By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By most indications, the Pomona P.D.’s ”meet and greet“ strategy has played a critical role in reducing the violent brawls that once were a hallmark of the fair. Indeed, slugfests and shankings in the old Fun Zone (now renamed the carnival section) were once so common and brutal that it left what seems to be an indelible stain on an otherwise ever-more-polished event.
Those turbulent times, and the possibility they might somehow return, have shaped a ”take no chances“ attitude among the fair‘s governing managers and security apparatus.
Started primarily as a five-day agricultural event in 1922, the L.A. County Fair has grown into the largest county exposition in North America, sprawled across 487 acres in the shadow of Pomona’s upper-crust Ganesha Hills neighborhood. Its 18-day run this year closes Sunday.
The fair‘s governing association (a Who’s Who of old-guard power brokers in the Pomona Valley) has poured millions into improvements at the Fairplex facility.
Fair officials have waged a staggering public-relations campaign to make sure local media stay ”on message“ -- an easier feat to accomplish in the local daily newspapers these days, since all of the surrounding regional dailies are now owned by the same publisher, media magnate Dean Singleton. Singleton‘s media chain is now a major sponsor at the fair. In recent years, the Fairplex communications department has cranked out literally hundreds of press releases every fair season to make sure it’s the Senior Citizen Milk Drinking Contest that makes the papers and broadcast-news spots, not the odd stabbing that still goes down when the moon comes up. In the midst of their Giuliani-style make-over, the flacks seem more edgy than the cops on the beat, in a constant state of fear that their carefully crafted image of a ”brighter, safer and cleaner“ L.A. County Fair may be besmirched by a reporter looking past the cotton candy.
It is a fear that the darker past of the fair may somehow rear its head again, despite the nearly 50 officers that the Pomona P.D. dispatches throughout the fairgrounds (a force supplemented by private security guards).
On opening day this year, the death of jockey J.C. Gonzalez, who was trampled to death when his horse went down in the fifth race, made headlines. The 16-year-old girl who was stabbed in the neck during a gang fight in the fair‘s carnival did not. Nor did the 46-year-old man who was arrested for committing a lewd act with a child in the kiddie-rides section.
And the brawl in the carnival that one cop summed up as ”some guy getting his face kicked in“ didn’t make the papers either.
The bottom line is, the fair is safer than perhaps it ever has been in the past 30 years, but it can be a dangerous place to have fun.
Still, listening to some of the old-time badge wearers, it‘s hard to imagine a return to the bloody times of years past.
”Back in the 1970s, we’d arrive at the fair with our helmets on, and we‘d throw on our sap gloves and get our batons and Mace ready,“ one older officer recalls. ”You knew by sundown there were going to be 40 or 50 gang members squaring off in the Fun Zone. It was assholes and elbows nearly every night.“
He seems almost wistful as he thinks back.
”But the fair eventually cleaned up the carnival,“ he sighs. ”And we cleaned up the people.“