Everybody’s Wrong: Some Thoughts on the Boulder Riots of 1997

An edited version of this story appeared in the Denver Post on May 8, 1997 (p. 7B).

The past few nights in Boulder have seen student rioting unlike anything Colorado has experienced in years. Darkness has literally transformed the Hill into a bonfire-lit war zone, with drunken youths throwing everything they can pick up and the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. Both sides have taken casualties, although thankfully no one has died yet.

As unanticipated as this outburst has been, something disturbingly similar happened in May, 1988, at Iowa State University in Ames during the annual VEISHEA festival. Those three nights featured arguably the most frightening display of student violence in the U.S. since the late 1960s. I remember bonfires in the middle of Campustown (Ames’ equivalent to CU’s Hill district), some burning hot enough to melt dumpsters. I remember a drunken undergrad swinging from a streetlight directly over one of these fires. How he hung on I’ll never know, but he did, and if he had fallen he’d have been fried crisp before he hit the ground.

I also remember a picture taken by an acquaintance, a photographer for the Ames newspaper. He was in position as the police advanced up Welch Avenue, directly through the heart of Campustown. Floodlights boiled up the street behind them, and their bodies cast a long and ominous shadow southward into the student residential area adjacent to campus. That photo wound up on a T-shirt bearing the caption “The LAST Annual Welch Avenue Riot.”

Sadly, the shirt was less prophetic than we hoped – rioting broke out again in 1992 and 1994.

When I heard the other night that CU students were rioting, my first question was “why?” What could a student on the Boulder campus possibly have to riot over? I should have known, though – underage drinking. The city insists on enforcing an unenforceable law, and student resentment builds and finally erupts over what they see as police harassment.

This is where the VEISHEA riots started, too. The Ames Police routinely wandered through clubs on Friday and Saturday nights carding people as they talked to their friends. Predictably, resentment built.

Driven out of the bars, but determined to pursue what they felt was their right as voting age young adults, underage students celebrated VEISHEA by holding house parties, much like those on the Hill in Boulder last weekend. And then – and there’s really no more accurate way to say this – something snapped. And thousands of students ran amok on Ames, trashing everything in sight – houses, police cars, you name it.

The case in Boulder seems similar enough to suggest caution. The Boulder Police pursue student drinking with remarkable zeal, roaming the streets looking for drunk students as they walk from place to place. According to one student I spoke with, the result is that students often feel safer driving home from bars than walking.

At what cost are city officials enforcing a law that is clearly deterring nobody?

I also think the students have a case regarding the drinking age. After all, 18 is the age of full and legal enfranchisement (see Amendment XXVII), and drinking is a significant enough issue that it has been addressed at the Constitutional level twice. This privilege, whether noble or not, is being denied to these citizens solely on the basis of demographics. What if the legislature outlawed drinking for people between the ages of 45- 50?

But does this equate with a license to riot, to take violent action against the police, to vandalize and loot and burn?

Uhhh, that’d be a “no.” But let’s make sure we blame the right people.

Boulder students are often children of privilege, many of them here to attend Ski U, and people I have talked to who were witnesses to the action tell me that some of the ringleaders fit this description nicely. According to police, however, most of the troublemakers are “Hill Rats,” many of whom haven’t the brains to gain admission to a decent school or the wits to hold the simplest job.

Most of the student body is completely innocent. One student I know was caught in the middle of the whole debacle, trying to put fires out and getting tear-gassed for his trouble. His housemates and neighbors were among the bad guys, however, and he is being far less charitable than I am where they are concerned.

His roommate, a privileged undergrad from Vail who drives a nice new 1996 Explorer, feels “oppressed by the police.” In addition to fighting the righteous fight against his oppressors, he says that hurling rocks and bottles is “fun, because it was only cops.”

When you’re examining a story like this one, you dream of finding someone like this jerk, a one-boy (“man” just doesn’t work here, does it?) symbol system for just about everything you’d ever want to blame on the proverbial Youth of America.

Students who think the drinking laws are unjust are, in my mind, correct. We have made alcohol a cultural problem by making it a taboo, a rite of passage, that is guaranteed to draw the underaged like a 100 watt porch light attracts bugs. But rioting on the Hill is not a step toward productive reform of an unjust law – it’s precisely the opposite. No lawmaker is going to be held hostage to the excesses of an unwashed mob, and if there were any possibility of making a point with the authorities before, it’s now gone, or at least it’s severely diminished.

It didn’t work in Ames in 1988, and it’s not going to work in Boulder in 1997.

One comment

  • The riot that was to be “The Last Annual Welch Avenue Riot” did not start in Campus Town, but a few blocks south on the east side of Welch where police shut down a party where played the guys who were then known as the band ‘Antidote’. They finished a set, the keg truck left, and when the band came back on ‘stage’, actually a back porch, they announced that the police were in front, had shut down the party, they thanked everyone for coming out, asked us all to go home, and then they stepped back inside the house.

    Figure hundreds of students hanging around, cups empty, feeling cheated, and maybe a little screwed. I don’t recall what was lit first, but between dumpsters, front porch furniture, railroad ties and old utility poles used for parking bumpers, something started small and escalated. The mayhem spread north as the bars were closed down. The biggest part of the crowd was in Campus Town as Welch Avenue partiers looking for another party funneled north towards campus and met those leaving the bars. I believe the house where the band played was where apartments now sit.

    West Ames was hit also. A car or two were overturned on or near Beedle drive. A few close friends were out there; I can’t attest to what actually happened.

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