Growing up in East Vancouver, Danny “Mouse” Williamson was taught to be tough and stand up for himself, even against the police.
“We didn’t trust the police. My dad had been arrested for different things. He was always a fighter and a drinker and he always taught me not to take shit off anybody,” Williamson recalled this week.
Now 63 and living in Grand Forks, Williamson is one of the original members of the Clark Park Gang that battled both police and rivals from other Vancouver “park” gangs in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We were young, rambunctious and thought we were undefeatable. And that included the police. … We either ran like hell and got away from them or we stood our ground and beat them fair and square.”
The story of the infamous Clark Park Gang has been told by Vancouver writer and historian Aaron Chapman in his new book The Last Gang in Town.
Chapman interviewed Williamson and other former Clark Parkers and pored over news archives, police records, court transcripts and other documents in researching his latest book.
He also interviewed retired Vancouver police officers charged with disrupting the gang, which could mobilize hundreds on short order for a street brawl.
Chapman said in an interview that he’s been interested in the history of the Clark Park Gang since the 1980s.
“As somebody who was born and raised here, I’d thought about it in high school since the night I was at a house party where people who were apparently the Clark Park Gang showed up and trashed the place and beat up a bunch of people and I escaped out a back window,” Chapman said.
In fact, the party crashers were just using the name of the mythical gang, which had largely dispersed by the late 1970s.
“It was one of the great unknown stories of Vancouver — the Clark Park gang and that name and who they were was such a myth for so long,” Chapman said. “It’s one of those old sort of secret stories of Vancouver.”
What he learned was that the Clark Parkers emerged from Vancouver’s east side when the city was very different than today.
“It all hearkens back to when Van was a tougher, scrappier place.”
Other gangs named after their neighbourhood parks — Riley, Dunbar, Bobolink — were no match for the tougher, bigger group of teens and young men based in the park between 14th and 15th Avenues and running from Commercial Drive almost to Clark Drive.
Chapman takes his readers through some critical events that put the Clark Park Gang on police radar.
At a Vancouver telethon in February 1970, Clark Parkers fought with Riley Park gang members live on TV. They were also part of a huge brawl at the Seafest, which was broken up by mounted police. When a large Gastown protest erupted into a riot in August 1971, the Clark Park Gang was front and centre.
A couple of months later, Williamson and others from his gang attended a concert at the Pacific Coliseum that was supposed to feature Chuck Berry. Things turned ugly when Berry decided not to take the stage. Audience members began throwing bottles of booze smuggled in.
Williamson was one of several guys who ended up on the stage as objects flew.
“We threw a bunch of that equipment off of the stage into the crowd — the microphones and I think even a guitar went off. The piano went down the back stairs. It was quite the thing that erupted,” he said. “We didn’t start it. The whole crowd started it really.”
In June 1972, as the Rolling Stones played the Coliseum, Williamson and some of his gang-mates joined hundreds of youth outside the venue attempting to get in at the last minute.
Riot police were on hand as tensions mounted. Soon, rocks, bottles and even Molotov cocktails were hurtling threw the air. Several police and rioters were injured.
Williamson said that police always pointed the finger at the Clark Park Gang.
“They blamed us for everything,” he said.
Following the Stones riot, the VPD formed a special undercover task force that the Clark Parkers dubbed the Heavy Squad or H Squad.
Gang members told Chapman that they were beaten and harassed by the H-Squad.
Williamson said he was one of those victimized.
“Then they started using dirty tactics,” Williamson said. “They couldn’t beat us fair and square so they were going to throw the book away.”
The H-Squad was disbanded a few months later after claiming to have broken up the gang.
Williamson was in and out of prison for a few years.
But he later moved out of the Lower Mainland, reconnected with his Métis heritage and began doing community work.
“I go into the schools and teach kids how to carve sandstone,” he said this week. “I was quite the hell raiser. Maybe this is my way of giving back.”
Chapman said the Clark Park gang was much different than gangsters today who are entrenched in the drug trade and armed with guns, not “bats or bike chains.”
“These guys weren’t organized crime. They were disorganized crime, which made it all the more volatile.”