Chuck Dickson, who has 29 years of experience filming the news and has worked in Bosnia, Haiti and Ipperwash, said the experience of covering the Fleming Drive riot on St. Patrick’s Day ranks as No. 1 or 2 on his list of dangerous situations.
When the CTV newsroom began fielding calls that a frantic situation was developing at Fleming near Fanshawe College, Dickson hopped in the company’s SUV and headed to the hot spot as he has done many times before.
While he felt no danger to himself upon arrival, he was surprised at how quickly violence erupted.
Using his camera clock, Dickson had an exact time by the second for everything he saw that night.
He parked away from the mob and sought protection while he filmed against houses and garages, never turning his back on the crowd.
The crowd was chanting, “You F….ed up,” to the police, when he arrived at 10:30 p.m.
“I don’t know what they were referring to. The whole crowd was chanting. There had been arrests,” he said.
At 10:38 p.m. he had film of people throwing rocks at police. Some in the crowd told him of police brutality. Dickson refutes that.
“I didn’t see one example of police brutality. One of the things that impressed me the most was that the police were so restrained.”
The mob was throwing full bottles of beer and liquor at police.
At 10:45, Dickson called back to the newsroom to say this was a full-blown riot.
“It was starting to heat up just in the 15 minutes I was there.”
Police tried to disperse the crowd by putting on their sirens and driving around. It was a tactic that didn’t work.
“It just seemed to get the crowd going a little bit more.”
Someone ripped off a phone box and threw it. “I could see this stuff continuously hitting cruisers and police.”
The crowd got braver as they were getting away with this activity.
“It seemed to be, ‘Well, they haven’t done anything to us yet.'”
At 11:17, sections of a fence were torn down and boards thrown toward police.
Dickson said there were no discernable leaders of the pack.
Dickson expected tear gas, but will not comment on whether or not police should have used gas.
“That would be me trying to second guess the commander on the ground and I don’t have all the information. I just say they would have been well within their right to fire tear gas.”
At 11:21 p.m., all of the police moved out. They got into cruisers and drove out along Fleming toward the college. The mob swarmed after them. That’s when they came upon Dickson’s SUV.
As they repeatedly smashed the vehicle and started rocking it until it fell over, Dickson noted one woman who was particularly upset and disgusted with what was happening.
She offered to give him money for cab fare.
He also realized he needed to leave for his own safety.
“I got a couple of last shots (of his vehicle being damaged). Your sixth sense kicks in and says, ‘It’s dangerous enough. You need to get out of here.'”
Dickson got an EMS vehicle to take him out to the command post where he informed police he was OK but the vehicle was torched.
Interestingly, he got a call from someone the next morning who found a camera bag and tripod that had been taken from the car. While it was missing some equipment, some had been left in the bag. He estimates about $3,000 in equipment was taken (not included the cost of the vehicle).
The gas tank in the vehicle exploded. On a cellphone video Dickson watched later, he saw flames shooting out of his vehicle.
There was a topless woman dancing near the vehicle. When the flames shot up, someone can be heard screaming in the video. Dickson assumes the woman, who had her back to the SUV, got burned. She was about 15 feet from the car when it exploded, he said.
While on scene, he also saw a woman in a lot of pain from being hit with a beer bottle in her face near her eye (he believes she was a photography student) and another woman who appeared to have glass in her foot.
Dickson said his footage was seized by police, who had a warrant and came into the newsroom.
He also had to give a statement to police.
Dickson stayed at the scene until about 4 a.m. He referred to the incident as a spectator sport. “I don’t understand it,” he said, but he was glad he was able to help tell the story.
He added, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
His experience kept him safe as he did his job and then he knew when it was time to go.