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Tom Hawthorn

Yippies in Love: Exploring the Vancouver riot - of 40 years ago Add to ...

It was a warm summer night when rampaging gangs of men tore through Vancouver streets beating passersby with sticks.

Even unsuspecting women and children came under assault.

The police had a rough time of it, not the least because they perpetrated the violence.

Forty years ago this summer, some 2,000 people gathered on Gastown streets for what was billed as the Grasstown Smoke-In to peaceably protest marijuana prohibition. The night ended in what was widely regarded afterward as a police riot. Hippies, activists and tourists fell under the truncheon as police on horseback rode through a frightened crowd. Archival footage shows police pulling men by their long hair.

The riot served as an exclamation point after many months of tension. The city’s police tried to crack down on drug use even as hordes of teenagers flocked to the city to sample mind-altering substances. The mayor, Thomas Campbell, a millionaire lawyer and property developer, did verbal battle against hippies and longhairs, Marxists and Maoists, Vietnam War draft dodgers and the Georgia Straight newspaper. The mayor saw all of them as a threat – correctly, as it turned out – to building freeways and skyscrapers.

Particularly irksome were a band of anti-authoritarian merry pranksters who called themselves the Northern Lunatic Fringe of the Youth International Party – Yippie! for short.

It is this background that serves as the setting for a new musical, Yippies in Love, that opens with a gala Thursday night at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Expected to attend are about a dozen former members of a group that operated without membership cards. Or leaders.

The script and lyrics were written by Bob Sarti, a former Vancouver Sun reporter who both covered and took part in some Yippie stunts.

He wrote the play after interviewing old comrades, checking yellowed newspaper clippings, and surveying the CBC’s rich lode of archival footage. He said none of the Yippies regretted taking part. They feel history has absolved them.

“We were right. They were wrong,” Mr. Sarti said recently. “The bad guys were wrong. The war was wrong. Drug paranoia was wrong.”

The Vancouver Yippies lived in communal homes with such tongue-in-cheek names as The Dog House and Charlie Mansion. Combining street theatre with political activism, they tried to levitate the Main Street police station (an echo of unsuccessful attempts to do the same to the Pentagon).

A so-called Sip-In to protest the poor treatment of hippie customers at the Hudson’s Bay department store ended in smashed glass and the burning of the Stars and Stripes in a demonstration at the nearby American embassy on May 8, 1970.

The next day, the Yippies took part in an audacious incursion across the frontier, when a crowd overwhelmed border guards at the Peace Arch and marched through the streets of Blaine, Wash. The invasion was a protest against the invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio.

During the protest, a trainload of new automobiles got pelted by rocks, causing significant damage.

The local newspaper called the foray “one of the saddest and most degrading incidents suffered by the people of this country since the Alamo.”

Two months later, the Yippies held what they called a Be-Out at Oakalla prison, knocking down a section of fence but wisely not engaging several hundred guards and police in anything other than some verbal jousting.

The Yippies also launched a newspaper (The Yellow Journal), opposed a development while campaigning to preserve as parkland a four-hectare site at the entrance to Stanley Park (today’s Devonian Harbour Park), and ran a candidate for mayor.

Mr. Sarti, 68, who lives on Hornby Island, is the son of a New York cook who volunteered to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He came to Canada as a draft resister in 1968. One of his early Sun stories was headlined, “Yippies behind rash of street actions here.”

He notes the play, with music by Bill Sample, is a drama, not a documentary, though characters and events will be familiar to those who took part four decades ago.

Where Yippies were once vilified by city fathers, the play is an official part of the city’s quasquicentennial celebrations.

As a nod to recent events, a panel discussion will be held after Sunday’s matinee performance. It will compare the events of the early 1970s with the recent Stanley Cup riot. It is titled, “Yippies and Yahoos: What’s the Difference?”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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