Hundreds of drunken college students in a small area on a sunny day can turn from fun to extremely dangerous with the throw of one glass bottle. Never before had I seen a group of people become so angry at each other so quickly for seemingly no reason. The riots over Springfest weekend at JMU in 2010 made national headlines. Dozens were arrested and even more controversy followed in legal struggles between police and the university.
The “riot” itself, in my opinion, was less an organized riot and more just an out of hand party. I remember standing near a tree line between an apartment complex and a gas station. I was with a group of friends who lived at one of the apartments. A couple hundred students were gathered on the apartment lawn, and for a while things were pretty peaceful.
There was a green electrical box in the middle of the lawn, and as the afternoon went on it became a pedestal people began standing on.
Soon after, beer cans and bottles could be seen being thrown at the people on the box, at first it seemed funny, the person on the box would try to dodge the cans or just jump off. The situation escalated after the number of items thrown became overwhelming for anyone standing near the area.
Eventually, glass bottles were being thrown in all directions of the crowd including at the apartment buildings and balconies. It was at this point the police began to arrive, an ambulance parked in the gas station parking lot. Many of the police were wearing riot gear, some drunken partygoers continued to antagonize the officers, most just walked or ran away.
The police asked everyone to leave the area and most people listened. As my friends and I walked down a small hill toward the gas station we could smell and feel the tear gas in the air. There was a male partygoer sitting near an ambulance with about 4 or 5 others that also looked hurt. He had a large gash on his forehead as well as a sliver of glass sticking out of his shoulder. After seeing 40 oz. glass bottles hurdling through the air, I wasn’t surprised at the injuries we saw. Fortunately this all occurred during the afternoon, while the police presence was much higher at night, I imagine many more people could have been hurt if the same things happened while it was dark.
At the time, it was difficult to understand the scope of what happened. We knew it had to be pretty bad for this large of a response from local police and fire departments but it never crossed our minds it would be a national story. Nor did we know of any other violent events elsewhere around campus. Apparently, other parties throughout the day had gotten out of hand as well, prompting the increased police presence later that night. Walking down many of the popular roads two or three officers in riot gear could be seen standing at the intersection.
Much of the controversy came in the following weeks when the campus newspaper was asked by police to hand over photographs of the riots. The police claimed the newspaper was the only source to have photos they needed to identify individuals responsible. Katie Thisdell, editor of The Breeze, told The Roanoke Times she didn’t believe it was the responsibility of the newspaper to hand over their materials to aid the police. In response, police obtained a warrant, searched the office and took 900 photos.
Public outcry ensued; the Society of Professional Journalists said, “The office of the commonwealth’s attorney has trampled on the freedom of the press by trying to use this media outlet as an arm of law enforcement.”
In later weeks, the commonwealths office and The Breeze came to a settlement, allowing the police to use 20 photos that prosecutors argued were vital to the case.
It’s important to remember events such as the 2010 Springfest because many colleges including Radford celebrate their own traditions involving large parties of people and copious amounts of alcohol. Now more than ever, it is the responsibility of students to act cautiously when participating in these events. There is no excuse not to learn from the consequences students faced at James Madison University, this doesn’t mean events like Quadfest should be cancelled at universities nationwide. Traditions like these bring a campus community together and it’s important to continue. However it ought to serve as a wake up call. There is in fact a line students have to be careful not to cross, large gatherings of people throwing glass and setting fires isn’t only unsafe it’s pretty stupid.