Understanding the Criminalization of Dissent in the Gastown Riot

Since the criminalization of marijuana in 1923, there has been an increase in state power/control over individuals involved with it. This increase in power and control has developed into high tensions between police and youth. Over the years since its criminalization, many negative stigmas began to develop, which have labeled marijuana users as deviant, fiendish, and criminogenic (Boudreau 2012). As a result, a culture of fear was apparent within the youth counter-culture of Gastown, Vancouver. Many dissenters against the criminalization of marijuana faced constant obstacles from the police. At anytime, there was a possibility for a police raid and chances of arrest leading to either a steep fine or prison sentence. Thus, the Gastown Riot of 1971 historically marked a moment in time when tensions reached an all time high. Awareness was brought to the serious issues of excessive and illegal use of police power, along with strict drug laws.

An overarching theme throughout the Gastown Riot is that of hegemony. As Hall et. al (1978) discusses, hegemony is a dominant discourse within society that is maintained and controlled by the state (singular power). This dominant discourse is based upon common-sense knowledge in which the interests of the powerful are normalized as being the interests of everyone in society. In this context, one of the dominating discourses prior to the Gastown Riot was for the criminalization of marijuana. In addition, a large majority of the population was also for its criminalization, which made it extremely difficult for dissenters to raise awareness to inequalities (excessive police violence and arrest) they were subjected to. In maintaining hegemony, the law functions as a basis of legitimacy for the state, as any measures they carry out can be seen as legal. However, Hall et. al (1978) also discusses a ‘crisis in hegemony’ as something that emerges through the actions of those resisting the control of the state. In this case, the youth counter-culture comprised of the Youth International Party and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) protested to challenge the dominating discourse that was negatively affecting their ability to hold the state and police accountable for their actions. Through this resistance, the dynamic of power between the state and youth is evident. As Rose (2000) argues, every individual in society is subjected to government policy and thus must conform to the norms and laws. With this, the role of law and use of police function to include and exclude members of society. Those conforming to the norms of society and acting as responsible citizens are included, whereas those resisting become seen as the dangerous ‘other’ in the eyes of the state. Thus, the youth counter-culture being excluded from society were subjected to the strategies of control in place by the state.

In implementing strategies of control, public order policing exhibited prior and during the Gastown Riot was that of coercion. As Foucault (1978) argues, the police function as an extension of the state within the public settings of society. In doing so, the practice of police coincides with that of the dominating hegemonic discourse. In leading up to the Gastown Riot, coercive tactics enforced by the police ensured for the maintenance of order in society by repressing individuals not conforming to the norms and laws of society. The most publicized tactic was known as ‘Operation Dustpan’, which entailed the arrest of over fifty individuals by twenty undercover officers within the course of ten days (Boudreau 2012). This alone demonstrated the extremely coercive power of the state. Ultimately, coercive tactics from the police illustrated the criminalization of dissent to follow, which resulted as the Gastown Riot. In attempting to hold a peaceful protest to raise awareness, one minor suspicion not properly confirmed led to immediate forceful police measures used to quickly disperse a crowd of dissenters. Due to marijuana’s criminalization, it allowed for the suppression of the protesters power to partake in a protest. In addition, the eventual dropping of all charges laid against the police due to public inquiry, further demonstrates the power of the state to reinforce their legitimacy in controlling hegemonic discourses. Though the actions of police during the riot were highly criticized by the public and protesters, the law functioned to bring legitimacy to their reactive responses.

In conclusion, the Gastown Riot carries extreme significance as it exemplifies an event that brings understanding to the criminalization of dissent. The coercive measures taken by police displayed the power of the state to control a dissenting group in order to maintain hegemony. Despite carrying out a peaceful protest, criminalizing tactics still persisted, adding to a long history of tensions between youth and the police. As a result, this persistence can function to instill fear in those seeking to dissent and protest against dominating discourses in the future. Overall, this event contributes to an understanding of dissent and the obstacles those face to strive for equality despite criminalizing measures.

Works Cited

Boudreau. M (2012). ‘The Struggle for a Different World’: The 1971 Gastown Riot in Vancouver, pp. 117-135 in Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties. Edited by Campbell, L., Clément, D., & Kealey, G. S. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2009. Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978. New York: Picador. Pp. 333-358. [5 April 1978 lecture]

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (1978). Crime, Law and the State. In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (pp. 181-217). London: Macmillan.

Rose, N. (2000). Government and Control. British Journal of Criminology, 40, 321-339.

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