Monday, December 05, 2011

The Riots of 1974

Some years turn out to be all about change. 1974 was surely one of those years. It was also a time in which extremes masqueraded as the norm. The most obvious change in the air in 1974 had to have been the unraveling of the presidency of Richard Nixon.

In parallel, the whole culture shifted during 1974, as tastes in music, clothes, politics, movies, drugs, and you-name-it, took off in new directions. It was also the year in which social causes suddenly went out of style.

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 officers 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 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; cops had been pelted with debris.

So, Richmond’s police department 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 March 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 this firsthand, because I was in that crowd. This scene played out a block from the Biograph Theatre, where I worked.

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. 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. 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 I've ever seen from a large group of uniformed officers of the law.

Of course, I didn’t go to the Cherry Blossom Music Festival (which was headlined by the Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs) on April 27th 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. Several police cars were destroyed in what turned into a four-hour battle. In all, 76 people were arrested.

This melee put the kibosh on any outdoor rock 'n' roll shows in Richmond, with alcohol available, 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 March 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 showed up at the theater, claiming the prints and negatives had been stolen from his car — while he was in a store, briefly — on his way to deliver them to me. It was strange; I had offered to put the stuff in the theater’s safe, because he told me he felt paranoid about it. The cat 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.


1974 was a great year for movies, too. At the Biograph we premiered “Chinatown,” a superb film about corruption. We got it and several other mainstream Hollywood productions that year because Paramount and Neighborhood Theatres were having a feud. It’s still my all-time favorite feature.

Here are some other noteworthy events that happened during 1974:

January 2: President Nixon signed a bill mandating a 55 mph speed limit in order to conserve gasoline.

February 4: Patty Hurst was abducted; eight days later the Symbionese Liberation Army told the Hurst family it had to give $230 million in food aid to the poor.

March 2: Nixon was named by a federal grand jury as a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up.

April 8: 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.

April 15: Patty “Tania” Hurst helped her captors rob a bank at gunpoint. Nobody knew what to make of it.

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

July 1: Argentina’s President Juan Peron died. His wife, Isabel, took over in his stead.

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.

August 8: Nixon resigned in disgrace; President Gerald Ford was sworn in. Millions of hippies stayed too long at the party to celebrate Nixon's downfall.

August 12: The Biograph Theatre closed to be converted by a 24-hour-a-day construction crew into a twin cinema in four weeks.

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

October 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 then-champion George Forman by a knockout in the eighth round.

November 13: Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN with a pistol strapped to his waist. Supporters of Israel cringed.

December 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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Art and words by F.T. Rea

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