Harrisonburg block party turns to riot when thousands take on police forces

Partygoers start a fire in the final confrontation before police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

A Harrisonburg block party involving college students got out of hand Saturday — leading to the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

Harrisonburg, home of James Madison University, is the site of an annual block party called “Springfest.” This year’s block party sent at least 30 people to the hospital.

The block party took place in the Village Lane community. Harrisonburg Police Department Lt. Kurt Boshart said police took preventative measures in the two weeks prior to the event, but a swell of partygoers eventually led the property manager of Village Lane to ask police to disperse the crowd.

Boshart estimated 8,000 people crowded into the block party. Chris Burton, a Virginia Tech junior accounting major and one of the partygoers, said the event didn’t seem very different from its previous incarnation.

“I’d gone to it last year,” Burton said. “It was basically the same thing going on except for this year there were cops with tear gas and riot shields.”

Boshart said unruly behavior by the partygoers led to the police taking more extreme measures.

“Their mindset was to get it peacefully dispersed,” Boshart said. “They asked people to move along. While they were in there, they were getting beer bottles and rocks thrown at them.”

He said the officers retreated for their own safety and called for backup.

The “civil disturbance unit” was called in, bringing with it riot shields, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The ensuing attempt to end the gathering caught many attendees off guard.

JMU freshman Joe Dickinson said he saw the initial attempt by police to disperse the crowd.

“I saw two police officers trying to clear kids off the street,” Dickinson said. “The kids didn’t want to deal with it, so they just pushed the police out.”

Later, Dickinson saw what he called “riot police” arrive. He said some bottles and rocks flew at the police but the worst did not begin until police began using tear gas.

He said he saw three college-aged partygoers walk toward shield-bearing police. The partygoers flashed peace signs and yelled at the police. Dickinson said the police then used pepper spray on the three partygoers.

“At that point, it got crazy,” Dickinson said. “Kids were whipping bottles — bottle after bottle.”

Dickinson was affected by tear gas.

“About 15 minutes later, we were near the front and I saw a smoking can flying over my head,” Dickinson said. “I turned, and as soon as I took a breath in, I felt like I was going to throw up, and then I was just crying hysterically.”

He said the pain of the tear gas lasted about 20 minutes and made it almost impossible to open his eyes.

“It felt like needles were being put into my eyes,” Dickinson said. “My friend ran into a car, because you just didn’t want to open your eyes it hurt so bad.”

Boshart said the inability to get to people inside the block party in need of medical assistance also factored into the police response.

The CDU moved in between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and declared the block party “unlawful assembly.” Boshart said the department restored “some semblance of order” between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Dickinson said the peak of the chaos was shortly after the police began entering the gathering. When police began using tear gas, the crowds ran. A dumpster was set on fire during this time frame, Dickinson said, and he passed it on his way out of the area.

A letter from JMU President Linwood Rose scolded attending JMU students for the incident.

“To those of you who were involved, your collective behavior was an embarrassment to your university and a discredit to our reputation,” Rose wrote. “No one is opposed to some fun on a beautiful spring weekend, but public drunkenness, destruction of property, and threats to personal safety are unacceptable outcomes. Yesterday’s events reflect poorly on your character and were demonstrable evidence of less than sound judgment.”

Burton said the police incited the worst part of the incident.

“It was pretty excessive,” Burton said. “I thought the cops were really what got it out of hand. They backed everyone into a big crowd and then shot tear gas into the middle of it.

“That was the first time I’ve ever seen a full SWAT team converge on a college gathering.”

Boshart said about 30 people were sent to local Harrisonburg hospitals with minor injuries. Meanwhile, three people were taken to University of Virginia Medical Center, one of whom had to be airlifted.

He said 12 Harrisonburg police officers also suffered minor injuries.