Notes from the ChairMay, 1997
The story of the May riots in Boulder is the story of three lessons learned the hard way, in how to be effective in getting what you want.
All three of the riot's lessons were the same Taoist idea: sometimes not-doing is more effective than doing. Police can teach responsible alcohol use by standing aside and letting the students learn; students can oppose bad policy by non-cooperation better than by rioting; police can prevent a riot by blending in and redirecting it, judo-like, rather than mounting a full frontal assault. This common theme is part of the philosophical foundation for libertarianism: it's the best explanation for our paradoxical claim that "the government which governs least, governs best".
- The general police crackdown on alcohol this year has been ineffective. The stated goals are to prevent the fistfights, rapes, traffic accidents and property damage associated with student partying in the past. But any gains they may have made have been erased by the riots.
By way of analogy, suppose you had a puppy that jumped up on the couch every time you let it in the house. So you banish it from the house until it's a grown-up dog. Then, when it's as old as your friend's well-trained adult dogs, you let it in the house again. Surprise! It isn't any better trained than it was before. It hasn't learned the difference between responsible and irresponsible behavior. You should have let it stay in the house, and whacked it with a newspaper when it jumped on the couch; only then would it have learned what the indoor rules are.
When the police don't make sufficient distinction between responsible, peaceful drinking and irresponsible, violent behavior, it should come as no surprise that young drinkers are not learning the distinction as well as they should. But this first lesson is being learned: Chief Koby said in a recent Boulder Planet interview that he now thinks the 18 drinking age is a "failed experiment".
- The riotous response to the policy was ineffective. I'm sure the rioters were frustrated, and angry at police in general; and perhaps it was emotionally satisfying to throw bricks at them. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement demonstrated that it can be very effective to sway your enemies with compassion and logic; but it's very hard to ward off the natural adrenaline rush and fighting instinct that makes violence so much more satisfying. Especially when you are drunk.
If the students are going to fight the law and the city's enforcement policy, as I believe they should, they'll have to sit down and talk about it when they're sober, agree on exactly what they think their rights are, and peacefully insist on them every time the police bully fraternaties or bust parties. People, young or old, have the right to get stinking drunk, if they do so responsibly. No, drinking doesn't help the economy, feed the poor, or or bring tourist dollars to Boulder. But living in a free country means not having to justify everything you do as furthering a community goal. That has to be patiently explained to the establishment, but the riot failed to explain anything.
But since the riots, the letters sections of the newspapers have been full of reasoned arguments against the drinking age. Maybe the second lesson is being learned.
- The police were ineffective in their first attempts to quell the riots. Damage was being done and people were being injured; the cops did have to act. Yet the macho display of force apparently stirred the anger of the crowd. It may have been justified, but it wasn't effective: a lot of damage was done.
I hope the police take to heart the effectiveness of Monday's actions; individual students in the crowd put out fires and broke up fights. Because they weren't dressed like stormtroopers, it was easier for would-be rioters to see that the peacekeepers weren't enemies, or symbols of oppression, or anything else; just people like themselves who didn't want another fight. Perhaps the police will continue to use plainclothed anti-agitators (on or off the police department payroll), when circumstances permit.