Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

There was a riot at my alma mater last night. Why? Absolutely no good reason whatsoever, unless you count bored, drunken college students being idiots as a good reason. (One of my friends joked that it was a delayed reaction to winning the Big 12 basketball championship last month. I'll admit it: that gave me a quick laugh.) There's nothing to riot about here. Compared to most of the world, we're practically living in a damn utopia. The most prevalent crime in this town is illegal parking.

It's not the first time this has happened.

Ten years ago, I was a freshman at Iowa State. (Yes, just typing that makes me feel old.) It was my first VEISHEA, my first experience with the wonderful and strange traditions at the university that had instantly felt like home, like the place I belonged. If you can be soulmates with a place, I was soulmates with Iowa State University. From the moment I stepped on campus, I knew that that was where I was supposed to be. I felt like crying when I graduated. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the friends and life that I'd had there. 

But I digress.

For the uninitiated, VEISHEA is the largest student-run college event in the country. It's (supposed to be) a celebration of the history, traditions, and educational excellence at Iowa State University. The acronym (which is why it's supposed to appear in all caps, though it often doesn't) stands for the original colleges that made up the university: (V)et Med, (E)ngineering, (I)ndustrial (S)cience, (H)ome (E)conomics, and (A)griculture. This marks the 92nd year (91st if you don't count the Year Without a VEISHEA in 2005, but we'll get to that.) It's a time for students to showcase the best of the university. There's a parade on Saturday. The Life Sciences college (what would have originally been the Home Ec college) mass-produces tiny little cherry pies that you can buy for $1, an endeavor that's organized and executed by the hotel/restaurant management majors. It's quite impressive, the way they make so many pies so quickly. (I'll admit - the pies are one of my favorite traditions. From a purely objective standpoint, they're really nothing special... but dammit, they are magical. Magical and tiny and awesome.)

 No but seriously. The cherry pies, man.

There are student demonstrations (the chemistry club demo is hands-down the best, they perform a clever skit while showing off science experiments, and it's always, always packed), displays and exhibits on central campus, and food. Lots of food. There are concerts by big names and small names; there is a battle of the bands, there are theater performances and the spring football scrimmage. It's not just for current students; alumni return every year and bring their kids and share their pride for the university with their families. It's a big deal, and it sounds corny as hell, but I always loved it. I was in the parade twice with my residence hall government group, carrying a giant inflatable dragon balloon (we even made the ISU homepage, and there is a photo of us hanging in our local Applebee's, though of course it's one from the other side, so you can't see me); we didn't get cherry pies before they sold out my junior year and nobody heard the end of it. We got sunburned and were exhausted, but it was amazing. We didn't have to drink to enjoy it.

I don't know who to credit this image to, but it was the one from the ISU homepage.
I am the girl in the very center holding one of the strings.

Unfortunately, that's not the case for most. Over the past twenty years or so, VEISHEA has been rapidly declining from what it once was. It has somehow become sort of beacon for debauchery, and people show up from all over to party. (We're not really even a party school - we leave that to our in-state rival, the University of Iowa, who was ranked the #1 party school in the country in 2013.) Most of the incidents (including a fatal stabbing in the 90s) were instigated by out of towners that had nothing to do with Iowa State.

The 2004 riot was a series of unfortunate events. Student-police relations weren't great (are they ever?), and when the police broke up a huge house party, the partygoers were essentially herded into our Campustown area - the street with all of the bars. Disgruntled drunk people + more drunk people = not a great situation. Crowds gathered, vandalism broke out. Cars were flipped, windows were broken, lightpoles were uprooted. There's a pretty infamous picture of a kid pushing a flaming dumpster down the street. We were in the den area of our residence hall, hanging out and probably working on art projects because that's what you do when you're a first-year design student, and people were starting to trickle in and it was clear that something was Happening. Being young, stupid, and curious, we ran across the parking lot to the next dorm over to see what was going on - just in time to see a lightpole come crashing down. The police set off tear gas to disperse the crowd, we scampered back to our dorm and stayed there, wanting no part of this mess that was unfolding. (The residence hall we ran to was right along the main road and got the brunt of the gas; it was doubly unfortunate because that was the section of the building with no air-conditioning, and having been a really warm day, most of them had their windows open. People that were innocently sleeping or hanging out in their dorm room became collateral damage.)

 Remember when there were actual paper newspapers? 
And people saved them? Me too!
Found this while cleaning a couple months ago.
Should have known it was a bad sign.

This was before social media existed. Facebook had barely been invented, and wasn't widely available. Twitter and Instagram were made-up words that nobody knew yet. My roommate and I stayed up in our room waiting to see when it would make the news. It hit CNN around 3am that morning.

The university promptly suspended VEISHEA for the following year and put together a task force to examine what they could do to eliminate "disturbances" like this from happening again in the future. The event had been "dry" since the stabbing incident; mostly that meant that everyone was pushed off campus into house parties like the one that had triggered the chaos. More events were moved on campus, away from the booze-soaked scene of Campustown. Concerts were held in parking lots and underneath the Campanile on central campus; the food vendors were lined up along our lake instead of along Welch Avenue. For my part, we lobbied to permit of-age students living on-campus to be able to consume alcohol in their room - four people drinking and being silly in a room is a lot less dangerous than 500 people crammed into a house that will eventually spill out into the street. Our measure passed.

All the measures taken seem to have worked; when VEISHEA came back in 2006, everyone was on their best behavior. Partygoers from out of town still arrived, but things were calm. We spent the day on central campus and the night at a concert. My senior year was the same, probably my favorite VEISHEA aside from pre-riot 2004. It was bright and sunny, I walked in the parade, we got cherry pies, we went to the chemistry show, we got hella sunburned, we went to concerts in the evening. Saturday night we came back to our residence hall and ended up playing Cranium in our den, because we were too exhausted to do anything else.

But every time I could hear hints of a crowd, anything that sounded like a louder roar than usual, I panicked. I had flashbacks to the mob that was a little to close to our dorm for comfort. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was always holding my breath, always listening for the sound of a riot. They had warned us: you screw up again, and it's gone forever. Nobody wanted to see that happen. Everything was kept in check.

This is probably one of my favorite pictures, both of VEISHEA and of ever.
My friend ran literally into the parade while we were stopped and we took this picture.

Fast forward ten years. I attended VEISHEA a few more times, more parades, more cherry pies. There was a rainy year and there was a snowy year. There were sunny years and years I didn't go. Things seemed to be fine. Which is why I was totally blindsided this morning when I logged on to facebook and saw an alarming trend in my feed.

Splashed all over social media (and national news headlines) were pictures and videos of an encore performance of 2004. There was one kid who had to be airlifted to a hospital down in Des Moines when a lightpost fell on him and hit him in the back of the head. Sources say that when the ambulance came, the crowd wouldn't even move. More windows smashed, more cars flipped, more businesses damaged, more things thrown at the police. On a Tuesday night, no less. It makes it a lot harder to blame out of towners this time, because most of those don't arrive until the weekend. That means it was ISU students. To quote the university president,"This time it was us."

I was stunned at first, and then I was sad, and then I was angry.

It was pointless and idiotic in 2004, and it's pointless and idiotic in 2014.

It's funny, in a not-funny way, how ISU can do such a 180 on the national spotlight scene. Our basketball team was setting records right and left this year; we went to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament, losing to the eventual national champions. A video of our basketball coach doing a silly white-man dance in the locker room went viral. The entire "Cyclone Nation" was bursting with pride. 

And then this.

It's so sad that we continually erase any positivity that ISU gets in the press, and instead become known as a cesspool of entitlement, violence, and immature behavior. The resounding sentiment in my newsfeed today was embarrassment and disgust. Most of us were there for the last one. Some people I know were there for the one before that. 

The university held a press conference today, and the new university president is not fucking around. At a press conference this afternoon, he promptly cancelled the remainder of the VEISHEA activities for the week. Another task force has been appointed to examine the future of VEISHEA. At this point, I feel like it could go either way. I hope they find a solution, one that doesn't involve canceling it forever. I wouldn't blame them if they did, though.

The face of a man who does not fuck around.

There are murmurs about "what if they riot again, in protest"? Well, maybe. If they're stupid enough. You can bet your ass that the iron fist of law enforcement is going to have campus in its grip. They already have both the city police and campus police at full-strength during this week, and borrow officers from neighboring towns. They're probably going to bring in some of the Des Moines metro area police, and whoever else they can get. They're going to come down hard on anything that looks remotely like a disturbance, if my friends who have friends working for ISU are to be believed (and trust me, they have taken this seriously for years, so I believe them.) Some say it was a knee-jerk reaction, but honestly? I'm not sure what else they could have done. The writing was on the wall for them. They couldn't not cancel it. They couldn't send the message that this was okay. They had to draw the line, and draw it hard and fast. It sucks, but I absolutely think it was the right thing to do. I hope the kids that ruined it for everyone feel adequately terrible, and to learn that their actions have consequences, and that everyone thinks they are assholes.

I feel so bad for all of the students that put in so much time planning and organizing VEISHEA. I knew a lot of the people that worked on VEISHEA when I was at ISU and I know how hard they work. It's pretty much a life-consuming endeavor. They start planning for the next VEISHEA the very day the current VEISHEA ends.

I feel bad for all the alumni that were going to bring their kids to the parade. I feel bad for the groups that had prepared their displays and their performances. I feel bad for the clubs that are going to miss out on their fundraising. I feel bad for all the cherry pies that are not going to get eaten. I hate that the fuckups once again ruin it for everyone.

The worst part of all of it, is that I'm willing to bet money that most of those students have no idea they did anything wrong. They don't believe they can get in trouble for it, they don't believe they can be held accountable for it. They are part of the generation that grew up without consequences, and if there is any justice in this world, they will start learning about it now. Mommy and Daddy can only protect you to a point. The Real World is not going to be so kind.

It's terrible. It's gotten terrible. I have friends that teach and they have students that will flat-out say things like "no one tells me no" and that they get want they want, period. I guess it's become common to see students bringing their parents to a career fair. (I was reading the comments on a LinkedIn article, and one hiring manager said that he interviewed a recent graduate who brought her mother along. To the interview. AND HER MOM ANSWERED THE QUESTIONS. WHAT the ACTUAL fuck is happening?). 

I have to believe that they are the minority. There are so many thoughtful and bright people out there. I wish they were louder.  I hope there is a way to amplify the voices of the good kids over the weeks ahead. I hope there is a way to erase the mentality and actions of the type that participate in the destructive behavior, a way to make it known that this is not what Iowa State is. Iowa State is more than that, it is better than that. 

I hope they track down the people that incited this riot, who participated in it. It shouldn't be hard. They've all helpfully taken photos and videos and selfies of the scene. I hope they expel all of them. They don't deserve to be a part of Iowa State or its community. I hope they slap as many of them with criminal charges as they can. Even the ones not actively destroying property should get charged with something. Because they're just as guilty, almost as much at fault as if they'd done it themselves. If people weren't in the crowd, there wouldn't have been a crowd, and no crowd = no riot. The crowd is what egged on the instigators, so frankly, I'd say they are deserving of some sort of punishment. You find yourself in a riot crowd, you leave, or you're just as guilty. You are an enabler, an accomplice.

Can VEISHEA go back to what it was originally intended to be? I don't know. Most of the students are good kids. There is always a large pocket that "gets" it. Those students are probably devastated right now, and I don't blame them. There is that stigma around the event now, though. Simply by it being VEISHEA, the troublemakers are going to roll into town and stir things up. What was supposed to be a positive event has become a codeword for a modern-day bacchanalia, and I don't know how anyone can stop that.

I obviously have a lot of (circular) thoughts on feelings on this. I'm not even sure I've expressed them. I'm frustrated by all of it, obviously. It's been so long since I've written that I'm flailing around and not succeeding. Apparently, this is what it takes to get me blogging again.

I'm going to leave you with a couple links to better-written thoughtpieces than this. One from my friend who is an incredibly intelligent radio personality who happens to be as nutso about our alma mater as I am, and the other is from a former ISU football player who absolutely nails it so much that I wish I'd written it. It's much more to the point (and much shorter) than what I've rambled about here. Perhaps I should have just asked for permission to repost it, instead.

Despite everything, I know my university is better than this. I know that there are more good people than bad people. I'm angry and frustrated and disappointed, but there is another thing that I will always be. I will always be part of the Iowa State family, and I will always fiercely love and defend it. Even now.

(source unknown, borrowed from a friend's facebook feed)


Kelly L said...

This makes me so mad. SO mad. I started having 2004 riot PTSD dreams again. Those had finally gone away when I moved to Pinon Dr. 3 years ago.

Also, apparently VEISHEA is now Veishea. Some bright person thought it needed to become a word. It pains me to type it that way.

AND — fun fact — the cherry pies are made by a committee. I believe anybody can join but I think it's one of those things you have to apply for because I'm guessing people really want to do it. I think most of the people are food science / culinary science students (from the Human Sciences college ... we're Agriculture and Life Sciences — I guess they could also be from our college as we have some of those majors as well).

One thing that I think is going to be surprising is the profile of students involved in these events. I really think that the nice weather was to blame for a LOT of this stupidness. I was anticipating that the people involved would be flunkees in the business or LAS college (two colleges that are stereotyped with having students who don't know what they really want to do, and therefore, don't perform well, and jack around), but so far the arrests made were for a Biochem student (who is likely a 4.0 student because they all are) and an industrial engineering student. So I'm guessing there really isn't a profile.

The thing that this reminds me of is that time that Paula flipped her shit at us for being involved with getting kicked out of Holiday Inn when our group (some of us) wasn't actually involved. That was an extreme case because if we didn't hear it, there was no way we could have stopped it; however, in this case, the "innocent bystanders" were NOT innocent. I truly believe that social media had a HUGE role in this riot (not only for the pending arrests) because I guarantee a ton of the mob was just there taking photos of the big street party, and I bet more people were attracted to it because they wanted to catch it on camera. I still feel WE weren't guilty of anything when our group was kicked out of the hotel, but those students who were in the mob on Tuesday? Totally guilty. They could have stopped people. They could have just kept walking. I now understand why all my friends were pepper sprayed. It was the police's job to keep the mob under control, and although they didn't want to cause (actual) trouble, my friends were causing trouble simply by adding to the masses.

Fuck this shit. Seriously. We are way too entitled. My classmates by-in-large are international students and none of them understood this. I had people jump down my throat when I said this is a cultural problem, but yeah, when I have 15 other people telling me that this wouldn't happen in their home country because they have real issues? It's a fucking cultural issue. We need to get over ourselves. This generation needs to quit feeling so damn entitled to everything. #oldpersonrant

Again, the thing that really pisses me off is that the students who put a ton of their time and effort into this are totally getting shafted. Those are the students I work with — hard working leaders who like to have fun — but are responsible and they have figured out how to be successful humans for the most part.

My colleague was calling around yesterday trying to buy off the food from our clubs to use for our event in a week. It's going to be a HELL of a lot more work for her to do it that way, but at least we can feel like we helped the students out who got shafted, and hopefully that will help those students feel like the University didn't just shit all over them. The University didn't. Their peers did. Their peers shit all over the University as well.

And this is the blog post *I* wanted to write, but really couldn't because I didn't really want to lose my job.

Kelly L said...

Several things. First: WHY do you not work for Iowa State? You need to get on that.

Second: i was with Erik that fateful night in 2004, and he was just curious and excited enough by the mayhem to want to go join it, but i wouldn't let him. I dragged him back to Oak/Elm, where he proceeded to watch the events unfold via Strangetalk. It may have been before facebook and twitter, but there were message boards. Early social media. ;)

I'm glad you wrote this, because i'd kind of lost sight of just how huge VEISHEA was. It wasn't just the concerts and the food fair and the pies—my favorite things—there was stuff going on all over campus, all week long. And it was really important to many thousands of people. So maybe we shouldn't let a couple hundred dumbasses ruin it for everybody, you're right. I think i've changed my opinion, i hope VEISHEA returns.

I think there's got to be a clever way of solving this, like staging big keggers at houses that are far away from the bars but not too far from campus. Provide a place where people can do something that's sort of dumb and illegal - underage drinking - but do it in a controlled way so that they don't get upset and do dumber, more destructive things. Or something. I dunno.

Kelly L said...

I did interview with them once (in the Department of Residence, even!) and was one of the finalists but I didn't get the job.

I TOTALLY forgot about Strangetalk! You're right, I think that played a big part, that's how word got around campus so quickly. I had a friend that lived in Willow that insisted on coming over to check it out even though I told her not to.

There has to be something, yes. I remember that was our goal in allowing drinking in the dorms again - break up the big parties. 4 people aren't going to do the damage of 400 people or 4000 people.

Maybe they can have a big booze-fest in Hilton or something, keep them all corralled in one spot until they all pass out.

Kelly L said...

I had a coworker who was hoping it would be cold/snowy one last time this weekend for that specific reason.

I still stand by them cancelling it for the week, but I feel so, so bad for the majority of the students who had nothing to do with it and worked so effing hard to put this thing together. And all the waste. The food, the cherry pie stuff, all the materials and stuff that were put together for the displays, all of the floats. I think when they start making arrests and such, they should charge fines for those people large enough to cover all the costs that went into it. Not to mention the people that are out on the business that they counted on for this weekend.