Friday, October 01, 2004

How to avoid a riot?

[I did this bit on location as an exercise in the art of news reporting]

How do you avoid a riot? Hire "Huey Lewis & The News" as your entertainment headliner!

Now, I know that might sound odd, maybe a little funny, but I think that was one of the strategies use in the California State Fair's "Cool It Down" campaign this year. Let me explain...

I had been hearing for weeks, over and over again, on local TV and radio about potential for trouble at the California State Fair this year on "the last Saturday." The warning stems from previous year's troubles on those last Saturdays. The Sacramento Bee reported, "Four years ago a near-riot broke out on the last Saturday of the fair. Last year, fights broke out on that last Saturday again. One person was stabbed, cars and homes in the Cal-Expo area were vandalized and police made numerous arrests."

The "Cool It Down" campaign was born, albeit in sympathetic desperation.

Traditionally, the last Saturday of the 18-day fair has been designated as Black Culture Day, though this year the fair did away with specific days celebrating African American, Latino and Asian cultures. The decision to drop the cultural days in favor of offering more cultural programming throughout the fair was made in 2001. In an effort to prevent a repeat of violence that occurred at the close of last year's final Saturday at the fair, Cal Expo officials announced in June that they would close three hours early this Saturday.

Police also instituted a parking ban on nearby streets for the day.

It wasn't long after announcing this new strategy to curb "last Saturday" problems that reaction hit the news wires again. "Accusing Cal Expo and the city of Sacramento of racial profiling, the California NAACP said in a court filing Tuesday that African Americans are being unfairly targeted for incidents of unrest that have erupted at the State Fair," Gwendolyn Crump - Bee Staff Writer.

Since I'm always willing to champion equal rights of any ethnic group and having been awakened to how quickly our basic rights can be taken away while acting as an observer in the 2003 "Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agriculture Science and Technology" protests, I thought this story sounded interesting. Also, I thought I could use a break after reporting for two solid days on the Russian school kids terrorist crisis. I decided to check the state fair story out first hand!

Hold on... before you get the idea that I was just looking for an excuse to snatch another greasy funnel cake or get an opportunity to subject myself to one of those $23 water pounding massages, I had already spent a day at the fair on it's 2nd day. And, having the availability of free media passes, I could have gone to the fair on any day of the week. To be fair, though, I do enjoy my work and welcome any excuse to combine it with fun.

I began to make my plans and set off on a journey. It was 5pm, Saturday!

Since one of the controversies centered on financially strapped folks not being able to use the usual on street parking areas, I decided to take the RT bus to the event. Yes, the bus! I hadn't taken the bus in many years, since the "free ride day" during the inauguration of the RT light rails system. If your going to do a story, live the story. As I fumbled through the process of finding the bus route number, bought a ticket and climbed aboard my community transport, I found the bus totally empty. No African Americans, no wild eyed teens, no riot ready anarchists.

Police had already started blocking off the many streets surrounding the fair grounds at 6pm. Tense, black vested officers toting riot gear were at the ready. The bus driver even had a hard time getting into the drop off area. The fair's biggest music headliner for the entire 18 days, "Huey Lewis & The News," was about to start. The fair was scheduled to close not long after the concert, so if trouble was in the works, it had to happen soon and a concert seemed as good a place as any.

At the fair I quickly and stealthily made my way though the very large, dense crowd that seemed to be centered around the "Ralphs Supermarkets/The Golden 1 Credit Union" music venue. It was one of the largest concert crowds I'd ever seen at the State Fair, I'd estimate in the thousands, but by following a very pretty, pacific islander and her twelvish daughter I arrived at a good vantage point.

The band, an aging 1970's band of 50+ year olds sporting rock and roll moldies, was already playing those raucously 60s' songs: The Power Of Love, The Heart Of Rock and Roll, It's Alright. I looked out on a sea faces, scanning the rhythmically bobbing heads, writing the story in my brain, thinking of a headline for the next day's news flash. Then it hit me like a rock in the eye: No African Americans, no wild eyed teens, no riot ready anarchists in sight... not a one did I see.

I knew at that very point, this must be part of the strategy, even a conspiracy of the Sacramento Police and savvy fair officials.

How to avoid a riot? Hire "Huey Lewis & The News" as the headliner!

Reporting from the underground...

Stan Morris