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More than 2000 people gather in Gastown for the “Gastown Smoke-In”, a “street jamboree” in favour of marijuana legalisation that quickly turns into the most notorious example of police brutality in Vancouver’s history.
The event, quickly dubbed “The Gastown Riot” or “The Battle of Maple Tree Square” by the media, begins peacefully enough, with organizers handing out creamsicles, and students from Langara parading about with a 10-foot joint made out of straw. However, claiming reports of rocks and bottles being thrown, four policemen on horseback suddenly charge into the crowd, followed by dozens of others, who indiscriminately attack those assembled with riot sticks.
“What did happen Saturday night in Maple Tree Square,” Province columnist Allan Fotheringham will write, several days later, “by the accounts of dozens of sober and sensible adults who were witness, was a disaster for future police public relations in his town. What happened was a police riot.”
Both participants and onlookers are mercilessly beaten, with reports of police running down youth on horseback, attacking reporters, and, in one instance, dragging a girl over half a block of broken glass by her hair.
“For the first time in my adult life I wept,” Gastown business owner Peter Fox tells reporters. “I believe in law and order. Even when I saw those horses galloping on those people I kept thinking ‘The police have got to be right, the police have got to be right.’ But I saw it all. There was no provocation. I couldn’t believe I could live in a country where this was happening.”
In the end, 12 people are hospitalized, seventy-nine taken into custody, and thirty-eight charges are laid. After several weeks of public pressure, a public inquiry will be held, however, after ten days, and 48 witnesses, the Dohm Commission will place blame for the riot squarely on the shoulders of the Smoke-In’s organizers. No charges will be laid against any officer involved.
“The solution to a traffic tie-up was to break open heads,” Fotheringham will write. “The mayor kept predicting a riot, it never came, so the police supplied him with one. If someone isn’t sacked over this one, we live in a rather unpleasant town. Pigs is a dirty word, and no one likes to use it, but there were some pigs loose in Gastown on Saturday night.”
IMAGE: The Gastown Riot, August 7th, 1971. Image Courtesy of the Vancouver Sun.