Tag Archives: fountain incident

Campus Progress: Quieting the Riot

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

NY Times Discusses Unusual Finale

Peter Applebome of the New York Times sums up the strange, end-of-the-year events and attempts to discuss the character of Wesleyan:

“Students have somewhat mixed feelings. In a brand-name world (and a recession job market), students care about the Wesleyan brand, too, and can do without the more baroque post-hippie notions of life there. On the other hand, some worry that the administration is too intent on creating a watered-down, made-for-the-rankings image.”

Interesting, the first article I’ve read that hasn’t just addressed all these issues in isolation. Check it.

Holly Wood, Alex Rosen and M. Roth cited.

Columnist lambastes student behavior on Fountain

Rick Green of the Hartford Courant has some harsh words for Wesleyan students in his May 23 column, “Wesleyan Protests Dishonor Activism.”

Green uses the ol’ there-are-bigger-and-more-important-things-going-on view not only to ignore the questionable police response to the party, but also to make a claim that we’re fighting for our right to party, rather than fighting what looks like an overreaction by the police.

Green’s claim copies, word for word, the thoughts of Middletown resident and blogger Ed McKeon, who wrote—a week before Green took up the topic—an entry on his blog Caterwauled, saying:

This was a Beastie Boys protest. Do any of us really care about fighting for the right to party?

Calling student actions on that now-infamous Friday morning an “embarrassment to this school’s noble tradition of bona fide protest,” Green goes on to criticize students for relating the MPD’s tactics to similar abuses in the past:

I don’t know what’s more depressing, reading the online comments from students comparing their brave bottle-throwing on Fountain Street to the civil rights movement or pulling out the yellowed clips from the not-so-long-ago days when a Wesleyan protest meant more than “This Bud’s for You.”

Green then goes on to overlook the legitimate issues at hand, I suppose because, for him, the fact that this started as a party and not some long-planned political protest means that police overreaction isn’t anything that needs to be mentioned in a column about a party whose only reason for notoriety… was police overreaction.

You may also want to check out the Topix forum on the column, which has some interesting and occasionally on-point reader comments.

Thanks, Ashley Casale ’11, for bringing this editorial to our attention!

1:10 AM: It’s a column, not an editorial. Thanks, Shoutboxer.

Roth Issues Statement re: Fountain Ave

…And it’s remarkably level-headed, concise, and fair to all parties involved in light of all the accounts of what took place.

Contrary to some student concerns that the administration would try and brush the incident under the table, it seems clear that Michael Roth understands the extent of student outrage and is doing his part in reacting appropriately:

I have now reviewed police and public safety accounts and dozens of student eyewitness reports of what occurred when Middletown police, supported by other local and state law enforcement, broke up a student gathering in the early morning hours of Friday, May 16. Although it is clear that a few students acted recklessly, and perhaps illegally, and while it is also clear that some students decided to remain in the area despite warnings to disperse, I am seriously concerned about what seems to me to be the disproportionate use of force in this incident. I have communicated my concern to Middletown’s Chief of Police. She has assured me that there will be a thorough investigation, and I will be following up with her and with Middletown’s Internal Affairs Officers to investigate the matter fully.

Students that night on Fountain Ave. were celebrating the end of the semester when they were ordered by Wesleyan Public Safety, and then the Middletown Police, to clear the street. From the evidence I have seen, there was no “riot,” as has been reported, nor was there any obvious public danger. However, it is clear that many students ignored requests to clear the street, and there are very disturbing reports of bottles or other projectiles thrown in the direction of police or their vehicles. We take this very seriously, and any students found in violation of the law or of Wesleyan rules will be held accountable for their actions.

It is apparent that some students decided to ignore the officers’ orders, but it is also clear that many, if not most, never heard the police demand that they leave the area. In any case, I am deeply troubled by what seems to have been an indiscriminate use of pepper spray and dogs to clear an area where students were peacefully gathered. Reports of unprofessional and violent behavior by some police officers are alarming. Again, I will be working with appropriate authorities to address these matters.

We are examining the policies and operations of Wesleyan’s Public Safety Department, and its relation to the Middletown Police Department. We value our positive relationship with Middletown and with the MPD, and we are grateful for the assistance the department provides our community on a regular basis. But let me be clear: we will not tolerate abusive behavior by the police any more than we will tolerate it by our own students.

I deeply regret that these events took place at what should have been a joyous end to the semester. Our goal will be to ensure that these kinds of incidents do not occur in the future, and I have already begun working with Middletown and campus leaders to address our mutual concerns and interests.

Read the whole thing at its source, or leave some non-anonymous feedback, at the Roth Blog.

New details emerge from Courant story

The Hartford Courant ran another story on Friday’s early-morning Fountain Ave. incident. Here are some details contained in that article, that I don’t think have been highlighted on Wesleying yet:

Police claim it wasn’t just beer bottles that were thrown:

Police said the students threw beer bottles and a lit firecracker at officers, and ignored orders to disperse given via loudspeaker multiple times over 30 to 40 minutes. Patrick McMahon, the department’s deputy chief, said officers showed “great restraint.”

Police claim that normal procedures were followed:

McMahon said complaints the departments received from students would be reviewed. “Right now, it seems the officers followed policies and procedures in responding to a call for assistance,” he said. “Because of the size of the crowd and the aggressiveness of the crowd, we had to call for help ourselves.”

Police claim that this is not the first party breakup situation that they’ve dealt with… though students refusing to disperse is unusual:

“Every year we get called out there for large parties, but they end up dispersing themselves without any major incidents,” Sgt. Scott Aresco, a department spokesman, said.

It was a P-Safe shift supervisor who contacted the MPD:

Wesleyan public safety officers asked the students to disperse, but they didn’t. Around 1:30 a.m., the shift supervisor contacted Middletown police for assistance, police said.

Verbal abuse apparently went both ways, and MPD waited 40 minutes to call in reinforcements. MPD claims that the pepper balls were fired at the feet of students:

Nine officers eventually arrived and, using a loudspeaker, ordered students to disperse, Aresco said. Aresco also said a beer bottle was thrown at the car of the first officer to arrive, that students were verbally abusive, and that a lit firecracker went off under a parked police car.

When the students refused to disperse and continued to throw bottles and cans after 40 minutes, the officers requested support from state police and police in Cromwell and Portland, Aresco said.

Police then moved in to disperse the students, using non-lethal force that included firing at their feet with pepper ball guns, Aresco said. Police Tasered two students and arrested five students who allegedly attacked officers or interfered, Aresco said.

Police claim that no tear gas was used:

… said she then had trouble breathing because of what she thought was tear gas, though Aresco said no tear gas was used.

Officers may have been put on administrative leave

A Wesleyan student who would like to remain anonymous writes:

I have received information from a reliable source saying that four of the Middletown officers involved in Thursday night’s incident have been on administrative leave since Friday morning, pending an internal investigation of the incident.

Edit (Mad, 5/19): Several commenters have suggested that this information is NOT true. I’d recommend not trusting it.

Prof. Potter’s comment

By request, here’s the comment that Prof. Claire Potter, aka Tenured Radical, wrote on Ed McKeon’s blog:

As a blogger myself who has often been criticized for responses to things that are too quick and idiosyncratic, I don’t want to come down too hard on you. But — allowing for the fact that students were drunk and undoubtedly overreacted because of that — that the police showed up with dogs, tasers and pepper spray in the first place is outrageous. Tasers are sometimes a lethal weapon, not a harmless crowd-control device. Pepper spray, if it gets in the eyes, can cause permanent damage. To be attacked and bitten by a dog is a terrifying and possibly life-changing experience. At its worst, the party was a noise nuisance: students were not trying to interfere with a function of government, nor were they doing anything more harmful than being a pain in the ass to some of their neighbors. Students did not deserve riot control tactics typical of Birmingham in the 1960’s or the West Bank for acting as kids do when they are confronted by authority. While I wish our students had simply been compliant and not escalated the confrontation, not being deferential to unreasoning, violent authority should not make anyone — Wesleyan students or Middletwon citizens — subject to assault and battery by the police.

The Middletown Police response is a function of the ways law enforcement in general has been amped up in the past eight years by Homeland Security money, using a non-existent threat of domestic terrorism as an excuse. The MPD used this as an excuse to make an example of Wesleyan students — nothing more, nothing less. And an argument that says the students deserved it because they didn’t follow orders is just absurd. If your kid doesn’t do what you say, do you have the moral — much less the legal — right to whip him?

There is tremendous resentment of Wesleyan in Middletown, something the university has been trying to address and needs to keep working on, and in this case, the MPD are the leading edge of that resentment. But there are two issues internal to Wesleyan that also need to be addressed: Wesleyan Public Safety’s decision making here, and their possible grievances in terms of what they have to deal with all year (rudeness, aggression from students when they are trying to do their jobs) in relation to such events while also being available 24-7 to be cab drivers, open locked dorm doors, and transport students in various states of inebriation and disrepair; and the possible consequences of Wesleyan’s policy of selling off its houses, which will bring private homeowners in Middletown into closer contact with student events like this one.

Claire Potter
Professor of History and American Studies
Wesleyan University

Fountain Avenue Video Footage

Priya Ghosh ’09 sends in footage from Thursday night. You can see the pepper-gas-ball gun in action at 1:52-2:10ish, firing in a semicircle. Also, the K9 Units are visible though their actions are somewhat obscured by the lighting. This all took place approx 35 minutes after the arrival of cruisers, and some time after the initial volley of teargas and pepper-gas-ball things.

Everyone keep in mind that there are still A LOT OF QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT WENT ON.

911 calls released; police chief says officer attacked

WFSB has obtained copies of ten 911 calls made by students during the Fountain Ave. incident, and has made them available on their website.

Also, WFSB quotes Middletown Deputy Police Chief Patrick McMahon as saying that the attack by the police dog was due to a student attack:

One of the students remained in the hospital on Friday after being bit by a police dog.

Police Chief Patrick McMahon told Eyewitness News that the dog attack was an accident. He said that a student attacked an officer, and the dog did what he was trained to do: fight back.

A Wesleyan Student’s Perspective

On various blogs and forums that have been linking to Wesleying over the past day, I’ve seen tons of discussions with hundreds of comments. The overwhelming trend seems to be to say “Awwww, poor spoiled Wesleyan students; they can’t listen to authority” and to mock the Wesleyan students’ “fighting for the right to party.” These comments appear on the Courant website, on a Williams blog, on SomethingAwful forums – all over.

I’d like to offer an alternative perspective, which should represent only myself (Madeline, Wesleyan ’09) and not Wesleying as a whole or the entire Wesleyan student body. This perspective is especially directed at individuals coming from outside the Wesleyan community who are less familiar with campus:

Tension about police brutality has been brewing on the Wesleyan campus for a while. Issues came to a head last year about racial profiling on campus, but died down over the summer. With the Sean Bell case coming to the fore a few weeks ago, questions about police brutality and racial profiling were again brought into everyday campus dialogue. So when events on Fountain Ave exploded the other night, pre-existing tensions boiled over and students got angry.

The “wild, unruly” party on a “public street” actually took place on Fountain Ave., which is comprised entirely of Wesleyan-owned student houses for seniors. The two nearby streets, Pine and Warren, with which Fountain houses share yard space, are also both comprised entirely of Wesleyan-owned student houses. So the claim that it’s terrible for students to be making so much noise at 1 am is fairly unfounded, since Thursday, May 15th was the last day of final exams, and the vast majority of Wesleyan students were ready to celebrate – especially on these streets, which are entirely inhabited by Wes seniors.

The incredibly frustrating thing is that the “incitement to riot” danger occurredonly after police arrived. The most gruesome violations which cyberspace seems to be complaining about were not a cause, but rather a result of the police presence.

One of the major reasons students were in the streets was because the houses on the street holding parties were told they couldn’t allow anyone else into their houses. On the last day before the semester ends and everyone leaves for the summer, and underclassmen won’t see their senior friends again, students aren’t going to just go home and go to sleep at 1 am. If students aren’t allowed to go into student houses for parties, they start to congregate in the street. This is just poor crowd control, and the result should have been expected. This seems to be what initially started problems from last night.

The Wesleyan student body is certainly not defending the actions of belligerent drunks. There is almost universal agreement that students who know they get belligerent when drunk, obviously should not get drunk. There is also almost universal agreement that students who are belligerent drunks are responsible for their own actions, especially if they verbally abuse or physically abuse any other people, including but not limited to police officers. No one is defending the right of students to throw beer bottles at police cars (though the students who are alleged to throw beer bottles at police cars say they didn’t.)

It seems highly unlikely that the police’s primary actual goal was dispersal – initially sending 10 police cars created a spectacle that actually drew more people, most of whom wanted to try to figure out what was going on. There have been various other incidents involving Middletown police, some of whom seem to have some kind of vendetta against Wesleyan students. I point out this Argus article from earlier this semester, which highlights some of the cases a particular officer, Officer Clark, has been allegedly involved in. (He wrote a Wespeak in response to defend himself against the negative claims.) Again, this is just poor crowd control. Additionally, many students who weren’t right nearby the loudspeaker say they couldn’t hear the requests for dispersal that, according to police, were made thirty-forty minutes before more extreme action was taken – but students disagree that this timeline is accurate.

Some of the resentment coming from the Internet seems to be targeted at Wesleyan students because they are privileged. Wesleyan students are stereotyped as having “rich mommies and daddies” who they can come crying to whenever something goes wrong (for example, they’re tased/bitten by a K9 dog/shot with rubber bullets/pepper sprayed). However, while certainly many students do come from privileged backgrounds, there is a hugely diverse population here. Students come from all kinds of geographic, ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds. There is certainly a general trend within higher education that students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to attend college. This is a problem, and one that Wesleyan students, administration, and faculty are deeply committed to reducing. Wesleyan students and faculty are both deeply committed to reducing inequality, especially in education, and to maintaining a need-blind admissions policy. One of Wesleying’s own founders, Holly, just finished her senior thesis analyzing the role of class and cultural capital in college admissions.

In conclusion, Wesleyan students are college students. They like to learn, they like to participate in intellectual discourse, and at the end of the day (or the semester), they like to hang out with friends and perhaps even – gasp – throw a party. But perhaps more so than at many other colleges, they are also deeply committed to both social justice and serving the larger local & global communities. The events from last night are not just about students being upset about a party being busted, or their friends being tased (though they’re certainly upset about that, too). Students are upset about the larger issues of police brutality, and the use of excessive force when it is unnecessary. The breakup of the party on Fountain obviously doesn’t compare in scale to the cases of Rodney King or of Sean Bell, but similar issues are brought to the fore in both cases. How much should we trust the discretion of authority, and should we do so blindly? When is violence a legitimate reaction by authority to perceived threats? Is a previously-not-out-of-hand campus party cause for shooting an entire crowd of hundreds of students in the face with pepperballs? Is a drunk man accidentally hitting an unmarked police car – and his being black, oh no – cause for shooting him to death? Obviously the scope of these two cases is very different, and in this particular Fountain party, there are no reports of racial profiling. But police are supposed to protect and make people feel safe, and in both these instances, police represented the threat and not the solution. My plea is that you please understand that this is not a simple case of spoiled students who only want to “fight for their right to party.”

Wesleyan students don’t want to be divided from Middletown residents on this issue. We don’t want non-Wesleyan Middletown residents to bear the brunt of police violence; we want police violence to end. But we’re part of Middletown, too, and just because we aren’t living here permanently doesn’t mean we aren’t deeply invested in the community. Please give us the benefit of the doubt here. We don’t think all police are stupid, and we don’t think Middletown residents are stupid. We just think violence is not the solution to all problems… especially the non-threatening problems.