A Look Back at BC Gangs Before They Had Guns, Cars, and Money

Long before the rise of drive-by shootings and targeted hits in Vancouver's outer burbs, BC street gangs hung out in city parks, causing mischief and mayhem of a different quality and scale.

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Nov 13 2016, 5:00am

Photos courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press

Editor's note: There's a reason why British Columbia press frequently question whether we're in the midst of a gang war. Too often battles over drug turf are fought with actual tools of war (hails of bullets, anyway) between shiny SUVs in residential neighbourhoods. For the last several years, Vancouver historian Aaron Chapman has been investigating the rise of BC gangs before they had guns, cars or money. In the early 70s, gangsters were mostly poor kids in dirty denim vests, and their antics more often ended in fisticuffs and foot chases. That's not to say they didn't cause a great deal of damage on occasion. This passage from Chapman's new book The Last Gang in Town (Arsenal Pulp Press) recounts the Clark Park gang's failed attempt to gatecrash a Rolling Stones show, and hints at their seething rivalry with other street-level groups.

In April 1972, the Rolling Stones would stun local rock music fans by announcing that their Exile on Main Street tour would begin in Vancouver with a concert at the Pacific Coliseum on June 3. By '72, with the Beatles disbanded, the Stones had the pinnacle of rock 'n' roll all to themselves—and they could live up to their designation as "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band."

By 9 PM, when Stevie Wonder's opening set had ended, there were still some 2,000 people outside the Coliseum. A number of Clark Parkers, including Mouse Williamson, had not made it in either. "Usually at concerts, we'd get one guy to go in who had a ticket, he'd find an exit door to open, and fifty of us would rush in," he says. "Or we'd just rush the turnstiles and jump over them."

But Williamson and the other Clark Parkers were outnumbered by the fans crowding the doors, along with hundreds more would-be gate-crashers, curiosity seekers, those left out due to counterfeit tickets, and others who just wanted to get close enough to an open door to hear the music.

While Williamson had spent much of the afternoon drinking heavily, Kurt Langmann, an 18-year-old from Langley, had driven into town with friends to see if he could purchase a scalped ticket. He quickly realized that it was a lost cause when he saw the hundreds of people shut out of the arena. "It was starting to get ugly. Some were inciting us to just try to rush the gates and crash our way in."

As the mood of the crowd began to change, and with nightfall setting in, police moved uniformed officers to the nearby Pacific Showmart building behind the Coliseum where, unbeknownst to concertgoers, they'd set up a command centre with riot squad gear at the ready, including helmets, shields, and riot batons. What had been a low-key police presence overseeing basic crowd control earlier in the day, now quickly redeployed on the plaza in increased numbers—and full riot squad gear. The police had even invited members of the press to attend. It was almost as if they had been tipped off that a riot was going to happen from the beginning.

Two East Enders arrested in the riot, 1972

As fans who were legitimate ticket holders were still entering the Coliseum, someone on the plaza threw what appeared to be a homemade smoke-bomb, followed by a bottle that struck one of the glass entrance doors. "Suddenly there were rocks flying," wrote Kurt Langmann in a 2011 article for the Aldergrove Star newspaper. "This was our cue to get out of Dodge, or Vancouver to be more accurate ... We were all country kids, used to working on the farms, and considered ourselves 'jocks' who liked to work out at the boxing club ... We had teen bravado, were full of testosterone, and afraid of no one. However, this was no 'sport' unfolding before our eyes, this was pure insanity."

Eighteen-year-old Sandi Barr had also hoped to find scalped tickets. She and her boyfriend were on the plaza when the chaos began. "We saw two drunk guys pick up another guy who was loaded and start to use him to batter the glass door head-first," she says. "The guy was laughing as they rammed his head against it. I was shocked. I hadn't seen anything like this. Then I felt something whiz past my right ear. I looked to the ground and saw that it was a big boulder somebody had thrown. I said, 'That's it. Let's get out of here.'"

Constable Grant MacDonald, who had been involved in the "Operation Dustpan" cleanup of Gastown, was off-duty on the night of the Gastown riot, but found himself right in the middle of this one. (He told me that he didn't even like the Rolling Stones; Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were more his musical cup of tea.) MacDonald had been on the scene since earlier in the day and noticed the mood of the crowd getting worse, especially as the sun went down. He was among the first officers in the riot line, as the crowd began to taunt police and the first bottles were thrown. "You could see our bosses going through this new manual about when we could engage," he says. "You have to understand that the department had just gone through the Gastown riot and in the wake of the inquiry afterwards, they laid out rules that measured the levels of progression of crowd violence that police could respond to. So we were held back for what seemed like an hour, even when the bottles started flying."

While the Stones launched into "Rocks Off" inside the Coliseum, the thumping rhythm could be heard outside, where Bradley Bennett—now locked out of the concert—found himself in a group of fifty or sixty people charging the doors in an attempt to break in. "I was running and everybody was yelling and screaming and charging against one of the doors, when all of a sudden some guy arm-barred me in the head and loosened up my teeth. I was flat on the ground seeing stars when somebody picked me up, walked me to the street corner, told me I was in rough shape and ought to head home."

Rioting East Enders threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, 1972

As Mick Jagger strutted like a rooster on the Coliseum stage, and Keith Richards and the band rocked behind him, some Clark Parkers were doing their best to storm the ramparts. Mac Ryan had been in another crowd running the gates and managed to break through successfully. "We went charging in, and a few of us made it through the doors. But what those guys from The Grape hadn't told us the night we met with them was that the Out to Lunch Bunch would be there that night."

A self-styled bunch of cowboy roustabouts from Kitsilano on the west side, the Out to Lunch Bunch had been a kind of gang unto themselves. They were comprised of a loose affiliation of would-be ranchers, and men who had worked as horse wranglers on local film and TV productions (such as Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, shot in Greater Vancouver two years earlier). Some of them picked up additional work as security guards for local concerts; the two-fisted crew could be depended on for their size and strength. Despite a strong appetite for marijuana and some alleged dealing of it, they disdained hippie fashions and looked more like they'd just come from an East Texas ranch than a Stanley Park Be-In. "They were huge guys. They just overwhelmed us and gave us a bit of a beating," Ryan says of the fight that broke out. "We started to run out of there and then the cops came in behind us with the riot squad, so we got caught between the Out to Lunch Bunch and the police. All hell broke loose," he recalls, shaking his head.

As Ryan found himself between the cops and a hard a place, out on the plaza Mouse Williamson, who had been drinking most of the day, now found himself in the middle of the crowd when the riot began. "That's when people started throwing the Molotov cocktails. It wasn't any of the Clark Park guys, and I don't know if those people were connected to The Grape. Just then, a cop came up on horseback, grabbed me by the hair, and lifted me off the ground."

Williamson broke free, but as he did, the bottle of wine he'd been drinking broke, cutting his fingers. Blood dripping from his hand, he saw a friend being chased by two older men. "He ran by yelling, 'Hey, Mouse! You gotta help me—these guys are going to kill me.' So when the two guys got close, I clotheslined the first one, hitting him so hard he smashed his cheek on the ground and was out cold, and I jumped on the second guy and had him on the ground ready to punch him in the face. In my stupor, I thought something wasn't right and a second later, the riot cops just jumped on me like crazy and pounded on me."

Up on Renfrew Street where Bradley Bennett was shaking off the hit to his head, he watched as the riot got more involved. "There were people starting to pull the rear view mirrors off cars parked along the street, and throw[ing] rocks and bottles. It was getting wild."

As the night set in, reinforcements from surrounding RCMP detachments in North Vancouver and Burnaby were dispatched. The sounds of screams, swearing, glass breaking, and police sirens echoed across the plaza. Molotov cocktails (rioters had filled empty wine bottles with gasoline from the gas station at the corner of Renfrew and Hastings) were now hurled at police vehicles. When one of the gasoline bombs hit a passing RCMP patrol car, it sent a sheet of flames high above the vehicle, while another exploded on the street. At one point, Bennett saw a young woman carrying a baby walk untouched through the no-man's land between police and the rioters and enter the Coliseum. Police feared the situation would worsen if the riot was not quelled by the end of the concert, when 17,000 fans would leave the Coliseum and potentially enter the fray. One officer told reporters on scene, "If we don't [clear the plaza], we are all dead."

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