In 2004, riots overtook the streets of San Luis Obispo on Mardi Gras weekend, leaving the city with a $100,000 bill and numerous arrests. Now, nine years later, a reporter looks back at what shut down “the biggest celebration west of the Mississippi.” — Mustang Daily File Photo.

Brian De Los Santos
bdelossantos@mustangdaily.net

The first thing Graham Updegrove heard was screaming. Then the entire crowd started running.

“I didn’t even look back, I just kind of started running as well,” Updegrove said. “I took a couple of steps and got hit.”

That moment may have been one of the ugliest San Luis Obispo has seen. Updegrove was just one of numerous students who were hit with non-lethal bullets standing in a crowd 5,000 people thick on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2004.

Police forces were trying to clear the mass sandwiched between California and Foothill boulevards, as it started to become more raucous and violent as the night progressed. They started by firing pepper bullets, beanbags and tear gas into the crowd. Some dispersed, but some fought back with rocks, bottles and anything they could get their hands on — like stop signs. Others threw firecrackers at officials.

This was Mardi Gras.

It’s hard to say that anyone saw the magnitude of that night coming. The celebration started off as a family parade and flipped its face into a raucous party. It hit a pinnacle as Updegrove and thousands of other students gathered around campus — infamously dubbed as the 2004 Mardi Gras riot.

In all, police made 180 arrests that night and spent hours trying to clear the streets. Beyond that, the celebration injured at least a dozen officers and left the city of San Luis Obispo a $100,000 tab spent on extra police help.

Nearly a decade later, the story of that night has come and gone. Its details live in dusty newspaper clippings, old photo albums and hearsay. The students who were on those streets have graduated. Others have filled their place, unknowingly passing the scene of that night nearly every day on their way to campus.

It’s a forgotten memory, but when you dig into the tradition’s past, you find a story of alcohol, vandalism and the legend of what was dubbed the biggest Mardi Gras celebration west of the Mississippi.

Not your average party

This was more than a celebration: This was Mardi Gras weekend. Beads were flying, alcohol was flowing and women were flashing the masses. There were students on the streets, balconies and in nearly every area around campus.

Updegrove remembers seeing a car try to drive through Foothill Boulevard that night. There wasn’t enough room to walk, let alone drive. It was an elderly couple leaving campus, and they had been caught in a sea of people surrounding campus.

“Some people started bouncing their car up and down, pushing on the hood or the bumper,” Updegrove said. “I remember seeing this look of ‘What’s going on? Get us out of here.’”

The crowd overran the north side of town that night. They poured over into Mustang Village, Stenner Glenn and most of the main intersections on California Boulevard. In total, the crowd stood about as thick as a third of Cal Poly’s current enrollment.

“Mustang Village was wall-to-wall people,” electrical engineering alumnus John Villalpando said. “Just the amount of people that were out that night was by far the biggest night in SLO of the year. You literally could not walk around.”

That became a problem when the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) received a call of an injured partier in Mustang Village. Officers drove into the area to try and aid the victim, but their car was immediately pelted with bottles and rocks.

“Medical aid was having a hard time even getting to the victim who was still injured,” said San Luis Obispo police Capt. Chris Staley, who worked both the 2004 and 2005 Mardi Gras celebrations. “It just got really bad. At that point, it became an even more kind of hostile situation between the crowds and the police.

“From my recollection, that kind of was the spark that lit off the chain of events that came after that.”

That’s when police took action. SLOPD Chief Deborah Linden sent out a mutual aid request, calling for 100 more officers to help the city contain the areas around campus. Approximately 220 officers were now headed to Foothill, involving anywhere from 25 to 30 agencies in ground control.

“Students have the right to have fun and have a good time until it infringes on other people,” Staley said. “When you are disturbing them to the point where vandalism and other things are coming with it, that’s when your rights end.”

Out of control

A few miles away, Ryan Huff’s phone started ringing. Huff, a Cal Poly alumnus who graduated in 2002, was a reporter with The Tribune at an off-duty dinner with other members of the media. His phone rang first, then everyone else’s followed.

“We all rushed down there and it was late in the evening,” Huff said. “It was a pretty wild scene.”

As Huff recalls, there were beads and broken bottles everywhere. At the main intersection, there was a California Highway Patrol vehicle that had its windshields smashed in. The jail transport van was overflowing with people who were arrested in handcuffs.

“Things had gotten out of control,” Huff said.

It took officers three to four hours to clear the streets. Staley and his unit started clearing California Boulevard, up toward Hathway Avenue. Other units started at the main intersection and worked their way in.

“It just turned into a really ugly crowd, and especially in the area we were at — the railroad tracks — it’s littered with rocks and basic stuff that can be used as weapons against you,” Staley said. “When anyone has to face that large a crowd, especially one that is that kind of out of control, it’s certainly not an issue that’s fun to deal with.”

Police made a total of 180 arrests that night, two for assault with a deadly weapon. Of those arrested, 43 percent were local and 49 percent were from out of town. Some had traveled from places such as Reno, New Hampshire and New Zealand. Twelve vehicles were damaged, and the city received multiple complaints of further property damage caused by the crowd.

All of that news started to make national headlines, giving the city just enough cause to set out and pour $500,000 into what became its rallying cry for the next year.

This party was never going to happen again.

‘The party is over’

The streets were a bit different in 2005, San Luis Obispo made sure of it.

Where there used to be masses of students, there were now masses of police. Daniel Gingras saw them as he toured the area around Cal Poly in 2005. The alumnus, who graduated in 2007, couldn’t walk a few steps without seeing a group of officers. There were armored cars, helicopters, riot shields and almost everything in between. Where there was one officer, there were anywhere from five to 10 behind them.

“I never saw less than four at a time,” Gingras said. “It’s pretty startling how many enforcers (the city) could recruit. To all of a sudden have 400 police officers in such a small town, it really sends a message.”

That is exactly what San Luis Obispo wanted to do. A month or two prior, mayor Dave Romero and city officials set out on a half-a-million-dollar campaign. They posted signs with the message “The party is over” all across town. They posted them downtown, on doorknobs and took out advertisements in most of the local media.

The city even advertised in other markets, such as Chico and Santa Barbara, to tell students not to come to San Luis Obispo. The city also tripled the fines for incidents of public disorder and misconduct. It then sought reinforcements for personnel, calling in a total of 400 officers from around the state — a force six times the current personnel size of SLOPD.

“We were trying everything we could,” Romero said. “We have always felt that San Luis Obispo was one of the very finest places to live in the country and we were very concerned about our image. We simply did not want our citizens to live in a place with out of control citizens.”

Even state legislature got involved. Abel Maldonado, a senator from Santa Maria at the time, proposed SB 337, which, if passed, would allow the university to dismiss students if they were found violating any state penal codes dealing with “riots.” The dismissed student would not be allowed to reapply to the school for a full year and would rid the student of any Cal Grant aid for two years.

“In some campuses through the state, if a student does something — I’m talking about serious negative activity off campus — the city could do something with the state law,” Romero said. “But we felt it would be more effective to have the university also be able to take action.”

All of the measures, paired with the campaigns, were in an effort to maintain order and prevent another out-of-hand riot from making national news for the second year in a row.

It worked. As Gingras wandered in the streets during Mardi Gras in 2005, he immediately could tell the difference from the year prior.

So could the police.

“It was a complete change to what 2004 was,” Staley said. “My conversations with students that night were that they were freaked out, scared, from being involved in 2004. Even that behavior upset people that were there who had nothing to do with the fact that the crowd was getting out of hand. It seemed like a much safer environment than the year before.”

The numbers reflected that. The number of weekend arrests dropped from 180 in 2004 to 73 in 2005. This was also partly because of the way police handled the crowd as opposed to the year before. Rather than trying to corral the crowd, creating a standoff between police and students, police went into the crowd and started talking with students.

While the event became violent and out of hand the year before, safety was always the goal. There was no targeting of students, and that remained the same in 2005. Officials were just trying to make sure everyone — nearby residents included — was safe.

“We are the safety of the community,” Staley said. “And once their party becomes an issue that affects the safety of the community, we had to address it.”

Sorry for partying

The city hasn’t really had to address Mardi Gras since. Arrests trailed off in 2006, further declined in 2007 and the tradition was nearly gone three years after. Half-a-million dollars and dozens of arrests later, the city’s campaign on the tradition proved successful.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how out of hand the celebration actually got. The vandalism and violence became a byproduct of having a good time. In the mix of drunkenness and authority, the students overreacted; they didn’t know any better, Gingras said.

“When you’re that young, you don’t understand things like property damage and all the money that the city has to spend,” Gingras said. “If it were like the Super Bowl and they were charging tickets, we would have revenue to deal with all that … the city acted severely, but I think they succeeded, it’s been calm ever since.”

According to current San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx and other officials, it has. San Luis Obispo hasn’t seen large crowds on Mardi Gras since the mid-2000s. And as the city gears for the celebration on Fat Tuesday today, police and officials aren’t expecting the streets to be rowdier than a typical weekend.

“It’s just a question of a community looking out for itself,” Marx said. “I think there is an innate conflict of lifestyle between people of a certain age whether they are students or not. It’s about finding that balance so we can all live together as a strong community. And, generally, I think it’s working out pretty well.”

But despite as many dollars as it took, there is no price tag large enough to stop a college culture from feeling like it’s entitled to party. Staley knows it — he currently has three kids in college. The city does as well, from what it’s seen from the Poly Royal riots to Mardi Gras to current day celebrations, such as Cesar Chavez Day.

Sometimes not even tear gas and pepper bullets can stop students from enjoying themselves.

“I don’t think that’s ever really going to be an option,” Staley said. “To have a plan of how to address it and to make it known that there are consequences for your actions, that’s all we can do.”