"I believe we can plan well, learn from the past and embrace all the things that make Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo such a wonderful place," Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote in an email to Mustang News. | Tram Nguyen/Mustang News

Tram Nguyen
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First, students, faculty and staff took out all the tables, chairs and equipment from a lab they normally had classes in. It was noon on a Thursday in Alan A. Erhart Agriculture (building 10).

After gutting the room, they brought in soil, bedded vegetables and hung up ceiling plants. They repeated the process in two other labs.

When they were done, the clock read 11:30 p.m.

Crop science professor Mark Shelton said what he enjoyed most was coming back the next day and watching the public appreciate the work his department had put together — this was Poly Royal.

That all ended in 1990, when a riot broke out off campus.

Twenty-four years later, “I think it’s time for us to bring (Poly Royal) back,” said Shelton, now associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

‘Warm feelings and positive memories’

Since Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong began his time at Cal Poly in 2011, he didn’t have a chance to witness the success of Poly Royal or the riot that put it to an end. He is, however, interested in bringing Poly Royal back.

“From my first day as Cal Poly’s president, I have heard over and over again from alumni about the warm feelings and positive memories they carry from Poly Royal,” Armstrong wrote in an email to Mustang News.

These anecdotal messages have been verified through a recent alumni marketing project completed by marketing associate professor Jeff Hess. He heard repeatedly from alumni that Poly Royal would be the best way to entice them back to campus and keep them engaged with their alma mater.

According to university spokesperson Matt Lazier, Armstrong expressed his intention to bring back Poly Royal late last year. It would take at least two years for the event to officially return.

“I believe we can plan well, learn from the past and embrace all the things that make Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo such a wonderful place,” Armstrong wrote. “If we work together, I believe we can make Poly Royal a safe, enjoyable event and a university showcase that will make all of us proud.”

Since the reinstatement of Poly Royal is alumni-focused, Cal Poly is surveying alumni to learn what they are interested in seeing at the festival.

Lazier said a lot of work still needs to be done, and decisions are still being made on which parts of Poly Royal will be brought back and how to ensure a riot won’t happen again.

The recreated Poly Royal, however, will not be exactly what it was 24 years ago, he added.

The night of the riot

In 1990, Poly Royal drew more than 100,000 visitors to San Luis Obispo — the city had approximately 41,000 residents at the time — and generated an estimated $3-5 million in business revenue, the Los Angeles Times reported.

After watching the Poly Royal rodeo, Shelton headed home at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 27. Cal Poly’s campus was almost empty because the rodeo was the final event of the day.

He didn’t know that just a few blocks away, on Hathway Street and California Boulevard, a riot was about to break out.

According to a San Luis Obispo Tribune blog, a speeding bicyclist collided with a car, prompting the arrival of paramedics and police, who offered aid. A few people in a crowd of 1,000 started throwing rocks and bottles at the police.

The crowd outnumbered police officers, and did not disperse until tear gas and high-pressure water hoses were used.

That night, 30 people were arrested.

At midnight, a crowd of 2,000 gathered near campus and began throwing bottles into the street, breaking car windows and setting bonfires.

“I saw something burning. A car, a couch, I wasn’t sure,” Ryan Chartrand, a Mustang Daily reporter, wrote about his experience covering the riot. “I turned around to find two men dismantling the street sign that they would later use as ammo to throw at police.”

It took approximately 120 officers in full riot gear to clear the streets. Eighty people were arrested, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That weekend, 100 people were treated at local hospitals.

“One Cal Poly student suffered a head injury and remained in serious condition on Monday at a local hospital,” the Times reported. Also injured in the rioting were 12 police officers, including one who suffered a broken arm and another whose wrist was fractured.

A few students cited police’s “excessive force” as the riot’s cause, according to the Times.

San Luis Obispo Police Chief Jim Gardiner said the police’s response was “appropriate, measured and restrained.”

On Monday, April 30, then-Cal Poly President Warren Baker announced Poly Royal would be canceled indefinitely — a decision David Garth, then-head of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, called “quick” and “in the emotion of the moment.”

In 1994, Cal Poly launched Open House as a smaller version of Poly Royal, with a focus on student programs and accomplishments.

What’s left of Poly Royal

Open House today is not much different from Poly Royal back then, Shelton said, as both are outreach events.

Most Poly Royal events still remain today, including the Poly Royal parade, Poly Royal rodeo, tractor pull and Design Village (a display of architectural designs). Only the scale has been changed.

“In the old days, Poly Royal was a big, big deal for the whole campus,” Shelton said. “Food was everywhere. We had booths all up and down Dexter Lawn. We had all these parking lots that were near this building for a club’s display, booths selling things.”

Shelton said the events and their functions haven’t been changed, only the name. Changing the name back should not lead to a repeat of the riot, he said.

“I think the problem that we faced was that Poly Royal became so big and it became so well-known that people showed up even when they were not associated with the campus,” he said. “I think we’re past that now.”

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