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Surveying the damage

City’s precautionary measures may have exacerbated SLO’s Mardi Gras riot


BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

Just what was that last weekend—a spontaneous riot, or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

As San Luis Obispo picks up the pieces from a
rowdy celebration turned wild, city officials and residents were pondering how the big party morphed into a melee punctuated by rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, snarling dogs, and short-tempered, heavily armored police officers from 25 law enforcement agencies.

Complaints from dozens of people poured into the police department and City Hall in the days following the Mardi Gras festivities, alleging a range of improper actions on the part of authorities.

Police Chief Deb Linden said her officers’ actions were appropriate in the face of violence instigated by unruly, out-of-control partygoers.

Spurred on, perhaps, by web sites proclaiming the local Mardi Gras to be “the biggest party west of the Mississippi,” a crowd of thousands poured into San Luis Obispo to mix with local revelers from Cal Poly, Cuesta College, and elsewhere.

Armed in advance with that realization, police officials asked for and received “mutual assistance” from out-of-the-area law enforcement, and started their own public relations campaign.

A newspaper ad sponsored by the San Luis Obispo Police Department and the city cautioned partygoers to stay away: “Warning: Mardi Gras partying could have unintended consequences. Do yourself a favor. Obey the law. Tell your friends to stay at home.”

Dave Garth, president of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, said the ad, unfriendly as it may have seemed, was appropriate.

“Well, these are unusual circumstances,” he said. “I don’t think we want to be known as the party capital of the state.”

But Dr. Linden Nelson, retired head of psychology at Cal Poly, said he thought the ad, telling people that police force would be twice that of last year, “was really unusual.”

A show of force by law enforcement can have the effect of creating, rather than calming, a conflict, said the professor.

“When a strong presence of police is there,” said Nelson, “they become the bad guy, and the people in the crowd have a beef against the police because ‘they are keeping us from having fun.’ So fighting the authorities becomes the fun.”

Mob psychology has not been the subject of much research, said Nelson, but “it is known that being in a large crowd increases people’s arousal. They get more excited, their blood pressure goes up. There is increased anonymity when a person’s in a crowd. The attention is on the crowd, and there is a loss of individual self-awareness. People are not worrying about what other people are thinking about them. There is a sense of diffused responsibility: ‘The crowd is doing this, not me.’”

Nelson said crowds have an inherent “self-policing” tendency.

“In a crowd that size [police estimated the crowd at 5,000], there must be a fair number of people who are not drinking,” said Nelson. “You can expect those people to step in and contribute to crowd control. But the added presence of authorities actually prevents those people—who would be the inhibitors—from self-enforcing. It becomes, ‘Oh, the police are here, so it’s not my job to hold back my friends.’”

Nelson said he wonders, “What would happen if the police were less visible? My best guess would be that you want the police available with force, but you’re better off keeping it low-key until it’s needed.”

City Councilwoman Christine Mulholland said no estimates were yet available on the costs of assistance from law enforcement agencies that policed partygoers during Mardi Gras weekend.

“I can tell you that it’s going to be more than the $100,000 that it cost us last year,” she said. “It’s going to take a few days to get a breakdown.”

Meanwhile, the city has received numerous e-mails from non-residents complaining of unnecessarily rough treatment from the police and vowing never to visit SLO again because of it, she said.

By most accounts, Mulholland said, people who want to come to the area to raise hell would be better off staying home.

“It’s gotten way out of hand,” she said. “It’s not the Mardi Gras organizers or even local partiers who are creating most of the problems. It’s people from outside the area looking for action and provoking police.”

The Chamber’s Garth said Mardi Gras is not worth the trouble.

It’s “not a big benefit for most of the businesses in San Luis Obispo, except maybe for the bars, but it’s not a big deal for motels and hotels,” he said. “It doesn’t have a big economic impact.”

But the event did have an impact on people who found themselves in the way of advancing police lines.

Sara French, a Cal Poly student, claims she was taking pictures from a distance, well away from the chaos, when she was shot in the face by a shotgun-propelled beanbag. The shot was close enough to her eye to pose a risk to her vision.

“No one near me was throwing anything,” she said. “I don’t see why I would be a target. I wasn’t provoking anything. I was just a bystander.”

French said the people causing trouble and throwing things were in the street and in the center of the crowd. For those reasons, she believes the police were shooting blindly into the crowd.

“If [the beanbag] would have been a centimeter higher it would have blinded me. It totally caught me off guard because I didn’t think that I was in the line of fire.”

French walked to the hospital.

“The police were trying to stop us. My eye was bleeding, so I said, ‘You shot me so get out of my way.’ I was really scared.”

French was at the hospital for about three hours where she received five stitches, X-rays, and other tests. Others with wounds arrived while she was there.

Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center officials said there were 196 emergency treatments over a three-day period, 65 of which were related to Mardi Gras. ³

Intern Dylan Price and Managing Editor Stacey Warde contributed to this article. News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.

Court workers express unhappiness

Citing a “poor working environment” and a “lack of ethics” on the part of their bosses, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court union employees staged a demonstration Wednesday on courthouse steps to call attention to their situation.

Hun Taing, organizing director for Service Employees’ Local 620, said the employees are concerned about “unfair personnel procedures, lack of morale, and disparities in compensation and benefits between employees and administrators.”

The workers gave their bosses a “report card with the grade F,” said Taing.

“We need to protect ourselves from the abuses of the court,” said Claire Trout, a court reporter.

Clarification

A recent news article in New Times noted that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s anti-trust lawsuit against grocery stores involved in a months-long strike and lockout that included Food 4 Less.

The lawsuit charges that Food 4 Less has participated in a “mutual assistance program” designed to share strike costs and profits accruing to the grocery stores’ corporate owners.

A letter to the editor from a reader subsequently criticized Food 4 Less.

While accurate, the news article should also have included the fact that three Food 4 Less stores in San Luis Obispo County are independently owned and operated by Milt Souza. The local stores are not associated with the corporation, are not participating in the mutual assistance program, and are not included in the lawsuit. ³

This week’s What’s News was compiled by News Editor Daniel Blackburn.

 

 

 




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