Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Richmond police riots in 1974


In 1974 being into social causes promptly went out of style for the glib and trendy cats. Going into that 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. But the VCU police department said if it took place on campus, streaking was a university matter and would be dealt with by its personnel.

The relationship between Richmond and VCU was still somewhat awkward in this period. And, 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 cops had been pelted with debris.

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

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four streakers rode down Franklin in a convertible at about 10 p.m. The crowd of 150-to-200 cheered as the motorized streakers waved. The mood was festive. I know because I was in that crowd; at the time I worked a block away on Grace St. at the Biograph Theatre.

Seconds later a group of about 50 uniformed policemen stormed in on small motorbikes and in squad cars from every direction to arrest those four streakers in the car. No VCU cops were involved.

After a lull in the action, the Richmond cops inexplicably charged into the crowd. Bystanders were dragged into the middle of 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 shocking. It was a riot -- a police riot.

When the dust settled 17 people had been arrested. Most of them were not streakers. They were taken randomly from among the peaceful, decidedly apolitical crowd that had been watching the adventure from the sidewalk.

While I’ve seen some clashes between policemen and citizens over the years at anti-war demonstrations and a few brawls, up close, what happened that night on Franklin St. was the most out of control behavior I've ever seen firsthand from a large group of uniformed officers of the law.

Of course, I didn’t go to the Cherry Blossom Music Festival, a month later in that year of police riots. That was when the war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes. From (April 27):
A four-hour battle with police rages after the Cherry Blossom Music Festival in Richmond, Virginia. The concert, held outdoors in Richmond's City Stadium and billed as "a day or two of fun and music," features the Steve Miller Band, Boz Scaggs, Stories and several other groups. But the music soon takes a back seat to the rioting that begins after police start busting people for possession; seventy-six people are arrested, and scores are treated for injuries.
This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, for several years. Click here to read more about the amazing Cherry Blossom riot from Harry Kollatz at Richmond Magazine.

Back to the streakers on campus angle: Richmond's city manager, Bill Leidinger, promised me there would be an investigation into the conduct of the local police on Franklin St. on Mar. 19 by an outside organization.

In exchange for that promise, I didn't go to the press with some volatile charges being made by a guy who said he had photos of the beatings. Unfortunately, he may have talked about them too much -- he claimed they were stolen from his car, while he was in a store, on his way to deliver the pictures to me. He got so scared he left town.

Leidinger did not make good on his promise. Eventually, Richmond's police department held an in-house investigation of its own dirty doings on Franklin St. It found that it had done nothing wrong. I regretted trusting Leidinger.

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-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

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