Five years later: Veishea’s lasting impact

A crowd faces police at the intersection of Chamberlain Street and Stanton Avenue during Veishea on April 8.

Emily Berch

Jared Larson remembers driving past Welch Avenue around 10 p.m. on April 8, 2014, and feeling something strange in the air.

Larson, an Ames High School student at the time and now an Iowa State senior, said he felt the urge to go home so his “mom doesn’t find [his] picture in the paper tomorrow.”

Within the next few hours, more than 1,000 people flooded Welch Avenue, toppling light poles and flipping cars, eventually leaving one student in intensive care.

Monday marks the five-year anniversary of the 2014 Veishea riot that lead to the permanent discontinuation of the event, as well as five years of continued debate on whether the event should ever return to Iowa State.

The final riot

Michael Roberts, owner of the Blue Owl Bar and Charlie Yoke’s at the time, said he remembers warning signs in the days leading up to the riot.

“The one thing that I always thought was odd, and we discussed it a lot up to that night, is how Iowa State [students] kept talking about the prior riots as if almost making it a challenge to top it,” Roberts said.

According to an e-mail from Jerry Stewart, the Iowa State Police Chief at the time, “The incident apparently began with a large party in the 2600 block of Hunt Street,” around 11 p.m.

Nicholas Etzel, a senior in management, said he remembers leaving a party after the police arrived and walking toward Welch Avenue with his friends. As they walked, they discovered their party wasn’t the only one that had been shut down.

“The cops had shut down so many parties that everyone had nowhere else to go besides Welch,” Etzel said.

Around this time, Commander Jason Tuttle of the Ames Police Department received a phone call.

Tuttle said he was confused at first because the greatest Veishea disturbances typically only happened closer to the weekend. He drove to the fire station on Welch Avenue and began calling in extra officers to help manage the crowd.

By 11:36 p.m., 1,000 people were on Welch Avenue, and some members of the crowd had already flipped one car, according to Stewart’s e-mail. As more officers arrived, the crowd “drifted east toward Stanton Avenue,” pelting police officers with beer cans along the way.

Chris Cox, a senior at the time, said he had taken part in Veishea every year he was at Iowa State, and as he watched the crowd congregate near the corner of Stanton Avenue and Chamberlain Street, he “could tell we were about to have another riot.”

Blake Lanser, a sophomore at the time, said once he heard a car had been flipped, he quickly drove to the scene to take pictures for the Iowa State Daily and experienced similar treatment as he followed the officers.

“I had one guy shove me repeatedly until I could get away and another who hit me with a beer bottle,” Lanser said. “One point, when the crowd had ran over to Stanton Ave., in front of Es Tas, I crouched down behind an officer to get a photo. During that, students were hurling beers, full and partially empty, at the officers. The officer that I was standing behind dodged a beer can, and it smacked me right in the head.”

As the crowd moved between Chamberlain Street and Lincoln Way along Stanton Avenue, Stewart estimated 1,000-2,000 people were in the area. Businesses in the area were told to shut down, including “bars, a convenience store and food card operators,” according to Stewart’s e-mail.

Roberts, who had moved from the Blue Owl Bar to Charlie Yoke’s, said he remembers his former business partner being reluctant to close and the restaurant’s manager telling him, “We are the only thing standing between 500 people looting us, taking everything we have and destroying the building.”

At this point, the crowd “re-formed at Chamberlain Street and Welch Avenue,” according to Stewart’s e-mail. There, the violence became more serious.

“Two light poles, one near Fire Station 2 and one near Jimmy Johns, were toppled,” Stewart wrote. “Four or more stop signs were removed. A garage window at the fire station was broken and a door at the Jaded Angel tattoo parlor was damaged. Two vehicles were tipped.

“The most serious portion of the disturbance was when a 19-year-old student was injured after being struck by a falling light pole. The individual was extricated from the scene and later transported by helicopter to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. … The latest report is that the student is in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), suffering from a small brain bleed.”

Etzel described the scene as “absolute madness.”

Tuttle, who went with paramedics and other officers to get the students, said this finally “turned the tide of the crowd.”

“I think when they saw the light pole fall and the student laying on the ground, people started to become hysterical that someone was injured,” Tuttle said. “I think the students quickly realized that whatever they were doing as part of that was not worth someone being injured. At that point, we really saw people start to realize the gravity of what was going on there.”

Cox said at this point, he was watching the event unfold on his social media pages, as students posted pictures and videos of the chaos. Tuttle said he believes those sorts of posts “played a huge role” in bringing people to the riot, an effect which hadn’t been possible in past riots.

A few blocks away from the scene, Hillary Kletscher had been spending the night of her first full day as student body president studying for exams, when she heard “a roar of commotion.”

Kletscher said she logged into her Twitter account and began seeing posts similar to what Cox saw.

“I started seeing these photos … it was enough for me to understand something really serious just happened, and I was going to have to deal with it,” Kletscher said.

The aftermath

Kletscher described the next day as “one of the craziest days of [her] life.”

At 8 a.m. on April 9, Kletscher met with then-President Steven Leath and his cabinet, where they decided to suspend Veishea events beginning at 5 p.m. that day.

Cox was in a public relations campaign class at the time of the announcement and said while most students he knew didn’t want Veishea to end, they understood Leath’s decision. Cox, who had been involved in Veishea for his entire time at Iowa State, said it was “sobering” for his last Veishea event to also become the university’s.

In the press conference announcing his decision, Leath expressed “extreme disappointment and sadness” as well as sympathy for the students who had worked to organize the events. He also announced the injured student was in stable condition.

In announcing his decision, Leath also referenced prior riots which had resulted in suspension of the celebration.

“My predecessors have faced similar difficult decisions despite everyone’s best efforts to fix Veishea, move it, retool it, reschedule it, keep it fresh,” Leath said. “But once again, we’re back here doing the same thing President Geoffroy and President Jischke did.”

Veishea first began in 1922 with the intention of celebrating university community. Over the years, it drew recognition from national figures such as John Wayne, Diana Ross and Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

Its history of riots began in 1988.

The 1990s saw two more riots, one in 1992 and one in 1994. Ten years later, the 2004 riot, which Tuttle described as “very violent,” resulted in the first-ever cancellation of the full event in 2005.

After the 2004 riot, then-President Gregory Geoffroy assembled a task force to study the causes of the riots and make recommendations on how to prevent them in future years. Leath formed a similar task force in 2014, bringing administrators, students, city officials and community leaders together.

The task force met every Thursday for the next 10 weeks and hosted five open forums, inviting students, business owners, faculty and alumni to give their opinions. Some expressed disappointment in Leath’s decision, while others commended his choice.

Throughout its time, the task force also invited Ames and Iowa State community members to contribute to the discussions.

Pam White, former dean of the College of Human Sciences and a member of the task force, said she remembers Stewart and Chief of Ames Police Chuck Cychosz offering their ideas from the perspective of law enforcement.

In another meeting, a professor of psychology came to discuss “mob mentality,” and how people get “caught up in the moment,” during a riot, White said.

White and Kletscher both said the task force was dedicated to bringing in opinions from all areas of the community, and Kletscher said she remained dedicated to representing students’ interests in community and safety as she received messages both in support and condemnation of her decisions.

“I knew being student body president was about doing what needs to be done, regardless of what some people might say,” Kletscher said. “Some of these e-mails certainly sound mean, but I think the thing that I always understood was I as a student represent more than one person and more than myself. I had access to knowledge and resources that no other student had.”

On June 5, the task force unanimously voted against keeping Veishea in its usual form.

On June 12, the task force passed a motion to have an “overarching, university-wide event,” and another to discontinue using Veishea as the celebration’s name, according to the meeting notes. White said there was “a lot of enthusiasm” for having more activities spread throughout the year.

The task force submitted its final report to Leath on July 11, and Leath announced his decision to permanently discontinue Veishea on Aug. 7.

The ongoing debate

Throughout the years since the 2014 riot and subsequent cancellation of the event,  alumni, students and candidates for Student Government have supported its return.

Cox and Etzel both said they believe bringing Veishea back would have positive effects on the community, and Lanser said he believes the community is “suffering” without Veishea.

“I want to reiterate again that we should not let one night’s riots be what Veishea is remembered for,” Lanser said. “Bringing back Veishea holds so much potential to build it from the ground up that I believe without a doubt that it would be successful.”

Conversely, others have suggested its history of violence would continue, and a new event would end with disturbances similar to those in the past.

Kletscher said a reprisal of Veishea would “absolutely end how it ended prior, if not worse,” and Tuttle said anything resembling Veishea in the springtime could have “potentially disastrous effects.”

White, however, was hesitant to speculate.

“I don’t know,” White said. “In predicting when there would be an issue, it was so hard to tell. … After 2004, we were heaving a sigh of relief, but then we had 2014. So who knows?”