On the 7th of August, 1971, young people gathered at Maple Tree Square in Gastown to protest drug laws and recent drug raids carried out by Vancouver Police. Referred to by city police as Operation Dustpan, the raids had led to fifty-nine arrests in Gastown in just ten days.
It all began as a peaceful protest. Organized by the Youth International Party, also known as the Vancouver Yippies, the protesters gathered for a public “smoke-in at Maple Tree Square. By only 10:00 am the hundreds of protesters had grown in numbers until there were nearly 2000.
Then, false reports that windows had been broken in the area led Inspector Abercrombie, the senior police officer on duty there, to insist on clearing the square within two minutes. When protesters ignored his demands, Abercrombie reacted with force. He sent four mounted police into the crowd of protesters, along with other police officers in riot gear and others in civilian clothing. A riot quickly broke out.
According to an article published by the Vancouver Sun on August 9th, just two days after the upheaval, the police began by breaking through the crowd, pushing people into doorways and forcibly retaining them there, attacking them with riot sticks. Two police officers reportedly grabbed a woman by the hair and dragged her, screaming, for approximately 100 yards over broken glass. Mounted police were seen galloping down sidewalks filled with pedestrians. Police were even reported to enter restaurants and shops, grabbing those who had attempted to take refuge from the street mayhem. Police were later criticized for their excessive violence and for wearing no badges or numbers by which they could be identified.
The civilians responded with like violence, and chaos ensued. People shouted obscenities at the officers, and someone in the crowd threw a large piece of cement at an officer. Windows of local buildings were smashed, and pools of blood gathered.
In the end, seventy-nine people were arrested and thirty-eight were charged, but there was widespread public backlash, and local newspapers began to publish the grisly details of the riots on their front pages. The Vancouver Sun called for an independent investigation. The Georgia Straight condemned the police brutality, but the mayor, Tom Campbell, accused Eric Sommer and Kenneth Lester, two Georgia Straight writers, for having incited the violence by writing articles calling for protest.
Still, Campbell supported the idea of an inquiry, and before the end of August the attorney general ordered Thomas Dohm, a BC Supreme Court judge, to lead an investigation. Ten days and forty-eight witnesses later Dohm found that Abercrombie and his officers had used “unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive force,” and that the crowd had not resorted to violence until he had done so, although Dohm ultimately blamed the riot on Lester and Sommer. Dohm asserted that the riot was rooted in an anarchist conspiracy to upset peace in the streets. Also aptly known as “The Battle of Maple Tree Square,” the Gastown Riot is remembered as one of Vancouver’s most notorious and bloody riots.