San Luis Obispo Mardi Gras controversy
The San Luis Obispo Mardi Gras controversy refers to a major town and gown conflict in the small city of San Luis Obispo, California. In late 2004, leaders of this central coast city called for an end to public celebrations during Mardi Gras, hoping to end the event's reputation as a statewide party destination for college students.
Prior to 2004, tensions had grown as the small street parade held by community organizers evolved into a large-scale celebration. The modern celebration attracted thousands of partygoers—mostly students—from all over California and the American West.
While a 2004 riot between partygoers and local police was widely televised on American newscasts, the dispute had a far-reaching effect. Local business and community members worried about bad publicity, potential violence, and the event's effect on local tourism. Many of the partygoers were not California Polytechnic State University ("Cal Poly") students, but students from other cities who came to party in San Luis Obispo. After the riots, concerns about restrictive rules spread far beyond the Cal Poly community to other California universities and student organizations.
2004 Mardi Gras riot and its immediate aftermath
In 2004, police shut down parties hosted at Mustang Village, an apartment complex near Cal Poly. Additionally, a police helicopter patrolled over the Cedar Creek apartment complex, a location to which police had been called during past celebrations. (1) After the Mustang Village parties were closed down, an estimated five thousand people rioted, causing extensive property damage in the neighborhoods along California Boulevard. Police arrested close to two hundred partygoers and used crowd control weapons to break up the rioting crowds.(2)
City of San Luis Obispo calls for end to Mardi Gras in 2005
In response to this riot, the City Council and Mayor, as well as members of the residential and business community, created a website and publicity campaign, urging an end to public Mardi Gras parties.
Mayor Dave Romero referred to the positive previous history of the event, but noted that it had grown in size, with the post-riot cleanup in 2004 costing almost half a million dollars. He wrote, "This is not what San Luis Obispo is about, and as much as we like special events, our City Council concluded that Mardi Gras in San Luis Obispo must stop—completely... As your Mayor, I ask that those of you who live in San Luis Obispo help us protect our community from such destructive behavior. Please don't invite out-of-town guests to San Luis Obispo to party over Mardi Gras weekend... Encourage your friends who live here to enjoy the weekend in a safe and helpful way. If you don't live in San Luis Obispo, please don't visit us for Mardi Gras. MARDI GRAS IN SAN LUIS OBISPO IS OVER." (3)
Student concerns over tripled fines and State Bill SB 337
While the administration and other leaders at Cal Poly supported the city's desire to quell the Mardi Gras celebration, other members of the student community were angered and concerned over new local ordinances which tripled fines for Municipal Code violations occurring during Mardi Gras. (4) PDF According to the "SLOMardiGras" website created by the city, the San Luis Obispo Police Department and city officials, alcohol-related offenses would be monitored closely, including municipal violations against underage drinking and public nudity. Cal Poly's Student Community Liaison Committee had noted their concerns regarding a smaller "safety zone," which would have tripled fines only in specific areas, namely San Luis Obispo's downtown and at Foothill and California Boulevards. SCLC-Cal Poly publicly endorsed the new safety zone, which comprised San Luis Obispo's entire city limits. (5)
Additionally, in February 2005, state bill SB 337 was introduced in California by State Senator Abel Maldonado, calling for the immediate dismissal of "any student convicted, pleading guilty to, or being adjudicated a delinquent minor with respect to specified rioting provisions of the Penal Code." Under the bill, students found guilty of rioting would also be prevented from attending or being admitted to any California Community College or California State University for at least one year. (6)
The Associated Students of the University of California system (ASUC) created a bill in opposition to SB 337, noting that it altered the Donahoe Higher Education Act and eligibility for Cal Grants, a form of financial aid. External Affairs Vice President Liz Hall, writing the opposition bill on behalf of ASUC, stated that the "UC Student Association opposes SB 337 as a threat to the rights of free speech and assembly of students." (7)
Mardi Gras 2005 and "Polygras"
Some students attempted to circumvent the new ordinances during Mardi Gras by creating an underground event, "Polygras", which was discussed online throughout the winter of 2004-2005. Polygras was planned to take place immediately after the traditional Mardi Gras period, so as to avoid "triple fines" and the large police presence planned for Mardi Gras. (8). In response, the city of San Luis Obispo designated a city-wide safety enhancement zone effective through March 2, 2005. (9) PDF
In February 2005, sobriety checkpoints were set up throughout San Luis Obispo, and police officers sought to disperse medium-sized gatherings during the Mardi Gras period. (10) Arrests were cut by 58% from the previous year. (11) The additional cost to city and county taxpayers for keeping the 2005 celebration under control was $1 million, including $385,200 in police department staffing and control costs. Sixteen other law enforcement organizations, such as the California Highway Patrol, billed an approximate $700,000 in additional staffing and crowd control costs. (12) City councilwoman Christine Mulholland told a New Times reporter in February 2004 that the cost for law enforcement was approximately $100,000 in 2003. (13) Some students congregated at traditional crowd spots during "Polygras," but it did not succeed as an ongoing concern.
- 1. "SLO Mardi Gras Celebration Provokes Riot", Matt Dozier, Daily Nexus Online, February 23, 2004, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 2. "SCALED-DOWN MARDI GRAS SEASON KICKS OFF", summary, San Luis Obispo Tribune, January 7, 2006, retrieved February 5, 2006;
- 3. "Voices", from the "SLOMardiGras" website, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 4. MINUTES, SPECIAL MEETING OF THE CITY COUNCIL, CITY OF SAN LUIS OBISPO, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2004, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 5. "Cal Poly the Student Community Liaison Committee Endorses a Citywide Safety Enhancement Zone for Mardi Gras", news release, Oct. 29, 2004, retrieved February 5, 2005.
- 6.California State Senate Committee on Education, "SB 337 Senate Bill analysis by the California Senate Committee on Education", retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 7. "A Bill In Opposition to California Senate Bill 337, Spring 2005", retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 8. Archive of defunct PolyGras.com website, retrieved February 5, 2006. See also #9, which shows archived pages from PolyGras.com.
- 9. "Resolution Establishing a City-wide Safety Enhancement Zone until March 2, 2005," Council Agenda Report, City of San Luis Obispo, February 10, 2005, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 10. "San Luis Launches Campaign Against Wild Mardi Gras," Kristina Ackermann, UCSB Daily Nexus, February 4, 2005, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 11. "Mardi Gras officials lower budget for crowd control," Leslie Griffy and Larissa Van Beurden-Doust, San Luis Obispo Tribune, January 24, 2006, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 12. "$1 Million," Leslie Griffy,San Luis Obispo Tribune, May 28, 2005, retrieved February 5, 2006.
- 13. "Surveying the damage", Daniel Blackburn, New Times, February 25, 2004, retrieved February 5, 2006.