Punks On Hillsborough Street: Raleigh’s May Day Police Riot
Raleigh in the 1970’s was quite a different city than the Raleigh you all know today. Hillsborough St. was not the neatly manicured road it is now. It was a vibrant, if somewhat gritty part of town, sprinkled with strip bars and heads shops, where students, rednecks, and punkers mingled and drank. It was a time before hipsters and political correctness, before the trendy high rises and boutiques that are found there today.
Saturday April 29th 1978. The Park Avenue neighborhood was packed with upward of a thousand people. They had come for the annual “May Day” festivities, an all day and night party of music, drugs, and booze. Punk music blasted, ripping through the evening sky, as folks partied hard.
At 10:45 P.M. Th’ Cigaretz took to the makeshift stage and started to play, at that same time, Raleigh police conducted a noise test to measure the volume of sound in the area. They asked Th’Cigz to turn the music down, and Th’Cigz pretended to comply — although word has it, they secretly just turned the volume up higher.
“There’s a good chance we helped incite that riot,” admits band member Byron Mccay. We intentionally launched into “Get Off of My Cloud,” an angry and rebellious punk song, to help set up the mood.
After the song, with punk blood pumping and tensions rising, the band was found to be above an acceptable level and the order was given to shut it all down. Th’ Cigaretz stopped playing and requested the party goers to break up and go home. The police ordered everyone to stand down and disperse. But the restless crowd started chanting, still massing, and singing “God Bless America.”
At that point, for reasons still unknown, the celebration was declared an “unlawful assembly” and the crowd was given just five minutes to disperse. Almost simultaneously, 50 Raleigh police in full riot gear arrived at the scene.
The riot police formed a wedge and began moving into the heart of the crowd, large night sticks swinging indiscriminately at anyone unfortunate enough to be within reach. Band members from Th’Cigz jumped off stage and took cover in a nearby house.
Even the Park Avenue residents, watching the melee from their own property, were dragged from front porches and thrown into the waiting paddy wagons. As the dust settled, a total of 32 people were cuffed and stuffed, many still bloodied or bleeding from the brutal beat down.
The entire event would have been quietly forgotten except for three of those arrested that night, all News & Observer employees, who were covering the event. Despite having identified themselves to the police as reporters, they were arrested, and one was even beaten. Two of those employees were photographers, and the May 1st N&O headlines prominently featured photos of Raleigh riot police beating helpless party goers.
For weeks the story ran on the local news and newspapers, eventually being coined the “May Day Police Riot.” In the end, charges were dropped for all but three of the arrestees. Despite an outcry from the Mayor and city council, no police were ever charged with a violation, partly because the police had conveniently removed their name tags right before the beating started.
While the May Day Police Riot is just a footnote in Raleigh history today, many punkers, rockers, and music-lovers from 1970’s Raleigh remember that day well.
But guess what? According to Byron Mccay, “The party was over anyways. The beer had just run out! If they’d waited 15 minutes all that trouble could have been saved.”