Back in May 1997 I was running security for the annual “Kinetic Sculpture Challenge” in Boulder; a big costume party/concert/race/BBQ/festival/rite of spring sponsored by the local radio station. It’s about a 30,000 person event and I ran a staff of about 90 paid and volunteers. It was one of the more enjoyable events to work every year (the year I was working out East as a paramedic I even flew back just for that weekend).

But that morning wasn’t nearly as much fun as usual. The police were all on edge, all looked like they had a bad night, and were far more aggressive than usual. When we opened the gates they were literally hand searching every single car coming into the parking lot for alcohol and other contraband. Traffic was backed up for miles, and the entire place had a very uneasy feeling.

I asked one of my friends on Boulder PD what was going on and she just stared at me quizzically.

“You mean you don’t know?” “Know what?” “Last night. You realize there was a riot?”

Riot? Boulder? Outside of the 60s? I mean, we’re talking about a town that would build houses out of hemp if they could figure out the engineering. We’re talking home to the cosmic center of the universe (behind the old Pasta Jay’s, if you’re wondering).

The night before as I was going to bed early to make my 6 am crew call, the students of Boulder banded together to fight for social justice. That’s correct, a full on riot with bricks, tear gas, burning couches, and flipped cars all in the fine tradition inherited from the social consciousness of protesting Vietnam and racial inequality.

Okay, it was about beer, but times change.

That entire academic year Boulder was brewing with hostility. A town known for its relaxed, hippie attitude was really a nine month slow burning fuse of conflict that finally detonated during finals in a series of evening riots with some serious violence.

“What do we want!” “Beer!” “When do we want it?” “Friday after finals!”

A lot of people know that the riots were the result of a severe police crackdown on underage drinking. Officers would literally stop students randomly in the streets and administer breathalyzer tests, handing out tickets on the spot. They’d bust parties by surrounding the house and grabbing everyone inside (or jumping out the windows), testing them all, and handing out tickets. Students started driving drunk more often just to avoid an MIP! (Minor In Possession ticket). But not a lot of people know what caused this crackdown, and why tensions rose in the course of a single academic year.

Due to some random coincidences I was right in the middle of it.

Two major events caused the tension, and at the heart of it is economics. First, in (I think) 1993 the CU athletic department changed their contract for security for football games. For years it was run by the CU Program Council- a semi-independent student group that put on all the concerts and other entertainment events. I was security director that year, and for insurance and cost reasons the athletic department bid out the contract instead of using a student group (despite our being recognized as one of the best security teams in the Big 8 ).

We followed a principle known as “peer security”, where the “Event Staff” is composed of a demographic close to the attendees. It’s a great way to reduce tension and relate to the crowd. Despite there being two respectable event security firms in the area, one of which we had very close ties to (CSC), the athletic department awarded the contract to the lowest bidder- “Andy Frain Associates”. Andy Frain ran the local airport screening, and didn’t have a single local manager with any event experience. I ran the first few games as a subcontractor with my own people, but after they started bussing in high school students for minimum wage, we pulled out.

With no effective crowd control the police, who used to just sit on the sides to back us up, had to start taking a more proactive role and go into the crowd. There’s no way that ends well- police have different training and responsibilities. When they break up a fight people get arrested. They have firearms at their waists, a nerve-wracking experience if you’re surrounded on all sides, that instantly escalates any situation. Once one officer started macing students charging the field after a big victory, the nature of the stadium during games, and between police and students, was never the same.

All because someone wanted to save a dime and use cheap labor.

The next cause was far more tragic. One night, a couple years earlier, a group of students in a Ford Explorer decided to get drunk and go car surfing down Flagstaff Mountain, a twisty turny mountain road. The car rolled, killing at least one young girl (I can’t remember the details, there may have been 2 deaths). Flagstaff was part of the district where I was a volunteer firemedic. While I wasn’t on the call, my coworkers told me about it. It wasn’t a pretty scene.

The parents, understandably, were devastated. One totally legitimate response was to attack the culture of alcohol tolerance in Boulder. It led to the Boulder Police applying for, and winning, a grant to fight alcohol abuse among minors. The decision was made to ramp up enforcement to never-before seen levels.

And it all came to a head in 1997. The relationship with police had been becoming more adversarial since 1993, culminating with that macing incident I mentioned that made the national news. At the same time, once the grant was processed and new enforcement started that relationship degraded to the point where it caused the riots.

I’m not justifying the action of those riot participants- especially the ones that nearly killed some of my law enforcement friends and put one on disability. Bricks to heads are friggen insane.

But the cause wasn’t some new shift in student demographics. Or some instant change in police tactics. Tragedy, and money, were at the heart of the problem. The low bid contract forced the police to begin more directly confronting students. The alcohol enforcement grant exacerbated the incident, to the point where students could no longer even drink in private parties, or walk home, without fear of a criminal record.

Sometimes the incentives we put in place have unintended consequences. Make sure you understand the behavior you’re trying to change, and where you actions may really lead you.