When the Saturday a week before St. Patrick’s Day is also the first mild day after weeks of freezing cold, what do you get in a college town like Amherst?
Some call it a party. Some call it a riot. In the sunny mid-afternoon, the Advocate observed that the downtown that’s home to the bars whose promotional gimmicks helped create the Barney Blowout was calm, with small groups of young people walking around quietly in green hats or T-shirts, mostly making their way back up North Pleasant Street toward the UMass campus.
But during the late morning, thousands—an estimated 4,000 in all, twice as many as last year—had gathered, first at the Puffton Village and then at the Brandywine apartment complexes north of the campus, according to police reports. Some were roaring drunk, some were passing out. Light poles were knocked down. By 1:30 a crowd had formed in the neighborhood of North Pleasant and Fearing Streets.
When police in riot gear called for the crowds to disperse, some people threw bottles, glass as well as plastic bottles, and full cans of beer. Four policemen were injured, though the injuries were reportedly not serious. Back in town, a drunk man grabbed a car with a woman and her family in it and rocked it, frightening those inside. Another person jumped onto an empty car, causing several thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.
The police used pepper spray to disperse the crowds—including, some witnesses said later, people who were trying to leave the scene but didn’t leave fast enough for the police. One student said he entered an area he didn’t know police had ordered the crowd to vacate and was deliberately sprayed in one eye, behind his sunglasses, after being handcuffed. He has reportedly contacted attorneys about filing a suit against the town.
The following Tuesday, 100 UMass students marched to protest what they called the “overreaction” of police, who, they said, had peppersprayed many who were not exhibiting threatening behavior. Marchers complained about excessive use of force by the police and called for public meetings so students and police could discuss how to avoid angry confrontations in the future.
Earlier, however, another blowout had been in the making: a media frenzy that, in a weekend when pre-St. Patrick’s Day boozefests were going on at colleges all over the country, singled out UMass. Around the U.S. and as far away as Britain, the UMass Blarney Blowout eclipsed other news items. Amherst residents got messages from friends in other parts of the country demanding to know what was going on.
“More than 70 arrested at rowdy student celebration in Massachusetts,” howled the headline in The Guardian. The number of arrests was later confirmed to be 55; fewer than half the arrestees were UMass students; and only two of the arrests were for assault—most of the rest were for failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and liquor law violations—but the journalistic bottles and cans had already hit their mark.
The university was embarrassed; Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who donned the mantle of penance even before it was clear exactly who had done what, intoned that it was “a sad and difficult day for our campus and for the town of Amherst.” The town was embarrassed. The reporting that streamed from presses near and far hardly wavered from the assumption that all the perpetrators were from UMass.
If trouble like the trouble caused by this year’s Barney Blowout is to be prevented, the event needs to be understood rather than just hyped, and in that regard the media did little to help. By Monday a number came to light that should have quieted down the Zoo-Mass bashing at least a little, but hardly did: some 60 percent of those arrested were actually not enrolled in UMass.
“The majority of the people who were arrested were not UMass students,” UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski confirmed. “That in no way excuses the behavior of UMass students who were arrested. I think what it does indicate to some degree is that in our world of hypersocial media, word can get out very quickly where people want to gather, and this is not unique to UMass. All sorts of visitors came here—a number of people who were from other colleges, different colleges far beyond the Springfield area.”
Police records showed that of the 55 people arrested, only 21 were UMass students; others came from colleges as far away as the University of New Hampshire, the University of Rhode Island, even Georgetown University. Fourteen of those arrested were not students at all.
That many of those arrested, and possibly many among the crowds who partied that day, were outsiders gives rise to one of the tough questions that must be answered if the pre-St. Patrick’s Day revels are to be kept under control. It’s a question that through the years has arisen in relation to other problems, including drug dealing and other crimes sometimes committed at UMass by non-students: how can people with no business at UMass be kept off a campus that’s state property, not private property like the campuses of nearby Amherst, Hampshire and Smith colleges?
Blaguszewski said UMass officials are developing strategies to head off influxes of people from outside the university at times when the excitement level among students is expected to be high.
“One of the things we’ve learned is, we’ve always known that a big place like UMass can be an attraction or magnet for people who have nothing to do with the campus,” he explained. “With Twitter and Facebook, that process can be accelerated. One of the things that we will study is limiting numbers of guests within our residence hall system for that weekend. What we observed [on Friday night, March 7] that was much larger than the year before was many more cars in our parking lots and more people in our dining services.”
In the past, the university has restricted visiting for very short periods such as a day in order to to head off mass misbehavior, Blaguszewski pointed out. “We’ve done that in the past,” he said, “for major sports events.”
Students aside, at one level the Blarney Blowout is no more a town-gown problem than a town-town problem. The yeast on which it grows is the desire of local bar owners, who never disguise their interest in making what they can off a local college population some 25,000 strong, to capitalize on the St. Patrick’s Day boozing tradition even when the students are away on the holiday itself. The bars can’t offer discounts on drinks, which is against state law, but they can offer promotional novelties like green beer, and they foster the mood that has given the Blowout the status of a tradition.
This season, press reports of pre-St. Patrick’s Day bashes at other colleges included the information that in State College, Penn., Penn State took money from its parking fee revenues to pay local bars not to open on the days when rampages were expected. In Amherst, local attorney Peter Vickery has requested that the selectboard shut down bars during Blarney Blowout time next year.
Asked if the town has talked to bar owners about how to prevent conviviality from getting out of hand, Amherst town manager John Musante said, “Yes. That won’t be a new thing. There’s ongoing dialogue with the business community and with the downtown bars. Prior to, during and now after this most recent weekend, we’ve reached out, and town business owners, the Amherst Business Improvement District and UMass, we’re all talking about other approaches we might take.”
This year’s Blarney Blowout and the publicity that hyped it were especially unfortunate for UMass because there had been indications that the rowdiness factor had diminished this year. Last fall the number of off-campus “incidents” involving students had dropped significantly from the number at the corresponding time—Sept. 1 through Dec. 8—in 2012. Not only did the number of police complaints fall from 431 to 227, but the number of students involved dropped from 431 to 289. And UMass didn’t make the Playboy list of the wildest party schools of 2013. Now, however, the Blarney Blowout has won the state university’s flagship campus the doubtful accolade of a spot on the list of the 15 wildest pre-St. Patrick’s Day fests in the country.
Said Musante, who is a UMass alumnus himself, “The issues go way beyond UMass and the town. It’s a phenomenon—the idea that young people can go out and get drunk before St. Patrick’s Day.”•