Thursday, August 13, 2015

1974: A Year of Unexpected Changes


The most obvious change in the air in 1974 was the unraveling of the presidency of Richard Nixon. While that was happening the culture shifted. Tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions. Among other things, it was also the year in which social causes went out of style for most of the baby boomers.

Going into 1974, 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, Frank Duling, announced that his department would not tolerate streakers running around in the city’s streets, alleys, etc. He didn’t care whether they were students, or not. 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 somewhat awkward in this period. Leading up to this point, there had been a series of confrontational incidents on, or near, the VCU campus. Perhaps the most bitterly remembered of them occurred on Oct. 12, 1970, after Allen Ginsberg spoke at the VCU gym. The city police used overkill force to break up a street party in the area of the 1100 blocks of Grove Ave. and Park Ave. Debris was thrown, a cop was hit by a brick and police dogs were set loose in the crowd. 

So, leading up what happened on the 800 block of W. Franklin St. on the night of March 19, 1974, Richmond’s police department had some history with what might have been characterized as the anti-establishment crowd based in the lower Fan District.

Several groups of streakers had made runs before four naked kids 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 this firsthand, because I was in that crowd. This scene played out a block from the Biograph Theatre and I had walked over to the commotion with Biograph usher Trent Nicholas to see what would happen.

Seconds later a group of some 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 assembled bystanders. A few of those 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.

The Richmond cops were acting like Brits in Belfast or Derry, free to abuse the gathering, at will. That the unprovoked brutality was about terrorizing fad-driven streakers on a college campus made it all the more absurd -- 17 people were arrested. Most of them were bystanders, not streakers.

In person, I've never seen so many cops go crazy violent. More important, it was without being in response to any threat to people or property. It was a shocking scene.   

Crazy violent cops made bigger news at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27, 1974, at City Stadium. That was where the war between Richmond's partying hippies and its police force escalated beyond all previous clashes. When police officers attempted to arrest pot-smoking members of the audience, things got out of hand. Way out of hand!

Several police cars were destroyed in what turned into a four-hour battle. In all, 76 people were arrested. This unprecedented melee, which I missed, put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, for several years.

1974

Jan. 2: To conserve on gasoline President Richard Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit, coast-to-coast.

Feb. 4: Patty Hearst was abducted; eight days later the Symbionese Liberation Army told the extremely well-to-do Hearst family it had to give $230 million in food aid to the poor.

Feb. 11: Richmond's Biograph celebrated its second anniversary with free movies and free beer and a wee prank. Once all the seats were filled for the 6:30 p.m. show thousands who had lined up around the block were turned away. For more on this event see "The Devils & the Details." 

Mar. 2: Nixon was named by a federal grand jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. At this point it was still hard to see that he wouldn't last out the year.

Apr. 8: Playing for the Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record with his 715th round-tripper. Later we found out about the death threats Aaron had received leading up to his feat.

Apr. 15: According to photographic evidence Patty “Tania” Hurst seemed to be helping her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. Nobody knew what to make of it.

May 15: Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co. yielded to pressure from the feds to take its contraceptive device, the Dalkon Shield, off the market.

June 28: One of the best films ever made, "Chinatown," premiered at the Biograph Theatre. It was owing to a lucky quirk of business that allowed the independent cinema to play several of Paramount's top first-run pictures that spring and summer. 

July 1: Argentina’s President Juan Peron died. His wife, Isabel, took over, which eventually lead to a Broadway musical -- "Evita".

July 27: The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to impeach Nixon. Three days later the Supreme Court said Nixon had to surrender tape recordings of White House meetings that had been sought by the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor. Nixon's presidency was in a death spiral.  

Aug. 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Millions of hippies celebrated Nixon's downfall; some of them stayed too long at the party.

Aug. 12: The Biograph Theatre closed to be converted by a 24-hour-a-day construction crew into a twin cinema in four weeks. The after-hours Liar's Poker games were the stuff of legends.

Sept. 8: Ford pardoned Nixon, which all but sealed Ford’s defeat when he ran for reelection in 1976.

Oct. 29: Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing crown he had lost by refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967. In Zaire, Ali defeated the heavily favored champion George Foreman by a knockout in the eighth round. 

Nov. 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed. Israel's enemies puffed up their chests. Lovers of peace weren't necessarily encouraged, but hoped for the best.

Dec. 12: Georgia governor Jimmy Carter announced he would run for president. Nobody noticed. Outside of his immediate circle of friends and advisers, who could have imagined it would matter?

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