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Police Use Tear Gas and Rubber Bullets to Disperse More Than 8,000 - The Breeze: Home

Police Use Tear Gas and Rubber Bullets to Disperse More Than 8,000

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Posted: Monday, April 12, 2010 12:00 am

By Kaleigh Somers and Matt Sutherland, The Breeze

President Linwood Rose left no questions regarding his response to the JMU community via e-mail on Sunday evening, addressing those students who attended Springfest.

“Your collective behavior was an embarrassment to your university and a discredit to our reputation,” Rose said. He plans to handle similar situations even more seriously in the future.

The aftermath of Saturday’s block parties consisted of more than 30 arrests, a stabbing, extensive property damage and injured police and partygoers. The Harrisonburg community has not experienced a riot this serious in 10 years, when civil disobedience units responded to a crowd of more than 2,000 students.

Mayor Kai Degner plans to hear a report at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to assess the situation and determine how to improve upon the city’s policies, according to hburgnews.com.

Springfest is an annual, multi-day block party in Fox Hill Townhomes. After police warned residents that officers would be present in the area, the party moved to Forest Hills townhomes.

Police tried to control more than 8,000 people this year. Harrionsburg Police Department Lt. Kurt Boshart said approximately 2,000 people usually attend the party.

More than 200 officers from Augusta County, Rockingham County, JMU, Staunton and the Virginia State Police were called in, Boshart said.

Students received a text message from JMU’s emergency communications system ordering “Non-Residents of Village Lane to disperse from social events in that area immediately for safety reasons,” just after 6 p.m. Many said the text was delayed because of an overcrowded phone system.

After approaching riot status, officers threw grenades of tear gas at the crowd of more than 1,000, focusing their attention on those still loitering at 6:45 p.m. Some partygoers were also sprayed with pepper spray or hit with rubber bullets and beanbags.

Many people continued to stay in the area, saying they weren’t doing anything to incite a riot.

Officers were prepared to use necessary and appropriate forces to control the crowd.

“The process is actually very formal,” Boshart said. “Our officers are trained to handle any chemical charge. It’s about as formal of a process as you can get.”

Block party attendees were told Friday evening to leave Manor Circle and Sully Drive as well. According to HPD, management of complexes called officers in because they couldn’t handle the masses of partygoers. Management previously posted flyers warning residents of the violations associated with mass gatherings.

HPD: Visitors Cause Escalation

Boshart believes a large number of the crowd came in from different schools in the area and that led to the problems.

“We had people from Fairfax coming in with no ties to JMU whatsoever,” Boshart said. He added that others from Virginia Tech, Washington and Lee and William & Mary contributed to the overcrowding.

As the riot squad blocked incoming beer cans and liquor bottles being thrown, attendees turned the struggle into a game, cheering for the squad. Boshart said more than a dozen officers sustained minor injuries, including cuts and bruises from thrown beer bottles and rocks.

Boshart said three to four people were flown to U.Va Medical Center. He did not specify the exact injuries. Approximately 30 people were treated at Rockingham Memorial Hospital with unspecified injuries, according to the information Boshart had on Sunday afternoon.

One of the more serious injuries was an unidentified male who was also stabbed in the leg with an unknown object on the 1400 block of Devon Lane, Boshart said.

Charges to Continue

Boshart explained that people were told to stay away from the scene, otherwise they would be charged.

“With unlawful assembly, there’s no option — you have to leave,” Boshart said. “Even if you’re just standing there, you are in violation of the law.”

Boshart said most of the arrests stemmed from failure to disperse from a riot and being drunk in public.

Police did not know specifically how many were arrested because the various departments made their own arrests. Harrisonburg Police Department said it would work to get all names of those arrested by the various departments to release during today’s press conference. The time will be announced Monday morning.

A K-9 unit stood behind the squad. An ambulance on standby blocked off traffic at the top of Forest Hill Road.

Police remained on the premises for the rest of the evening, set for students who came back for a night of partying. As evening set in, the state police brought in a helicopter to help with aerial surveillance throughout the entire night.

“We had little satellite parties popping up in different locations throughout that housing area,” Boshart said. “We were responding to a lot more fight calls throughout the evening.”

Currently, HPD is collaborating with surrounding departments to figure out how to prevent the situation from occurring again.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of things to be organized,” Boshart said. “We’ll be sitting down to find out what things did work, what didn’t work with this situation.”

According to Boshart, police officers recorded the activities with video cameras. If HPD is able to identify perpetrators of illegal acts, then the police will use the footage to press further charges, Boshart said.

Judicial Affairs will also receive the arrest information for students.

Mixed Responses

Laura, a senior who lives in Forest Hills, experienced the full force of the onslaught. Patrons threw beer bottles that broke all her windows in the middle of the riot.

According to Laura, Springfest has never been this bad before. Police told her and her roommates if they left the area, they wouldn’t be able to come back to their home. She chose to stay.

Police presence “is what stopped the bottle throwing,” Laura said.

“There were several students that were thanking [police] repeatedly,” Boshart said. “When there’s alcohol, excessive drinking involved, the people in attendance are the ones who dictated what happened last night.”

Other people involved, including 2009 JMU alumnus Mike Myslinski, believed the police presence worsened the situation.

“When they came in, people started throwing beer bottles at them,” Myslinski said.

At about 6:40 p.m., the riot squad yelled through a megaphone: “Get down the hill” and “You need to move. Get off the property.”

One man was pushed down the hill by the team, who set a dog after him. Once at the bottom of the hill, he continued yelling back and forth with police until they came toward him, handcuffing him and arresting him. “Are you serious?” he asked, looking around.

Another man who was pushed said he didn’t do anything to deserve it, calling it “police brutality.”

“He came up with the shield and just pushed me,” said the student who did not want to be identified. “I wasn’t doing anything, just standing here.”

A student from Salisbury University, visiting friends for the weekend, said he was tear-gassed because “ignorant people threw bottles.”

The student reported coughing up blood for almost 10 minutes afterward.

Another student said the grenade exploded right in his face.

“I couldn’t move, breathe, talk, smile, for five minutes,” he said. Officers had to escort him away from the scene because he couldn’t see through his bloodshot eyes, he said.

Under Control in Hours

According to Boshart, HPD called for reinforcements at about 3:30 p.m., specifically a civil disturbance unit.

At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, officers controlling traffic weren’t sure how much longer they’d be on guard, but were aggravated having been called in at the last minute.

Students in the Texaco parking lot were cleared out by 6:45 p.m. and about 10 police officers guarded the dirt hill bordering the back of the townhomes, but the other side held strong.

By 7:30 p.m. most of the crowd had vacated the area and were walking along Port Republic Road to get away from the tear gas. Many were disgruntled and commenting angrily about the way the situation was handled.

contact the news desk at breezenews@gmail.com

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