There's something seriously wrong with San Luis Obispo, namely that we've let the "fun police" have too much control over how we celebrate our lives, our town, our community.
On Saturday, June 23, I traveled to Santa Barbara for its annual Summer Solstice Parade, a huge event that draws up to 100,000 spectators from around the world. The event began back in 1974 and used to culminate with a party in the sunken gardens of the County Courthouse. When the event grew too big to accommodate the throngs of people, the city moved the party to Alameda Park. This year, as usual, there was a beer garden, lots of vendors, a bounce house for the kids, a stage with several bands, and thousands and thousands of people dancing, drinking, and carrying on with no serious problems. It got me thinking, why can't the SLO City Council and the SLO City Police pull off an event like this? I think I have the answer: They don't want to do their jobs.
I get the concept: Why make more work for yourself than you have to? Why allow, for instance, a bunch of people to listen to live music and drink in a city park, or why give a new business owner a cabaret license, or why allow a longstanding tradition like Mardi Gras to parade down the street? All it does is force the police to "protect and serve" when clearly riding around on expensive motorcycles and giving speeding tickets, or harassing people sitting on public benches too long is a lot less taxing.
Don't get me wrong. For the most part, I think we have a pretty good police department and a chief who obviously cares about the city she's sworn to protect. We also have a City Council that takes its job seriously. My point is, maybe all these people looking out for our welfare are taking it a little too seriously. There's got to be room for some fun.
Local politicians effectively squelched the Mardi Gras Parade, first by changing the times and days of the parade, then by illegally trying to price the parade out of existence, and ultimately by a propaganda campaign that conflated the family-friendly parade with all manner of problems associated not with the parade but with how law enforcement handles large groups of people (more on that later).
Even after the local Mardi Gras krewes tapped the ACLU to protect their right of free expression and won, local government officials continued to push the point that if the parade continued, it would demonstrate that Mardi Gras organizers didn't care about the local community, which was and remains patently untrue, yet effectively forced Mardi Gras reps to stop pushing for their constitutional right to parade or face continued vilification as the source of all problems.
So what's the real source of our past problems with Mardi Gras? It's the police, plain and simple, and it pains me to say it. When we've had problems in the past and I admit we have they've stemmed from the police trying to disband a group of people who didn't want to be disbanded. That's the genius of the Summer Solstice Parade. After the parade, the police don't push through the crowd telling everyone, "Get off the street, go home, stop having fun, and I mean right now!" At Summer Solstice, as the last of the parade moves by the crowd, the crowd files in behind, becomes part of the parade, and follows it to Alameda Park, where the party continues. Instead of trying to force tens of thousands of people to leave in a matter of minutes, Santa Barbara provides a place for people to party on, allowing the crowd to dissipate on its own. Some leave right after the parade. Some retreat to private parties. Some go to the park. The point is, no one is forced into a corner.
When the SLO City Police, dressed in riot gear, try to push out revelers, there will always be problems. And when we bring in a bunch of law enforcement cowboys from other communities, warning them about how rowdy Mardi Gras is, these trigger-happy cops with no ties to our community start bullying parade-goers, resulting in the sort of altercations we've had in the past.
The solution to SLO Town's parade and party problems is simple: Let the party fade out on its own. Our Mardi Gras parade should march up Marsh Street, turn right onto Osos Street, and head to Mitchell Park where the party could continue with areas for families, college kids, and older adults.
If Santa Barbara can handle 100,000 people, surely SLO Town can handle 30,000. All it will require is for the City Council and the SLOPD to do their respective jobs I mean, you know, if it's not too much trouble.
Glen Starkey laments La Fiesta, Cinco de Mayo, and Mardi Gras. Share your thoughts at email@example.com.