Tuesday, August 05, 2008

1974: A year of 'change'

Part One

With good reason, there’s been lot of talk about “change” this year; it seems to be in the air. 1974 was a year of big changes. At the time, the most obvious of them had to be the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It took a few years of perspective to grasp that the whole culture actually shifted that year.

Tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions during 1974. Suddenly, social causes were out, socializing/partying was in. Going into the year, no one would have guessed the most popular gesture of group defiance on campus -- the protest march -- would morph into spontaneous gatherings to cheer on naked people as they ran by?

Yet, in the spring of 1974, streaking on college campuses became a national phenomenon.

Richmond’s police chief announced that his officers would not tolerate streakers -- students or not -- running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. The VCU police department said if it took place on campus it was a university matter and would be dealt with by its personnel.

Leading up to this point, there had been an escalating series of incidents on or near the VCU campus; police dogs had been set loose in crowds and city cops had been pelted with debris. But those incidents had ties to the subculture, in some ways they were to do with politics.

So, the City’s Finest and what might have been seen as the anti-establishment crowd based in the Fan District had some history leading up to what I saw happen on the 800 block of W. Franklin St., the night of Mar. 19, 1974.

A group of about 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars to arrest streakers. They ended up catching four streakers and then arresting 13 other people. Most of those others were taken from among the peaceful, decidedly apolitical crowd that had been watching the adventure from the sidewalk.

After a lull in the action the cops inexplicably charged from the street into the crowd of maybe 200. Bystanders were dragged into the street. One kid was knocked off of his bicycle and slammed repeatedly against the fender and hood of a police car. Others were beaten with clubs or flashlights. It was a riot -- a police riot.

At the time, I worked at the Biograph Theatre, a block away. While I’ve seen various clashes between policemen and citizens over the years at anti-war demonstrations and a few brawls, what happened that night on Franklin St. was the most violent and out of control behavior I've ever seen from that many uniformed officers of the law.

That’s probably because I didn’t go to the Cherry Blossom Music Festival that unfolded at City Stadium a month later of that year. More about the outdoor music fest that spawned a four-hour riot will appear in Part Two of 1974: A year of 'change.'

In the meantime, click here to read about the streaking incident on VCU's campus. Click here to read about the Cherry Blossom riot and to see a fantastic slideshow at inRich.

This year’s presidential campaign and the spike in the price of oil have been sweeping away many long-held notions. Maybe 2008 will yet launch a new style in cinema, something as startling as the French New Wave of the early ’60s was. Maybe it could set loose a new sound as fresh as bebop or rockabilly were when they were new.

In a year that might see a black man elected president of the United States, who knows what other changes will take place?

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