Preparing for war in Chico

The war plans have been made, and the citizens are worried. Behave or we’ll bash in your head, say the enforcers. Peace is the answer, say many citizens.

No, we’re not talking about President Bush’s threat to invade Iraq. We’re talking about the city’s effort to squelch the annual Halloween party on the streets of downtown Chico.

Like Bush, the city is using fear as its first weapon. It wants people—well, young, party-loving people—to stay away from Chico. Last March the Chico City Council voted, in effect, to shut down the town during Halloween. To do so, it’s threatening to go after revelers hammer and tongs, you might say. We think it’s overkill.

Others seem to agree. At least two important groups, the Chico State University Associated Students and the Downtown Chico Business Association, have refused to sign off on an open letter to the people of Chico explaining the city’s heavy-handed approach.

After its March vote, the council contracted with a San Luis Obispo public-relations firm to get word out that outsiders would not be welcome to our fair town on Oct. 31. The city paid $45,000 for this campaign, and now local TV is featuring an anti-Halloween ad that looks like an episode from COPS, with people getting bounced off car hoods and wrestled to the ground by club-wielding, helmeted police.

A notice in a campus newspaper shows a pair of cuffed hands over the words “The Party Is Over,” a carved pumpkin with an unhappy face and the warning that “Gatherings on streets, sidewalks and parking lots in the Downtown and west side will not be allowed.” (The bottom of the ad says, “A message from the residents of Chico.” Nobody asked us.)

The city also promises to have 450 officers on duty that day and at least five DUI checkpoints on roads leading into town. Shades of Checkpoint Charlie.

There is no argument that Halloween, a holiday that should be enjoyed by children, has been hijacked by young adults who hide behind masks and make-up and seem to feel that gives them license to act irresponsibly. In recent years this public celebration has gotten way out of control—as such events tend to do in Chico—with numerous assaults and even some stabbings.

We’re glad the city has taken charge this year, rather than turning things over to an ineffectual citizens’ committee, as it has done in the past. But turning out the lights, bringing in so many cops and sending a message that almost calls for acts of defiance is an approach that worries us. It also says to the large number of well-behaved Halloween celebrants that this town is no longer theirs, that their rights—to congregate, to come downtown—have been suspended. There are tones of martial law about the city’s approach, and it’s disturbing.

Perhaps it will work. Maybe Halloween will be peacefully brought back to manageable proportions. Maybe there won’t be violent clashes between cops with their marching orders and drunks with their addled reasoning abilities. We certainly hope so.

We also hope both groups, the police and the revelers, understand that the potential now exists for things to go really, really bad. We urge both to use restraint. It’s in everyone’s best interest for this Halloween to go smoothly.

We fear for the worst and hope we are wrong. If it hits the fan, there will be more than enough blame to go around.