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FYI: The official colors for Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. These colors where chosen in 1872 by the King of Carnival, Rex. He chose these colors to stand for the following: Purple represents justice, green stands for faith, and gold stands for power.

Party like it’s Sunday afternoon?

SLO Mardi Gras organizers fought for their right to party and won … now what?


The Mardi Gras parade is on and, frankly, no one knows quite what to expect. Will 20,000 people show up on a Sunday afternoon to watch the festivities? Will they be sober? Will there be flashing? Or will a Sunday afternoon parade time effectively dampen the event, rendering it inconsequential?

Last year Mardi Gras organizers, facing a potential $100,000 usage fee from the city, through the ACLU sued the City of SLO over its special events ordinance, calling it unconstitutional and an infringement upon free speech. Mardi Gras won the suit but decided there wasn’t enough time to organize a parade for 2002.

This year Mardi Gras organizers decided to work with city administrators, agreeing to see if a daytime parade might quash what many in the city saw as bad behavior (read: flashing and drunkenness) on the part of parade-goers.

A series of "stakeholders meetings" took place between Mardi Gras organizers, Cal Poly and city police, the Downtown Association, Cuesta College, city administrators, and others who either are involved, wanted to be involved, or should be involved but haven’t been. This year, instead of fighting with the city over the parade, Mardi Gras wanted to develop a plan everyone could live with. The solution was the Sunday afternoon parade, which begins at 2:03 p.m. March 2.

The city

When the city lost the lawsuit challenging its special events ordinance, it basically lost the right to turn down Mardi Gras’ or any other organization’s parade from taking place within the city. In effect, the city has been forced to allow Mardi Gras to happen. But when, where, and how still remains within city control.

"That is correct," said City Administrator Ken Hampian. "There are limits to when and where, but the Mardi Gras community approached the city with the idea of wanting to collaboratively work things out."

So would the city have allowed a Saturday night parade?

"We never approached it that way," repeated Hampian. "That may make a better story, but that’s not how it happened. We approached it in the spirit of collaboration. Everyone wanted to do something to break the cycle of bad crowd behavior. We might have allowed a night parade, but I don’t want to speculate. Neither Mardi Gras nor the city came to the table with any [preconceived agenda]."

Because the city could, under its newly adopted special events ordinance, limit when and where the event took place, there’s serious doubt, given past problems, that the city would have agreed to a night parade, despite claims of open-mindedness on the part of Hampian and the city. Even some of those involved in Mardi Gras admit the daytime parade amounted to a concession.

Does Hampian believe this is a family event?

"I think it has evolved over time to more of an adult event, however there is a family viewing area, and the city will continue to preserve the event as one safe and attractive for families."

The founders

Mardi Gras started in SLO Town 25 years ago, the brainchild of George Suchand and Don Kolberg, who traveled a few blocks north on Monterey Street, throwing beads at startled pedestrians who didn’t know what to make of their "parade." It grew slowly over the years until about five years ago, when it ballooned into the biggest event the city has ever known. One year, the crowd grew to an estimated 30,000. Police were nervous. Arrests increased. Injuries occurred.

Did Suchand, a former Louisiana resident who imported this New Orleans tradition to SLO Town, ever conceive the event would grow out of control?

"No way whatsoever," said Suchand, "and it’s not our fault, not the fault of the people in Mardi Gras. It’s the people who go to the parade, a relatively small percentage of young people who misbehave."

And that’s the crux of the problem. A few people–there were 120 arrests attributed to the last Mardi Gras in 2001, though they occurred over several days, not just during the parade attended by 20,000–seem to have made Mardi Gras an excuse to act like scofflaws. But even reports of drunkenness and flashing have been overblown, according to Suchand.

"I think the reportage on that has been overestimated," he said. "I think there’s just been a few occasions, especially in one area, right there by [the] cinema complex."

Suchand doesn’t think a little flashing or a risqué costume is much of a problem "given today what you see on TV or at the beach," but he’s still concerned that a few easily overstimulated ne’er-do-wells are ruining it for others.

"Myself, I’d prefer to see a night parade, but given the concerns and the history of the night parade, I can see why see why the daytime parade seems more appropriate, given the fact that some young people don’t behave," Suchand added.

Suchand isn’t sure if the parade will return to the night: "A lot depends on how things go this year."

Some people have suggested that since the majority of the problems occur after the parade is over, finding the crowds something to do with their post-parade energy may be a better solution than forcing 20,000 people to disperse in 30 minutes. One suggestion was to have post-parade events: a family carnival, a beer garden with live bands, and an alcohol-free entertainment area.

"That’s something they could try," said Suchand. "I see where a lot of people have concerns where that could get out of hand. I think one thing that would help is for the parade itself to be tighter, to go through as a single unit. In the past the parade seemed to have big breaks, sometimes five minutes or more. They should keep the parade moving as a single unit, even moving slowly."

The times in between floats are often times for mischief, as fellow SLO Mardi Gras founder Don Kolberg knows only too well: "I am not in charge of this thing anymore. My hopes and dreams were shattered years ago when we had our parade destroyed by rowdies, the herald that broke the spell. When we started this thing 25 years ago, this town was in dire need of a mid-winter party, but now every day in this town is a party."

For Kolberg, changes in the parade were inevitable.

"Like most things that become elephantine, they go through transitions. It’s changing. It’s becoming … well, one thing that has happened over years is New Orleans developed a bad reputation for cutting up, and anything that tries to emulate that from afar rides on that bad hype. It happened here: bars, liquor companies got behind it. When kids hear that, interest is going to be crazy-wild. Aside from all that, Mardi Gras per se was designed and condoned by the [Catholic] Church to be a blast before 40 days of sackcloth and ashes, and if it’s not that, it’s not Mardi Gras."

That said, how does Kolberg feel about seeing naked coed hooters?

"You’ve seen two, you’ve seen them all. No, I’m not interested in seeing coed tits. They don’t bother me; I’ve seen ’em before."

The cops

While Kolberg can take or leave a little flashing, the SLOPD may not be as open-minded. Penal code 314 prohibits indecent exposure.

"While we have no local ordinance against public nudity, the penal code prohibits nudity that intentionally offends others," said Police Chief Deborah Linden, meaning if someone around a flashing man or woman is offended and complains to police, action will be taken.

Of course Linden hopes none of the past Mardi Gras problems will repeat themselves.

"The city, our department, and Mardi Gras organizers have worked closely and well together to change the culture of the event this year," said Linden. "Instead of a drunkfest, we’re trying to bring it back to a safe local event, conducive to family attendance, not the massive after-hours partying and misbehavior of years past."

Unlike previous Mardi Gras celebrations, there’s been no out-of-the-area advertising, and the SLOPD has been issuing public service announcements with three aims in mind: to assure the public of police vigilance during the upcoming weekend, to limit out-of-town visitor attendance, and to encourage lawful behavior for those who wishing to attend Mardi Gras events.

Excerpts from the department’s press release include the following: "The San Luis Obispo Police Department is anticipating levels of activity that are much higher than normal during the period from Friday, February 28th through Fat Tuesday, March 4th. Accordingly, the Department will be at full deployment during that time.

"Mardi Gras celebrations in San Luis Obispo have been marred by criminal behavior that resulted from gross alcohol abuse. In previous years, approximately half of those arrested and cited were from somewhere other than San Luis Obispo County. This year, letters have been widely distributed to housing associations and real estate groups, asking them to encourage their tenants not to invite friends from other areas to Mardi Gras in San Luis Obispo.

"Officers will take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to alcohol possession and other criminal conduct. Key Points: An arrest or citation for certain alcohol related violations might result in the loss of your driver’s license; Names of people arrested will be provided to the media, and to Cal Poly and Cuesta College; Excessive alcohol consumption greatly increases the risk of physical and sexual assault; Serious misconduct by students, such as violence or sexual harassment, could result in expulsion from school."

In some people’s eyes, it appears the proverbial wet blanket has descended. Some argue, like Kolberg, that Mardi Gras is supposed to be "a blast." Others go further, saying the event was never meant for children, and that those who are offended by drunken fun, nudity, and bawdy behavior ought to stay home and let those who do like these things have their fun.

"I don’t agree with that," said Linden. "First of all, why have an event requiring public money in the middle of a downtown public street" if all citizens aren’t welcome to attend and can feel safe?

"Our job is to keep the public safe, and you can celebrate the spirit of Mardi Gras without it turning into drunken debauchery while still keeping it a local event."

Linden realizes problems are caused by a select few, "but you only need a small minority who can incite in a second a lot of serious problems. Think of it as a flash point."

She’s also not keen on the idea of having a beer garden and entertainment after the parade.

"My experience is that alcohol mixed with large parties goes on to create greater problems, especially when music is mixed into a party atmosphere. That sort of thing increases problems, not decreases them."

Linden also mentioned that in light of the nightclub tragedies in Rhode Island and Chicago last week, extra care will be taken by the police and fire departments to ensure that all local bars and nightclubs will be in compliance with building codes.

The royal couple

This year’s Mardi Gras king and queen are Nathan Carlson and Kristen Carlton, and they absolutely don’t have a problem with a daytime parade.

"I think it’s fine," said the king. "I’ve lived in the Caribbean and there they always have daytime parades. Our parade seemed to be on the verge of going really wrong. I think it’s important that we made some kind of concession to [the] city, because they’re the ones who end up having to clean up. Everyone involved in Mardi Gras this year feels it’s important that we work with city to make it fun. Carnival is about fun and excess, but it needs to be done in way that’s safe for everyone."

King Carlson would like to see the event return to a night parade, "but that depends on the crowd this year. The crowd controls what will happen to the parade in future, and it’d be nice to see a night parade because it’s important to lot of people, but not at the cost of someone being hurt or killed."

And the all-important hooters question?

"I don’t see anything wrong with the human body," said Carlson. "It’s the response from a lot of guys that make women feel threatened and uncomfortable. But the king is not opposed to bare breasts."

An unintelligible noise over the phone stopped the king short.

"Let me clarify that before I get demoted," continued Carlson. "Women need to stay safe and take care, and guys need to treat women with respect, no matter what the day. The police told us awful stories, one where two women were trapped on top of a Dumpster with guys surrounding them and yelling ‘Show us your tits.’ That should never happen."

"You have to rephrase that, Nathan," cut in Queen Carlton. "The king is not opposed to the queen’s breasts. Actually, it’s guys promoting [flashing] that creates a frenzied ‘Girls Gone Wild’ mentality that can go out of control and create a mass hysteria effect. If someone wants to walk around naked, it’s fine with me, but they need to think about their safety.

"As for the day parade, that was pretty much a concession we made, and a smart one too, because in the end it was important to make Mardi Gras live."

The royal couple has been tirelessly promoting Mardi Gras as a family event, but they’re not oblivious to the reality. Half the funds raised from the annual Mardi Gras golf tournament go to a charity of the royal couple’s choice, and they donated the money to Safe Ride Home, which for $2 offers rides home to intoxicated drivers.

"My brother and his best friend were killed by a drunk driver," said Queen Carlton. "I wanted to do something tangible for the community. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which I don’t have anything against, aren’t tangible, and Safe Ride Home is. All the money donated is going to help fund Mardi Gras weekend."

Added King Carlson: "[All parade attendees] have the right to demand respect from others in the crowd and a responsibility to make those around [them] feel safe. Bare breasts are not the problem. The problem is reaction to them. The only boobs you should be afraid of are the ones running this country! This parade is the largest creative and artistic event in our county, and we would like for everyone to have the opportunity to experience it safely for years to come."

The den mother

Carol Pimentel, a past queen and the current coordinator of Mardi Gras, is affectionately (and occasionally disdainfully) known as the den mother. And she takes offense to the idea that Mardi Gras made any concession to the city.

"What I continue to wonder about is all this talk of a daytime parade as concession. This was a voluntary move, and the city didn’t pressure us in any way to go to a daytime. We won the lawsuit, the right to have a parade, and after we won we decided to roll up our sleeves and find the right way to begin to build back up. That’s not to say that’s what we want–there’s not one person who won’t miss the nighttime parade–but it could be a lot of fun to try a parade in this different venue. It means a whole new level of creativity, because we don’t have lights."

Pimentel thinks a possible solution to past Mardi Gras problems is to hold the parade in a cordoned-off area and require people to pay to see it.

"Our contention is, if this event is as popular as it seems to be, why not get everyone to pay something. It doesn’t have to be much–a dollar, or let’s say three. That way the city’s cost is reduced. This year we’re going to ask people in the crowd to kick a buck into the bucket. We’d like to reach the point where the city is entirely reimbursed for its costs."

A parader

Allen Root is a member of Beleza Sol, a crew known for their very skimpy outfits. He sees the daytime parade as a necessary safety measure.

"Almost all the parades in New Orleans are daytime; we’ve just traditionally done it at night here, but the environment for our parade has grown increasingly malevolent. The last night parade, things got truly scary, and nobody wants injuries. That said, I think there’s a pretty strong interest in getting back to a night parade."

Root agrees the problem is one of choices, or lack thereof.

"For years and years I’ve said you can’t get people all jazzed about a parade and then say, ‘Okay, bye, leave.’ You’ve got to offer people some alternatives to channel their energy into something positive. The idea isn’t to make people drunker, but something like a beer garden with entertainment would be an option. We could sell wristbands, which would generate money. We could have a non-alcoholic area, too. You need to wear people down and let them leave naturally."

The spectator

Mardi Gras seems to be on an all-out offensive to reshape the way the public thinks about the event, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Teri Ecker, who’s enjoyed the parade’s party atmosphere for years, said, "I’ve always said there should be two parades: one for kids during the day and one at night that’s not for kids."

Ecker believes Mardi Gras is a drunken, bawdy reverie, and should be celebrated as such.

"When I first heard it was going to be a daytime parade, I thought it was going to be on a Saturday. Oh well, I figured I’d have a couple drinks and go watch the parade, but when I learned it was on Sunday, I took that as a personal challenge to get drunk by 2."

What Mardi Gras organizers and city administration want and what those who enjoy the parade want may not be the same thing, leaving the future of Mardi Gras very much in doubt. Æ

Glen Starkey is a boob.

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