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San Luis Obispo Mardi Gras controversy

The San Luis Obispo Mardi Gras controversy refers to a major town and gown conflict in the city of San Luis Obispo, California. In late 2004, leaders of this central California city called for an end to public celebrations during Mardi Gras, hoping to end the event's reputation as a state-wide party destination for college students.

In recent years, tensions have grown as the small street parade held by community organizers evolved into a large-scale celebration. The modern celebration attracts 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 neighboring parties hosted at the 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 and police arrested close to two hundred partygoers. Many San Luis Obispo Mardi Gras attendants were attacked with crowd control weapons to decrease the mass amount of celebrants throughout the San Luis Obispo area. (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.

"As a career emergency physician, I dread Mardi Gras like no other event," Dr. Steve Sainbury posted on the website, which also carried letters from the heads of Cuesta College and Cal Poly.

Mayor Dave Romero referred to the positive past 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.

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