“The cops ruined what could have been a hell of a good riot.”
-anonymous student quoted in the Oct. 27, 1971 Commonwealth Times.
The Sixties was an explosive decade that saw much unrest on college campuses. Riots against societal establishment and the Vietnam War broke out at institutions like Columbia University, Berkeley, Kent State and Jackson State, resulting in tear gas, shootings, injuries and deaths.
The term “VCU riot” during this period, however, tended to be more oxymoronic than descriptive. There certainly have been “routs,” or disorderly retreats, and “near-riotous” events in VCU’s history – even an off campus riot on nearby Grove Avenue in early 1971 – but certainly nothing on the level of those larger and more radical universities. Disturbances here were more aptly suited to the urban temperament of this dual campus commuter university, involving such disparate catalysts as stray dogs, streaking, snow and Iggy Pop instead of sporting events, controversial government policies or Southeast Asian wars.
The first qualified campus “riot” after the merger from RPI to VCU in 1969 was the “dog riot” at Shafer and Franklin Streets. On Oct. 26, 1971, an employee in the administration building called city animal control about a loose dog wandering through Shafer Court. Later, as city animal wardens tried to seize that one and several other loose dogs, about 400 angry students gathered around the city’s animal shelter truck to protest the dogs’ removal. With only one stray in custody, the driver was able to get the truck out and to the city pound.
A second truck arrived and impounded another dog belonging to a student, who said he could not afford tags. With the angry students now surrounding this truck, the owner managed to get his dog out while someone stole the keys from the truck and deflated a tire. Another animal warden arrived and managed to get the disabled vehicle started and drove away on the flat tire (“making a horrible racket” as reported in the Commonwealth Times). He made it to Shafer and Franklin before he was surrounded and stopped by the angered, chanting students who blocked Franklin Street completely, forcing police to divert traffic from Harrison over to Broad Street.
The truck eventually drove away. The police broke up the crowd peacefully, and no arrests were made. After all that, the original dog in the complaint still ran loose in front of the administration building. Three years later on March 19, 1974 at the exact same location, a crowd of about 500 students gathered around 11 p.m. to watch and participate in a group “streaking adventure,” capitalizing on the fad of running naked through the streets just for the fun of it. Just after the event started, however, about 40 Richmond police officers stormed in and began arresting everyone they could catch, and clubbing anyone else within reach.
The scene quickly degenerated into a police riot, with 17 streakers and onlookers beaten, arrested and charged with indecent exposure, disorderly conduct and “being in a rout” – all misdemeanors. Charges of police brutality were lodged, as one man beaten repeatedly by a policeman with his flashlight had to be transported to the medical campus for treatment. Chief of Police Frank Duling claimed it was not a true riot, but “it was a near riotous crowd,” without commenting on the “near-riotous” actions of his own arresting policemen.
Vice president of student affairs Richard Wilson and dean of student life Al Matthews reported a verbal confrontation with three non-students who decided to block Franklin Street in protest of the police, leading them to conclude much of the trouble was the fault of outside “undesirables.”
By 11:30 the police left and about 40 students and non-students streaked through Shafer Court without further incident. According to the Commonwealth Times, “The first streak after the police had gone was a protest streak, and all those that followed were ‘fun streaks.’ We had couples streaks, bike streaks, a black streak and the topper was a streak by a stately looking student who rode down the street atop a Lincoln Continental – the king of the streakers.”
Despite promises to the contrary, Richmond city manager Bill Leidenger never investigated the brutality charges.