RIOT, Or Was It Really?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of what 

many dubbed the “Hobo Day Riots.”

When JT Nelson woke up on the Sunday following Hobo Day weekend of 1990, he didn’t think he’d find his face on the front of the newspaper.

“I was one of the main pictures. I was right smack in the middle smiling and holding a beer,” he said, after describing the call from his mother that morning 25 years ago. His photo was featured among many others in an edition of the Argus Leader.

While a college student holding a beer is not a typical front-page story, it was that weekend, when the so-called “Hobo Day riots” took place.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the riots, which occurred on Oct. 20 and 21, 1990.

54 people were arrested for criminal activity with these riots, according to The Collegian at this time.

While many have dubbed this weekend as the time of the “Hobo Day riots,” others have claimed that riot might not be the right word, including Doug Wermedal, a former Hobo Day Committee member and current interim vice president for student affairs.

“In the end, not only was there not even what I would call a riot necessarily, but a civil disobedience might be a better description,” Wermedal said. “Use of the word riot seems a little questionable when you think about the scale of real riots.”

Wermedal wasn’t present during the riots since he graduated nearly five years earlier, but still remembers hearing about the events on the news. 

“Hobo Day is one of those events where everyone has a sort of ‘do you remember that Hobo Day when…’ and then you fill in the blank,” he said. 

For Carrie Howard, this weekend will be engraved in her mind for years to come. Howard, who lived on the block near the rioting, remembers the event as if it were yesterday. 

Howard described the so-called riots as a “mobile party mob,” recalling how the massive amount of students would move from spot to spot, bringing the party with them. 

“The party just started moving,” Howard said. “When they got tired of happening in one area, this whole humongous amount of people would travel together to another place. That is just what happened all night.”

But it wasn’t just a party; there were also several bonfires. Students would resort to throwing furniture and any items they could find to keep the fire going. 

“I could remember them building this big bonfire and they were using college kids’ furniture. It was college kids bringing their furniture out of their houses,” she said.

Many accuse the media for sensationalizing the event, essentially calling it the “Hobo Day riots.” KSFY was one of several news outlets present that weekend, and tthe station is most commonly accused of exaggerating the details. 

At one point that Saturday, the KSFY news team’s car was flipped over. This will forever be one of the highlights and most recalled events of the night. 

To this day, a rumor surrounds the whereabouts of the car door, which supposedly sits in one of the houses near campus.

R. Duane Coates, an editor for The Collegian at the time, didn’t participate in the Hobo Day events, but remembers reporting on the riot.

“We had the debate among us. Was it really a riot or a pseudo riot?” Coates said.

He specifically recalled interviewing a Resident Assistant in one of the residence halls. The Resident Assistant barred the doors and armed himself with a baseball bat in fear that the mob would take over his hall. 

In Coates’ opinion, the weekend reached riot status. 

“I thought it was a riot. When you have a large group of uncontrolled people setting fire to private property, and requiring an extraordinary effort of force by the fire department and the police department. To me, it’s more than just a party,” 

To this day, people still recall the riots, but whether or not they were actually riots is still something that is left up to the individual.

Nick Wendell, the director of student engagement and former grand pooba of Hobo Day, still hears of people who comment on that specific weekend 25 years ago.

“It was a media sensation that is the Hobo Day riot,” he said, adding that using the word riot is an exaggeration. 

For years after that, some things changed in the planning phase for the event, including security issues. 

“I think as years go by, I think people saw it for what it was: a little bit of civil disobedience and rowdy behavior that was probably magnified by the presence of media,” Wermedal said.

But did it leave a lasting impression? For some, yes.

Being on the front page of the newspaper was not the only thing Nelson will take away from this weekend. To him, it wasn’t a riot, but just one big party that got out of control. 

“It was quite a weekend,” Nelson said, “I can tell you that.”