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The Palm Springs Riot of 1986


The Palm Springs Riot of 1986

Paul Kaplan

I've made it a professional goal to be known as a leader in the Real Estate industry in the Palm Springs market for the past 20+ years...

I've made it a professional goal to be known as a leader in the Real Estate industry in the Palm Springs market for the past 20+ years...

May 27 5 minutes read

Palm Springs History - The riot of 1986

Posted by Paul Kaplan on Thursday, March 29th, 2018 at 5:30pm

Spring Break in Palm Springs has been legendary since the 1960's-  Palm Springs had been a spring break destination for decades, like a Daytona Beach or Cancun for college kids on the West Coast.  Party goers from all over Southern California flocked to the desert, for the  festivities, drinking, dancing, and the proverbial cruising down Palm Canyon Drive in convertables, motorcycles and the backs of trucks, while others wondered the sidewalks in swim suits armed with squirt guns and water balloons.  It was the destination for fun in the sun.

However, things came to a climax in 1986 when the partying got out of hand: a spring break riot erupted that changed Palm Springs.

The Desert Sun reported the history of the riot and released a video that documented everything, not seen for 30 years. The following is a summary of the story by Brett Kelman and Corinne S Kennedy, The Desert Sun (Read the full article here)


A spring breaker dumps water on police officers in

A spring breaker dumps water on police officers in Palm Springs in 1986.
(Photo: Desert Sun file photo)

Watch the video

In 1986, a spring break party in downtown Palm Springs devolved into a riot. A bystander shot this footage. 

Hundreds of people were arrested and police ultimately had to use tear gas to disperse the mob.

Palm Springs police arrested hundreds of spring breakers

Palm Springs police arrested hundreds of spring breakers during a riot in 1986.
(Photo: Desert Sun file photo)

This event was the beginning of the end for spring break, as locals, retailers and business owners no longer welcomed the Spring Break Crowd. 

How did Palm Springs deal with the aftermath?

Palm Springs police in 1987 tried to quell the party with excessive ticketing,  After his election in 1988, the popstar-turned-politician Sonny Bono referred to Spring Break as a “nightmare” for the city, and went on the offensive to try to get rid of it.  In 1990, he made statewide headlines by patrolling downtown on a Harley, then pulling over a spring-breaker who he felt was driving too fast. The then City Council adopted a slew of new ordinances specifically intended to undercut the tone down spring break. Thong Bikinis, throwing water balloons, shooting squirt guns, all banned;  no drinking poolside after 11:00 PM; no motorcycles on Palm Canyon Drive.  In 1991, the city used concrete barricades to close off Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives.  

The City's efforts to end Spring Break in Palm Springs, worked. It was no longer fun, the tourists got the message. college students went elsewhere.

During this time, many of the city’s larger retailers began moving elsewhere – some shifting to the newly opened El Paseo shopping district in Palm Desert, and to the new Shopping Mall,  leaving downtown emptier than it had been in decades. Business dwindled and Palm Springs previously host of the most boisterous party scenes in the country became a "Ghost Town" through the '90s and early 2000.  

It took years for Palm Springs to recover and find its identity again.  In the early 2000s, things starting to turn around, and Palm Springs started a new renaissance.  Palm Springs has begun to escape a reputation as a retiree paradise to attract younger tourists again. Popularity has returned, at least in part, thanks to the prominence of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.  The popularity of "Mad Men" awakened the world to Mid-Century design and  Palm Springs huge collection of mid-century architecture. Modernism Week brings over 100,000 people to town every year.  The world has rediscovered our desert city.

As we gain our popularity for spring breakers again, Palm Springs Mayor Moon assures everyone that there would be no repeat of the riot that changed Palm Springs.

“This is not the same city it was in 1986. We’ve grown. We have the ability to deal with these large crowds,” Moon said. “We have a very, very professional police department. They won’t let things get out of hand now. They won’t. They just won’t.”

Read the full article here. 

Investigative reporter Brett Kelman can be reached at 760 778 4642 or by email at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @tdsBrettKelman.

Corinne Kennedy covers the west valley for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @CorinneSKennedy

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