Media Representations of Gastown Riot

Preceding the Gastown riot, a local alternative newspaper known as the Georgia Straight published an article titled ‘smoke-in’. In response to police harassment and brutality from ‘operation dustpan’ the Georgia Straight forum represented a side for the youth counter-culture to present their experiences of unequal treatment. In the article, the author stated, “were serious about supporting our brothers and sisters in jail, about having a good time, despite anything the pigs can do to us…see you at the smoke-in” (Georgia Straight 1971). In this statement, a clear opposition is evident through reference to the local police as pigs. In addition, the article went on to stress the importance of the smoke-in to be a peaceful protest that will allow those subjected to police brutality to raise awareness to the general public. In doing so, the writer stated, “Give them no grounds to manufacture a riot. Do not provoke the police” (Georgia Straight 1971). With this, early narratives from protesters are seen being aware of potentials for more police violence and to be proactive in avoiding further conflicts.

After the event on August 7, 1971, the riot immediately received widespread attention and became the hot topic for mainstream media outlets for months to follow. As argued by Boykoff (2007a), depictions of social movements by the mass media often function to undermine and deprecate the interests of protesters fighting for social equality. In constructing and representing social movements in a given light, mass media outlets utilize various framing techniques in order to generate public discourse surrounding an event such as the Gastown riot. As evident within the Gastown riot media coverage, dominant frames include that of violence and disruption (Boykoff 2007a). In addition, as discussed by Boykoff (2007b), a subtle form of suppression by the media known as false balance is evident throughout the media coverage of the riot. With this, false balance entails a mano-a-mano showdown between two opposing sides, which in this case is between the local police and youth counter-culture. This is represented both through video coverage of the riot and multiple new stories covering accounts from police and protesters. As was the case, though coverage was provided from witnesses and protesters, the police and justification for their actions dominated news stories.

Early representations/narratives from the media portrayed an overarching theme of violence resulting from the riot. At the same time, accounts from both police and demonstrators along with witnesses presented rationales for the violence that took place. In footage covered by CBC, violent encounters between police and youth along with other members of the public are depicted. In response to this, mayor Tom Campbell was interviewed and quoted saying that he had commended the police in their actions and that they must have had reason for doing so. In addition, the mayor explained that all victims of police violence could not have been innocent due to the number of arrests made. With this, onus is placed on demonstrators as their actions are questioned and not only those of the police. In response to this violent outbreak, members of the general public sought an inquiry of the police in order to seek accountability. An article published shortly after the riot, stated that, “city alderman and eyewitnesses charged police with using excessive force…they called for an outside investigation by the attorney-general” (Toronto Star 1971b). The article also pointed out the publics support of police had been questioned as it stated, “The Gastown Merchants Association, which had earlier given full support of the police in their efforts to clean out the drug dealers seemed to have swung 180 degrees in their attitude” (Toronto Star 1971b). Thus, due to the circumstances of the protest, which had demonstrators and the general public present, many had witnessed violence that is often reported in the news.

In an article from the Toronto Star, the riot was labeled as a ‘bloody disturbance’ alluding to the presence of violence between demonstrators and the police (Toronto Star 1971b). The article went on to describe demonstrators being charged with offences varying from obstruction of a police officer to possession of a dangerous weapon. On top of the violence between police and demonstrators, the frame of disruption was evident as the crowd present at the protest included, “demonstrators, merchants, tourists, weekend fun-seekers and local street people” (Toronto Star 1971a). Location of the protest was one where the general public is present on a daily basis to go and have a good time. Therefore, the media’s portrayal of the protest as a ‘bloody disturbance’ is one where innocent bystanders are the victim to the groups protest against police corruption. With this, the Mayor warned citizens of Vancouver to be cautious when coming to Gastown for the next few weeks after the riot, as tensions were high. Mayor Tom Campbell stated, “Anyone who goes to Gastown in the next two weeks is just asking for what they get…don’t blame me” (Toronto Star 1971a). In addition, media portrayal of the protest indirectly assigned blame to the protesters as it was stated, “About 1,000 spectators attracted by the music and antics of the demonstrators also converged on the square” (Toronto Star 1971a). The actions of the protesters are explained to have raised the attention of the general public, alluding to a larger number of people eventually becoming subjected to the riot break out that occurred. In turn, the portrayals of the protesters as attracting bystanders and causing harm to them functions to de-legitimize their purpose. Their message of raising awareness of police violence becomes distorted amongst violence and disruption framing within the media.

As a result of violence and disruption frames, the subtle form of false balance is evident through dominant narratives within the media coverage providing an outlet for police and government officials to defend and justify the actions that occurred from the riot. An article from the Globe and Mail headlined, “Couldn’t have cleared Gastown riot square without horses: officer” (Globe and Mail 1971b). Here, the media referenced Inspector Abercrombie, who was responsible for the Vancouver City Police, to get his account of the police force used during the riot. It was stated that Abercrombie wouldn’t have been able to clear the demonstrators if it was not for the use of police due to the high volume of people. In addition, Abercrombie added, “six policemen were hurt in the disturbance but it would have been more without the use of mounted officers” (Globe and Mail 1971b). Media coverage here provides the reader with rationale and justification from the police force. In response to the actions used against protesters, demonstrators were deemed a threat to the officer’s safety. In another article covered by the Globe and Mail, reference to lawyers from the police union stated that a conspiracy created by demonstrators apart for the Youth International Party were responsible for the riot (Globe and Mail 1971a). In response to incidences of witnesses recalling police brutality, the lawyer stated that, “it was difficult to justify the beating of one man who gave evidence except that in an action of this type some mistakes will be made” (Globe and Mail 1971a). Thus, in response to the general publics initial outrage of police violence, the lawyer reaffirms that this was an exception due to the event being unprecedented.

Counter to the police narrative was that of the protesters and general public involved in the riot. Initial reactions from the Georgia Straight stated, “Inspector Abercrombie and his riot squad boys should be charged with inciting to riot, obstructing citizens, assault, excessive brutality and misconduct. They should be brought to court and duly tried in a fair trial in court” (Watson 1971). In addition, the Georgia Straight expressed strong feelings towards the actions of undercover police and argued that they were the source of the riot. In relation to this, an article from the Globe and Mail had a headline reading, “Policeman had look of vengeance” (Globe and Mail 1971c). Here, an account from a doctor that was a bystander to the event was presented. The doctor was quoted saying, “Policeman with a look of vengeance and hate on his face rode his horse into the crowd” (Globe and Mail 1971c). This witness account depicts the officers in a different light from the majority of media representations following the event. In addition to officer’s use of force against demonstrators, their use of force here is expressed as irrational due to an officer’s emotions. At the same time, an account from a local doctor provides a sense of trustworthiness to other members of the public. In another instance, a bystander states, “Another mounted policeman rode on the sidewalk, swinging his club into a group of young people he forced against doorways and windows. And he honestly seemed to enjoy himself” (Globe and Mail 1971c). Counter to police and government official narratives, the officer depictions in this article represent them as abusers of power and showing no remorse for their actions.

In the end, varying media representations of the riot have an adverse affect on the perceptions of the general public. Though protesters and bystanders addressed police violence, multiple articles representing police actions as justifiable defer from the violence that took place. As a result, the purpose of the protest becomes ignored and buried amongst multiple articles focusing solely on the riot and public inquiry that followed. In addition, there was no questioning of police training within in the media in response to the events at the riot. Furthermore, conflicting stories throughout the media discourse may have been problematic for the courts decision and overseeing of evidence and witness accounts. An inability to reach common understandings of what took place thus worked to delegitimize the events that took place. As was the result, all charges against protesters and police in connection to the riot were dropped.


Works Cited

Boykoff, J. (2007a). Mass Media Deprecation. In Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (pp. 216-247). Oakland: AK Press.

Boykoff, J. (2007b). Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard. In Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (pp. 248-260). Oakland: AK Press.

CBC (1971). Gastown riots over Vancouver smoke-in [Television series episode]. In Summer Weekend. Doug Collins.

Georgia Straight (1971, August 6). Smoke-In. Georgia Straight, Vol. 5. No. 190.

Globe and Mail (1971a, October 2). Conspiracy by youth organization members led to Gastown riot, police lawyer says. ProQuest: Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Globe and Mail (1971b, September 24). Couldn’t have cleared Gastown riot square without horses: Officer. ProQuest: Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Globe and Mail (1971c, September 28). Policemen had look of vengeance, hate, MD, tells probe into Gastown fracas. ProQuest: Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Toronto Star (1971a, August 11). Enter Gastown at your own peril mayor warns Vancouver citizen. ProQuest: Toronto Star. Retrieved from

Toronto Star (1971b, August 9). Probe of police urged after Vancouver riot.ProQuest: Toronto Star. Retrieved from

Watson, P. (1971, August 13). Plainclothes Men Incite Riot. Georgia Straight, Vol. 5 No. 192.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: