Hilary Moss ’08 wrote a piece for CampusProgress.org revisiting the Fountain incident, comparing it to a similar student “riot” at Michigan State University in April, and discussing the implications of both for college community relations with local police departments:
Using force on college students isn’t new. In the ’60s and ’70s, most college events that required police presence were political protests. But today, most college events requiring police presence are parties or “convivial gatherings” as described by professors John D. McCarthy, Andrew Martin, and Clark McPhail a sociological essay published in Social Problems. The authors found that the lack of social organization, or no specific event leader, at large parties poses a threat to police officers. The lack of a leader and the presence of alcohol mean the police are more likely to use methods of escalated force.
Wesleyan may be able to look to MSU in East Lansing, Mich., a school that is still grappling with an incident that happened on campus this spring. In contrast to Wesleyan, public schools fall under state jurisdiction so MSU’s university officers are trained police. On April 5, 3,000 to 4,000 people jammed the Cedar Village apartment complex creating what was later classified as a riot. East Lansing and MSU police launched 24 smoke grenades, 20 flash bangs, 20 stingball grenades, and 13 rounds of tear gas. The official police report said 52 MSU students were arrested.
Despite the demonstration of force, some students think the actions of the police officers were warranted in this case. “For the most part, students seemed receptive to how police handled the situation,” remarked MSU student Jacob Carpenter, 19. “The only complaint that I heard was that the warning they were going to fire tear gas was not loud enough…I think they were very restrained as opposed to in previous years.”
This spring wasn’t the first time a party got out of control at MSU. In 2005, The East Lansing police department responded to a disturbance involving 3,000 people after MSU’s basketball team lost in the NCAA playoffs. A group of officers from East Lansing, MSU, and other areas set off 299 rounds of tear gas while wearing riot gear. As a result, students, residents, local officials, professors and the ACLU formed a commission to make recommendations on how to deal with future crowd control.
According to East Lansing Police Chief Tom Wibert, officers kept the commission’s recommendations in mind during the incident this April. “One of the recommendations was that we don’t start out the night in riot gear, so this time, we started out in our regular uniforms. After the crowd took the street and glass was flying, we put on helmets, but kept our padding off. We learned to think about how we are viewed,” Wibert said.
There is no proof that the use of tactics like tear gas on college campuses is increasing, but we can learn from the rare instances where the community perceives police force as getting out of control. According to Jerry M. Lewis, professor of sociology at Ohio’s Kent State University, it’s an age-old problem. “Look at histories of universities—students have been clashing with townspeople since the 1600s,” Lewis said. “It’s a lifestyle clash. Parties don’t start until 11 at night and the workingman has to go to work. It’s a tough problem to solve.”
Lewis attributes some of the recent interest in police presence at parties to the omnipresence of technology. “Nowadays if anything happens it’s going to be recorded,” Lewis explained. Wesleyan students and Public Safety officers recorded the May 16 events using handheld cameras, and footage of April 5 at MSU can be viewed on YouTube.
While there might not be a trend, the incidents at Wesleyan and MSU have shown how easy it is to cross the line between a peaceful gathering and what police officers classify as a riot. Nearly every college student has a story about the time cops crashed a party, but perhaps it’s time to seriously consider the repercussions. “It’s a wake up call,” Trancynger said. “It pops the college bubble a little bit.” University students at Wesleyan—and across the country—will have to communicate with local law enforcers and the community at large to maintain student safety.
CampusProgress: Quieting the Riot