Jason Arment reflects on an annual, week-long festival at Iowa State University called VEISHEA and how riots caused it to be suspended indefinitely.
In the little town of Ames, Iowa, a place that would be a dried-up railroad town if not for the university, there was once an annual celebration turned riotous block-party—VEISHEA. Its proper name—Veterinary medicine, Engineering, Industrial Science, Home Economics, and Agriculture—is as obfuscated by the acronym as the purpose behind the week-long event in its final years. During that time, I was front and center for the action when I lived right off of Welch Avenue where the lion’s share of the campus town bars are located. The last place I lived while attending Iowa State University was the entire bottom floor of a house that has since been demolished to make way for more apartments and included was a good-sized porch that gave me an excellent view of Welch Avenue.
Because I was of legal age to drink for the entirety of my time living in Ames and because all of my close friends were older than me, the role of voyeur seemed natural. With no end of young drunk fools to observe, it was people watching on steroids. And many of the VEISHEA activities that had been normalized over the years had the strange intensity of ’roid rage. Keggers where I’d find myself surrounded by six hundred mostly underage people trying to get as drunk as possible before the cops shut it down wasn’t entertaining even the first time; just as a bunch of drunk college kids flipping a car was just spectacle I watched because, why not?
The riots, similarly, turned into things in and of themselves; and although I wasn’t around for the most notorious riot when tear gas was used to disperse the crowd, or the last when a young man was nearly killed by a falling streetlight and the mob threw bottles at first responders, I did bear witness to a few of the run-of-the-mill skirmishes and even a small race riot.
I was drunk for nearly all of my VEISHEA experiences, but not because I liked it or really participated in it; I got drunk because knowing I was going to watch the future of this nation turn into a combative pack of drunken idiots was depressing. And also because going out to watch was dangerous, more so than things usually were around campus town, where stories of people being jumped and beaten were not a rarity (my own experience involved being assaulted by two drunken women and being too hammered to defend myself in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity).
At the end, people from out of town were coming just for the shenanigans on Welch. Some brought mace, others flare guns; although, to my knowledge, there wasn’t any actual gun play that was directly VEISHEA related. But I wasn’t there for everything and VEISHEA’s rap sheet is as long as my arm and includes murder, suicide, assaults, accidental deaths that usually involved a fall from great height, and various other dirty deeds done in the dark. For a time, there was a macabre adage: “It’s not VEISHEA until someone dies.”
And die they did, although it wasn’t until the obvious violence tourism combined with the last riot—when footage of a streetlight being shook free and falling to strike a young man in the head circulated the media, both social media and mainstream media, along with pictures of his lifeless-looking body sprawled on the pavement right by the best BBQ place in town—did it become undeniable, inescapable, that there was a problem. And it wasn’t until the mob lashed out at first responders trying to help a badly injured man that it became indisputable what kind of animal VEISHEA really was—rabid.
Even though I no longer lived in Ames or attended ISU, when the last tragedy occurred I still felt invested. There was public outcry from some alumni that the week-long event be saved, while others pointed out that moving the festivities further and further left on the calendar to place it in the middle of frigid weather hadn’t dissuaded people from taking to the streets—something more drastic was needed. I ended up calling the President’s office, told them I used to be the Iowa State Daily’s opinion section editor (as if that mattered) and opined how the new President needed to shut the lights off on the party before someone else was severely injured or killed. I inquired to the health of the young man and was told what the media was telling everyone, that he was in critical condition but expected to recover.
A student committee was formed to figure out a way to salvage the good parts of VEISHEA, such as the concerts, but in the end they scuttled the whole thing. It figured that would happen after I had to live through that nonsense for years. I hated VEISHEA for a lot of reasons, but there was one lesson it reinforced: inside a pack of animals is an unknowable place, no matter how much it feels like home.