Beer goggles can be brutally deceptive. Depending on their thickness, the lenses can morph a logical perception of reality into something it isn’t. As bar jokes and humorous T-shirts have documented well, such can be the case when, through beer goggles, one assesses the attractiveness of a possible sexual partner, the potential reception of an extremely embarrassing story or the color of a stoplight.
By nighttime on Feb. 23, a day’s worth of crowds had left empty glass bottles lying all around Main Street. For an angry group of party-seekers, the beer goggles morphed the bottles’ images from useless containers to possible projectiles. And, if you believe most accounts of the incident, it was the beer goggles that blurred the known consequences of launching said projectiles toward a line of armed policemen in riot gear.
After months of worrying that visiting protesters would disrupt Salt Lake City’s precious mid-winter gala, the city’s leaders were astonished. At the heart of the most exciting fracas to occur during the Olympics, there wasn’t an outspoken animal-rights or anti-globalization activist to be found. Instead of political malcontents, police faced down crowds chanting patriotic rallying cries. The explanation? They were under the influence. “Anybody who wasn’t drunk was probably smart enough to leave,” said Detective Dwayne Baird, a spokesman from the Salt Lake City Police department.
Various voices around the community tried to interpret what had happened that night. They turned the events into political footballs. Ever prepared to condemn the modern face of capitalist America, the Utah Indymedia website posted an opinion that the melee “was just a bunch of ‘Joe consumers’ who became overanxious to do what they had been programmed to do: consume.”
But it was the Deseret News’ view that caught most people’s eye. In an editorial published the Monday after the incident, the paper wrote that it had warned its readers about the “apparent attempt by local government to enliven Salt Lake City.” The Feb. 23 melee was “a glimpse of what a rowdy night life consists of.”
Editor John Hughes said it was an appropriate response. “Maybe somebody thinks what happened that night was a good thing. But a lot of people said it was terrifying. We don’t want anything like it to happen again,” he said.
His readers took the cue. Letter after letter in the News that week denounced the incident as a riot with only one person to blame: Salt Lake City’s most prominent municipal official. “Saturday night’s mini-riot was truly a black eye in the face of Salt Lake City compliments of Mayor Rocky Anderson,” wrote Sandy resident Ken Brown, who claimed to have been caught up in the middle of it all. “We were at the Gallivan Center earlier in the week when [Anderson] pounded his chest in claiming victory over all the moral and civilized people of Salt Lake City by bringing Bud World to the Olympics.”
Budweiser was the other focal point of the discussion. The beer conglomerate had given the Salt Lake Organizing Committee $50 million dollars to reserve a prominent place during the festivities. Every day, thousands lined up to enter the Gallivan Center that the company had quickly transformed into Bud World. That Saturday night was the last night of Olympic celebration. And when 30,000 spectators left after an ’N Sync concert at the Medals Plaza a few blocks away, an enormous crowd wanted to enter Bud World.
They couldn’t, though—Bud World was already full. Thousands of people were in line waiting to enter when organizers—based on a stern recommendation from police—closed down the party out of fear that the crowd would get out of hand.
During the Games, police say they had been ignoring open-container laws that prohibit drinking in the street. “Given the volume of people we were dealing with, enforcing those laws throughout the Games was unbelievably difficult,” Detective Baird said. “We just didn’t have the manpower to do anything about it. Certain laws are going to be ignored, as long as there is no problem. But when you’re intoxicated to the point where your behavior comes into question and you start to make a spectacle of yourself, we won’t ignore you anymore.”
Outside of Bud World that night, apparently some people started giving the cops a reason not to ignore them. Jacob Santini, a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune, said he arrived at the scene behind a line of policemen at 300 South and Main. The cops were slowly pushing the crowd to the south. Santini said he saw two glass bottles hit officers in the head. And when he worked his way over to the crowd, he saw people walking around selling bottles of beer from their own cases. “There were a lot of people standing around talking on their cell phones or just hanging out. It was from the back of the crowd that people threw the bottles,” Santini said. The crowd had dwindled in his opinion to only a few hundred chanting “USA, USA.” Some in the rowdy crowd also yelled more unpleasant expressions at the police. “It didn’t seem that they were as drunk as they were emboldened by a gang mentality.”
Santini was interviewing a couple of people when a rubber crowd-control bullet police call a “stinger” bounced off the ground and into his writing hand. Instead of flashing his press credentials, he ran away with everyone else.
All told, 21 people were arrested—only five of those faced charges of public intoxication. Police charged two others with underage consumption of alcohol. A Salt Lake County Sheriff’s vehicle sustained the only damage of the night, and cleaning crews had all the rubber balls and broken glass swept up by morning. Santini, who had later been hit by another stinger, said the story wasn’t as big as it first appeared.
Police agreed—it wasn’t a riot. “It was the vast minority of the people there who were causing problems,” said Lt. Dave Burdett, the Salt Lake County Pubic Safety Platoon Commander for the Games. He said his squad arrived as back-up for the police already on the scene. Instead of using the rubber stingers against the crowd, Burdett said his men fired “fluid balls” at the crowd. They are paintball-sized plastic balls with a mixture of water and antifreeze to ensure they wouldn’t freeze and become solid projectiles. “I’ve been quoted as saying that some people exhibited ‘riotous’ behavior and I like that description. I don’t blame any of the problems on Bud World. We had a very successful and safe Games. We worked very hard and I am extremely proud of everyone,” said Burdett.
Success it was, said Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. “There were thousands of people on the streets for 17 days without a single serious injury. That is a remarkable accomplishment for this city. Based on the response, there is no doubt that people in this community yearn for a central gathering point that the downtown area provides,” he said.
A fact that he says makes the Deseret News’ insinuations almost insulting. “What happened that Saturday night has nothing to do with anything I have every proposed for the downtown area. All I have asked the city to do is look at extending the hours at places where people can listen to music and dance. I have not asked for more liquor licenses. None of what I have proposed has been to increase the consumption of alcohol. It’s a real sort of bigotry on the part of those who so recklessly assign to me the consequences of young people drinking illegally on the streets.”
The News admitted that Anderson wasn’t to blame for the Main Street melee. “I don’t think there is a connection between his plans for downtown and what happened. It is very difficult to point the finger at anybody. It’s very sad all around and I’m sure the mayor was just as disturbed as we were,” Hughes said. He was especially worried because one of the staff writers had been “beaten up” by the unruly crowd, he said.
Four days after publishing the editorial that spurred all the anti-Rocky letters, the News published a different view. “Now, Mayor Rocky Anderson wants to grab hold of some of the lingering energy from the Games and keep some of the excitement going on weekends. We wish him well...”
Apparently, the News’ own goggles had worn off along with the Olympic hype.