweeney (left)
with Vancouver police
August 9, 1971, Vancouver Sun
Alderman Sweeney said that he saw police club and beat young people,
drag them by their hair and ride them down with horses.
Of their use of the riot sticks, the alderman said "They are using them
like you'd use a stick to beat a dog."
. . .
Sweeney made his comments in an interview while the battle raged only two
"I've actually seen the police run after people and beat them as they ran
away," he said.
. . .
"I'm shocked to see the use the police are making of the sticks," he said.
Sweeney was among the aldermen who voted in favour of giving the police
the riot sticks.
"They're supposed to keep both hands on the sticks," he said, "what they
are doing here is not at all like the demonstration we were given in
council when we approved the sticks."
Officers on horseback pinned people in doorways
. . . while lashing out at them with their sticks.
POST RALLY PARTY
The Gastown Merchants Association put on a “love in” the following weekend, ostensibly to give police and youth a chance
to make up their differences.
The Georgia Straight dismissed the event as being organized
by merchants more interested in maintaining Gastown as a commercial entity
than supporting the civil rights of their pot smoking clientele.
Mayor Tom Campbell didn’t attend, explaining that he feared there would be a
riot if he showed up. Chief of Police John Fisk said that officers could
attend if they wanted to, but that he didn’t see why any of them would want
The actual event lasted from 8pm until 2am, and police
estimated attendance at 15,000 people. The Gastown Merchants Association spent
$4,000 on giving away watermelon, hot dogs, and of course free alcohol. There was
a minimal presence of uniformed police, and some of those that did attend were
reported as holding sticks of incense and flowers given them by the youths. No arrests were made,
despite open violation of drinking laws and what the papers called
“a pervasive smell of marijuana.” However, the owner of the Europe Hotel did
report that Vancouver Police had rented some of his rooms for crowd surveillan
Ed Hicks, a spokesman for the Gasstown Merchants Association, suggested that
such festivals could be held every week.
Gastown traders criticize police
August 9, 1971, Province
"In most instances of this kind of confrontation
there is fault on both sides, but I can't think of a time when things
were as black and white as they were Saturday" said Gastown developer
Peter Fox, co-owner of the Fox and Fluevog boot shop,
suggested Gastown merchants fill their windows with black-bordered
photographs of incidents of the disturbance.
"For the first time in my
adult life I wept," said Fox, "I believe in law and order. Even when I saw
those horses galloping on those people I kept thinking 'The police have
got to be right, the police have got to be right.' But I saw it all.
There was no provocation. I couldn't believe that I could live in a
country where this was happening."
To contain public outrage, BC Attorney General Les Peterson ordered Justice Thomas Dohm of the BC Supreme
Court to hold an inquiry. Although the public anger was primarily directed
against the police, the inquiry was not into police brutality, but rather
simply “the disturbance.”
Justice Dohm spent ten days listening to public testimony from 48 witnesses,
and presented his report to the Attorney General on October 7th.
Dohm’s report was printed in its entirety in both the Vancouver Sun and
Dohm clearly states in his report that “the violence erupted only when the
police intervened,” and that the police used “unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive force.”
Nevertheless, Dohm still placed much of the blame upon Ken Lester and Eric Sommer,
the two Georgia Straight writers who were the main organizers of the event.
Even though he admitted that their actions were peaceful and non-inflammatory,
Dohm claimed that “the motives of these two promoters, Lester and Sommer, were bad. Their evasive attitudes persuade me
that they hoped that the crowd gathered would have a violent confrontation with
“Their efforts failed to work up the crowd, which compromised many gullible
young people who were there out of curiosity. The police, however,
overreacted and provided the confrontation desired by Messrs Lester and Sommer.
“In my opinion, Messrs Lester and Sommer, who testified at this inquiry, are two intelligent and dangerous,
radical young men. Their true motivation is their desire to challenge
authority in every way possible.”
If the “authority” Dohm referred to was “expert opinion,” then surely the demonstrators
were respecting it in attempting to call attention to the Report of the LeDain Commission,
which echoed their call for an end to police brutality.
The case is now before the courts
August 9th, 1971, Vancouver Sun editorial
It is especially inadmissible that one alderman
should go so far as to accuse the police commission, in advance, of a
tendency to "whitewash" the behavior of its officers. Vancouver's
commissioners, without exception, are concerned and sensible men whose
reputations bely the smear. An inquiry, if one is held, should certainly
examine the motives of those who organized the Gastown "smoke-in" as a
protest against a police crackdown on the use of soft drugs in the area.
The history of such demonstrations indicates that one unstated purpose is
to try to provoke the police into the excessive use of force and so to
discredit law enforcement in general.
“ILL FOUNDED CHARGES OF POLICE BRUTALITY”
Aside from recommending the Chief of Police should take “such steps as
deemed necessary in the case of the individual officers concerned,” Dohm also
recommended that “demonstrators should no longer be allowed to take over city streets,”
and that “the Vancouver police should have squads specially trained for crowd
Dohm recommended that plainclothes police should not be used in crowd
control work, and that officers in riot gear should be identified by a number on
the helmet. He recommended that the mounted squad should still be used for crowd
control, but “only be a last resort.” He even suggested that the number of horses might be increased “in light
of the violent confrontations forecast for the angry seventies.”
Dohm suggested that cameras and civilian observers could be used
when the police are expecting difficulty, so as to “counter act any ill
founded charges of police brutality.”
Essentially, Dohm recommended that the Vancouver Police Department
increase their efficiency so that they could stop any demontrations before
they began, and would therefore not allow themselves to be provoked
into donning riot gear and attacking an unarmed crowd in the future.
Dohm discussed the right of peaceful civil disobedience, explaining that
civil disobedience is only acceptable “when the law sought to be changed is
intrinsically reprehensible, and when all available constitutional attempts to achieve
the desired reform have been exhausted.”
Despite Dohm’s claims to the contrary, the protesters had met the conditions
set by Justice Dohm for permissible civil disobedience. The bigotry and discrimination
of marijuana prohibiton had resulted in dozens of arrests and a high ratio of
police harassment in the Gastown area. The constitutional attempt to end the
injustice was the LeDain commission, a report the “dangerous young radicals”
waited for patiently while their friends went off to jail in greater and greater numbers.
When it became clear that the recommendations of the LeDain commission
were going to be completely ignored, what other constitutional alternatives were left?
Who would remain to conduct the letter writing campaign if everyone was caught in a Dustpan sweep?
The Globe and Mail quoted Mayor Campbell as saying that “the police had the
right to go into the area. The only point at issue were separate incidents that
individual officers might have become involved in.” The Globe is Canada’s
only national newspaper, and so the rest of Canada did not get to read a small article
in the August 9th Vancouver Sun that contradicted Mayor Campbell’s assertion
that “the police had the right to go into the area.” The article (reproduced below) explained how the police turned a “blind eye” to breaches in the liquor act
the very next night, and actually blocked traffic so that a “street dance”
could be held on Commercial Drive.
According to Allan Fotheringham’s article in the Aug. 9th Sun, “the police’s concern was with traffic delays. Considering the harbor
to the north and the one-way streets in Gastown, it meant Hastings had to handle
all the flow westward.” Surely a democratic society should value (or at least tolerate)
peaceful assembly over “traffic concerns” – especially if the police
can handle similar traffic concerns for those who choose to drink alcohol. This
is the argument that the organizers may have put forward in their own defense,
had they been asked.
When things like traffic concerns and curfew bylaws interfere with peaceful assembly,
the result is, as one local businessman put it “just like Germany in 1935,
with people looking out from behind their curtains as the
police do whatever they want. They’ll come for me first because I have long hair, but soon they’ll be coming for the short-haired people too.”
This view stands in direct contrast to the attitude of Alderman Hugh Bird, who said “I’ll have to
get the facts, but you know these people wouldn’t get hurt if they’d just stay
Possibly true, unless the police happen to suspect you of growing, selling,
or possessing marijuana. Perhaps the youths of the Last Chance Saloon thought
it might be safer to get beaten up out in the street in front of everybody, rather
than just wait for the next police raid.
Police turn a blind eye
August 9, 1971, Vancouver Sun
When three restaurants
wanted to hold a street dance on Commercial Drive Sunday night, the police
blocked traffic for them - and turned a blind eye to what appeared to be
breaches of the Government Liquor Act. In Gastown Saturday night the police
tactical squad moved in when another crowd protesting drug arrests blocked
traffic. Police blocked off Commercial from First to Third so the Italian
Mclodi, Gallo-d'oro and Moka restaurants could hold Sunday's street dance.
While policemen put up barricades, a teen-age girl stood nearby drinking
beer. Tables set up on sidewalks outside the cafes were crowded with people,
many of them drinking beer. Only one table had food on it. It is unlawful
to sell beer on Sunday except with meals. It is normally unlawful to
consume liquor in a public place.
After the release of Justice Dohm’s report, city prosecutor Stewart McMorran reviewed
the evidence to see if criminal charges should be laid. On December 3rd the Vancouver Police
Commission announced that charges of assault would be brought against up to five policemen
in connection with the August 7th “disturbance.”
Mayor Tom Campbell quickly announced that he had been the lone dissenting
vote on the Police Commission, and that he thought that charges against
the police would hurt morale on the force. He claimed on CKNW radio that the charges against police
should be dropped because “there is not a serious charge among them. They’re assault charges,
which is actually just shoving or something like that.” Campbell also explained that
the army wouldn’t go to the courts to discipline a soldier, and described
the police force as “semi-military.”
The BC Federation of Police Officers purchased a
half page ad in the Province of December 13th, in which they ran an open letter
to BC Attorney General Leslie Peterson. Their letter requested that the
Attorney General intercede on their behalf and stay the charges against the police “in
the interest of maintaining high morale and efficient police service.”
The letter also complained that police officers faced the triple penalty of criminal charges,
civil suit, and internal discipline within the force, and reminded the Attorney
General that policemen are “citizens and human beings . . . husbands and fathers
with wives and children. . .”
Ten days later, on December 23rd, Attorney General Leslie Peterson re-turned
from a three-week Caribbean vacation to announce that no charges would be laid
against any police officers. Any disciplining of officers would happen within
the force, without any awareness or accountability to the public.
The first lesson of August 7th can be found in the police’s reaction to the
media. The police clearly did not want the media present
at their private Grasstown beating. The Globe and Mail reported that the police
even refrained from broadcasting their movements on police radio,
“a normal source of information for radio newsmen.”
Sun photographer Glenn Baglo, radio reporter Colin King, CHAN-TV cameraman
Len Kowalewich, CBC photographer David Looy, Province photographer
Dave Paterson and Province reporter Timothy Morris all claimed they were
harassed and threatened by the police to some degree.
It’s clear that the police are afraid of the presence of reporters,
and do not want to be caught on camera committing unjustifiable acts of violence.
If more of those present at the Grasstown Street Jamboree had brought cameras
there would have been a more accurate visual record of the police brutality. A small disposable camera
can be an excellent weapon for the pacifist activist.
Even more interesting than police brutality against the media was the
voluntarily blacked out news coverage of the police riot. The news editor
of station CKNW, the area’s top-rated radio news station, said his staff
had made an assessment of the results of their on-the-spot action coverage
of a previous riot. “We looked at it, the way we did reports there, and we
saw that the crowds were growing and so we decided we weren’t
helping any.” Had there been a community radio station in 1971 reporting on the
smoke-in as it was happening, perhaps the crowd would have been significantly larger.
The press itself aided the police in their cover-up by self-censorship. A
Vancouver Sun reporter who went down to Gastown on his own initiative submitted
a story about his being “pummeled by riot sticks,” but parts of it were turned
down because “the editor felt the reporter should not be allowed to defend himself in print
when the other people arrested do not have resources to the same defense.”
The story was eventually printed in full, in the August 10th Georgia Straight.
It’s also important to note that the “dissident youth” who supposedly
“provoked the police into excessive use of force” (August 9th, Vancouver Sun
editorial) were not allowed to defend themselves in print.
It is true that both the Province and the Sun took quotes from the August 6th
Georgia Straight to explain why the crowd was gathered there, and the Sun
even went as far as to quote Straight writer Paul Watson (now of Sea Shepherds
fame) who saw undercover police agents throw rocks and bottles and shout “Get the pigs! Get the pigs!”
But when it came to finding out if the the organizers themselves intended to provoke the police, not
one Yippy, Straight writer or “dissident youth” was quoted in either the Vancouver
Sun, Province, or Globe and Mail the day after the riot.
THE GRASSTOWN LEGACY
One of the legacies of the police riot was to prove the success of non-violent civil
disobedience as a method of bringing an issue to public attention.
When Vancouver experienced its first major smoke in since Grasstown on April 23rd of 1993, the
police hung back. This was a tacit acknowledgment that the relegalization movement
is perceived to have met Justice Dohm’s conditions for permissible civil disobedience.
When Edmonton did the same thing three months later on July 17th, the Edmonton Journal
even mentioned the Grasstown riot as a justification for the police hanging back.
Because of the photographs and evidence that made it into the Globe and Mail, people
all over Canada learned of the peaceful youths who were brutalized by Vancouver police
while protesting against a crackdown on drug use in their area. Had their been no
protest, Operation Dustpan would have had little to stop it from silently sweeping
up all the longhairs in Gastown. Perhaps it would have grown into national
legislation like the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Lest we forget,
both Operation Dustpan and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act share
many similar features, for example, the practice of making mass arrests through
increased police powers.
On August 7th, 1971, dissident youths of the 60’s found
out they had the power to stop traffic, smoke pot openly (nobody got busted
for pot that evening) and call attention to injustice. It is up to us, the 90’s generation,
to learn to use our power to its full potential, and eventually use it to finish the
job our parents began.