Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Police riot on VCU campus in 1974

There’s been lot of talk about “change” in the last year. Given some of the news about evidence of rampant abuse of the law that went on during the Bush White House years, no doubt change will be painful for some who supported the Bush response to 9/11, without question.

Some years are all about change, whether anybody wants it or not; 1974 was one of those years too. The most obvious change in the air in 1974 had to have been the investigation of, and the resignation of, President Richard Nixon. The whole culture shifted that year, as tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions.

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 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 from a large group of uniformed officers of the law.

Well, that’s surely because I didn’t go to the Cherry Blossom Music Festival, a month later in that year of riots and changes. From superseventies.com (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.
Click here to read more about the amazing Cherry Blossom riot. There were photos on the front pages of Richmond's daily newspapers that showed all sorts of mayhem, including a big-haired hippie jumping up and down on a police car, while other cars burned in the background. This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows, with alcohol available, in Richmond for several years.

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.

Maybe 2009 will yet launch a new style in cinema, something as startling as the French New Wave of the early ’60s was. Maybe 2009 could set loose a new sound as fresh as bebop or rockabilly were when they were new.

Maybe 2009 is the year a former vice president gets indicted for his role in ordering the waterboarding of a prisoner 183 times. Or, are we still sweeping things like that under the carpet?

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Anonymous said...


This is connected to your piece about the police riot in ’74 only through the aspect of change, but today’s 40th observation of Earth Day put me in mind of what felt like a possibility for change at the first Earth Day in 1970. I attended the campus gathering in Blacksburg, and while a lot of the speakers were as overblown as any you’d expect to find at such a rally, there was a sense that this might be how our generation would make a difference. Following a couple of years when hope was hard to find, that April 22 event brightened the horizon, if only a little. Given the optimism following that 1st Earth Day, it was a shock to the system when, 8 days later, Nixon launched his excursion into Cambodia, and four days after that, four fellow students would be gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State. So here we are all these years later and folks seem to be discovering the environment all over again, and we have a just departed President & Vice-President being suspected of war crimes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Washington, DC

F.T. Rea said...


For years, even though I was a Nixon-hater, I bought it that Ford did the right thing by pardoning Nixon. Now, I'm not so sure.

Ford wanted to turn the page. But the Republicans have been obsessed with payback ever since. The page was not turned. That's part of what fueled the Lewinsky Republicans' determination in going after Clinton.

Now, Obama wants to do a Ford-like move and walk away from the torture-related crimes. I understand why he wants to focus on the future, but torture leaves a stain. Averting our eyes from the stain just won't work.

This time around, with obvious crimes shaving been committed, somebody has to take the fall. This time I want justice, which will be a change for the better.