42 years ago, Easter in Kansas was rocked by a ‘riot’

April 4, 2021 3:33 am

In 1979, law enforcement officers clashed with concert-goers at Herman Hill Park in Wichita, sparking community conversation about the abuse of force by police. (Submitted by Kevin Kerr/T-95 Radio)

Nestled in a triangle formed by Broadway and Pawnee along the east bank of the Arkansas River, Herman Hill Park in spring is an inviting patch of green in one of Wichita’s oldest residential areas.

The park is a landmark for the South Central neighborhood, a place where in the 1900s predominately white workers lived and played and commuted by streetcar to their offices downtown. Named for a Wichita mayor, the park was acquired in 1932. In the intervening decades the neighborhood has evolved and is now home to a diverse and multicultural population. Herman Hill Park, which is well-maintained by the city, is home to a police substation and the WATER Center, a treatment facility for polluted groundwater.

But Herman Hill Park is largely remembered by Wichitans today for a “riot” that occurred 42 years ago, a wild and bloody Easter Sunday incident in which thousands drawn to the park for a free rock concert were met by hundreds of police from Wichita and other jurisdictions. Nobody was killed, but dozens were injured, and 88 were arrested. A few shots were fired by police, tear gas was deployed, batons were used. Rocks and bottles were thrown. A couple of dozen police cars were battered, some badly enough to be taken out of service. Both sides blamed the other for the violence. What just about everyone agreed upon was that the situation got out of control fast.

The riot, which was the subject of several investigations, town halls, and scrutiny by the press, remains an enigmatic episode in the city’s history of police-public relations. Everybody was talking about the incident, and everybody seemed to have an opinion. Looking over old newspaper clippings, before and after the event, it becomes clear the Herman Hill Park Riot represents a city struggling to deal with shifting cultural viewpoints. It may even contain lessons for us now.

Back in 1979, the park was a place where local rock bands could purchase a $5 permit from the city and play until their fingers bled. It was a pleasant way for fans to spend an afternoon, and you could expect illegal sales from the trunks of cars and a whiff of something in the air that didn’t mean Lucky Strike.

Charles Hardwick, engaging in a bit of counter-cultural tourism, described the park for the Wichita Eagle, the city’s morning paper, in 1972. “There were enough bejeaned young persons in Herman Hill Park Tuesday afternoon to make Levi Strauss sit up in his grave and slap his denim-covered knee,” Hardwick wrote. The surrounding neighborhood frequently complained of loudness of the amplified music, and the emcee was asking the audience not to light any more fireworks, adding to the noise. The audience was peaceful, Hardwick noted, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company and “not to be hassled because their hair was long, their clothes freaky or their choice of what to smoke was illegal.”

But on April 15, 1979, things weren’t so mellow.

Thousands — perhaps as many as 5,000, the largest ever at the park — turned out to enjoy a double bill, “Roenarc” and “Smoke.” Predictably, police were called to deal with the noise and traffic congestion on Pawnee, but the trouble began when officers asked for two illegally parked pickup trucks to be moved.

The chain of events that followed is unclear, but some rock fans became angry with police, the police called for backup from other agencies to help clear the park. Things spiraled out of control, with the worst of the violence occurring between 6 and 7 p.m. Many peaceful concert-goers fled into the surrounding neighborhood, where some were sheltered by homeowners. A 12-year-old boy was separated from his family and was missing, but later was found safe. Almost immediately, the complaints came pouring into the city about police brutality.

Police cars were damaged, dozens of people were injured, and 88 people were arrested during the “riot” in Herman Hill Park. (Submitted by Kevin Kerr/T-95 Radio)

The Kansas attorney general became involved, and Chief of Police Richard LaMunyon was on the hot seat for a month, but he defended his officers. He did, however, investigate reports that officers from other agencies had fired into the ground to stop the advance of rioters.

A report by the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was delivered in July 1980 that urged the city and county to bring policies on police use of force in line with other communities, recommended better public relations, and encouraged the department to hire women and minorities. Although the advisory committee was already at work on its report before the Herman Hill incident, because of racial tension in the city, testimony from the Herman Hill Involvement Group — a citizen’s committee — was included in the study. The advisory group cited a February 1978 incident in which the co-captain of the Wichita State University football team, the president of the Black WSU student body, and an off-duty Air Force security officer received injuries during their arrests at a party at the Wheatshocker apartments. The city and the county sheriff’s department took issue with the report and, after seeing it in draft form, wrote responses that alleged the report was erroneous, misleading, or lacked relevant information.

The reforms that came after the Herman Hill included the barring of rock concerts at the park, the Eagle reported in a story on the six-month anniversary of the riot. The Herman Hill Involvement Group had disbanded by the time, but former disc jockey Jerry Sherwood — who had helped form the group — said the police department’s credibility had been seriously damaged. An internal police report recommended changes in some policies, including requiring officers to wear helmets when responding to disturbances, maintaining “adequate” supplies of tear gas, and resuming the use of police dogs by patrol officers. But many citizens interviewed for the October 1979 story maintained that police had caused the riot by overreacting.

Pat Hemmerich, who lived directly across the street from the park, was quoted as saying she had more than 100 concert-goers in her small house after the riot, many of them women and children, who had been exposed to tear gas and fled the park in panic. “I used to be a supporter of the police,” she said, and emphasized the term “used to.”

In retrospect, the Herman Hill stories seem unsettling familiar. We’re still talking about the abuse of force by the police when dealing with unarmed civilians, especially when it comes to minorities. There has been progress, to be sure. The 2020 class of Wichita police recruits was the most diverse in the department’s history.

In the four decades that have passed since the Herman Hill event, the nation has been shaken by the Summer of George Floyd, and the use of force by the police remains a culturally divisive, and perhaps defining, issue. For police departments across the country, community relations have taken on an urgent new dimension. While shootings by police rightfully command most of the headlines, it is the day-to-day behavior of beat cops and patrol officers that, for most neighborhoods, define the community-police relationship. More tear gas was not the answer in 1979, and it’s not the answer now. But more honest talk about the cultural changes we face will be part of any meaningful solution.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.