Brawl on beach taps into booze brouhaha

September 9, 2007 No Comments

San Diego Union Tribune – Gerry Braun

In one of several YouTube videos of the notorious Labor Day melee, you can watch the birth of the insurrection, long before police marched in like a conquering army to reclaim Pacific Beach.The video shows two police officers arresting a young man who they wrongly suspected was monkeying with their all-terrain vehicle.

A crowd gathers to watch the arrest and boo the police. The boos will later give way to a vulgar chant that, if you hum loudly, could be mistaken for “Love the police! Love the police!”

As things heat up, a young man in swimsuit and sunglasses lurches in front of the camera to blurt out a greeting.

“Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” he says, bobbing and staggering. “How are ya? Welcome to Shandiego!”

Ah, youth.

Perhaps his proud parents will include that image in their next video Christmas card. And why shouldn’t they? Labor Day 2007 may represent the pinnacle of achievement for Junior and his friends.

It could be remembered as the day an unruly mob of young men (and a few young women) turned the tide in San Diego’s long-brewing debate over whether drinking on the beach should remain legal.

That crowd of beer achievers soon swelled into the hundreds. Like a colony of bees with a single brain – if that – it swarmed the beach looking for trouble, spawning fistfights and cheering what violence it found. Even the sight of police in riot gear, forming a column 100 yards away, did not diminish its appetite.

Police arrested 15 beachgoers on an array of charges, including disturbing the peace, assaulting a police officer, being drunk in public and urging a riot. Six allegedly intoxicated arrestees were underage.

Among the hundreds of alarmed observers was City Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who represents Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. As Faulconer arrived at the beach that day, he still straddled the question of whether alcohol should be banned there.

In his reluctance to take sides, Faulconer last year appointed a Beach Area Alcohol Task Force to advise him. It included die-hard supporters and opponents of a ban, and was told Faulconer wanted only recommendations that everyone agreed on.

The task force met for nine months, winding up its business in the spring. It produced a long list of mild recommendations, but as anticipated, it never came close to finding common ground on a beach ban.

Faulconer’s mistake, apparently, was to seek direction from 14 well-meaning, civic-minded volunteers rather than 15 well-lubricated, sun-baked hooligans. He corrected that error Monday, announcing his support for a total ban on drinking at the beach.

Such a ban would have to be approved by the City Council – where it would not have stood a chance without Faulconer’s support – and will in all likelihood lead to a referendum. Voters narrowly rejected a partial ban in 2002 after a campaign pitting public safety against personal freedom.

When I asked Faulconer about his battlefield conversion last week, he conceded the obvious: There’s nothing like a riot to clarify your thinking.

In a style reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani after Sept. 11, 2001, he described the surreal beach scene movingly and in personal terms. He related how a frightened woman fleeing the beach recognized him and said, “You’ve got to do something about this.”

“We can’t wait for another tragedy like that,” Faulconer told me. “In my opinion, the equation had changed.”

I also spoke with most of the members of the task force, a thoughtful and well-informed group, none of whom said the events of Labor Day altered his or her view on an alcohol ban.

Supporters of a ban said alcohol-related violence at the beach has been ratcheting up for years. The melee, they said, was a timely wake-up call for Faulconer and others who ignored the warning signs.

“After a year of my life on that committee,” Nancie Geller said, “after all the presentations, all the testimony, all the statistics, it’s too bad it took a riot.”

Opponents of a ban stood by the view that the majority of San Diegans should not lose the right to enjoy alcohol on the beach because of a small number of losers whose behavior can be controlled by police enforcing existing laws.

“Our so-called leader,” Jeremy Malecha said, referring to Faulconer, “is making a 180-degree flip and undermining eight months of research. It seems more of a PR ploy than a real solution.”

Virtually everyone acknowledged that the Labor Day melee is likely to be a turning point in the wider debate to come.

For all the compelling arguments that can be made on both sides of this issue, the voice that may carry the day with voters might just be a young man’s slushy greeting to his parents, “Welcome to Shandiego!”

Labor Day Riot 2007

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