Police were armed with canisters of mace, while students were armed with beer bottles and solo cups. Police had the intention of keeping the order, while students had the intention of having a great day out with their friends, participating in the one event they most look forward to every year. Block Party has come and gone, but this year has left a lasting memory, particularly in the minds of partiers from Fetterman Ave.
Even though it was windy and brisk on Saturday, April 20, about 300 students of Bloomsburg University, and other youth from surrounding areas, gathered in the small back alley of Fetterman Ave, off of Lightstreet in Bloomsburg; their sole intention being to enjoy the day’s festivities. All of that came to a screeching halt when Bloomsburg Town Police Department arrived in their recently purchased BearCat. According to various video materials on the internet, the town police insisted that the crowd, which did not have a permit, disperse. However, instead of leaving the congested area, the occupants grew rowdier, chanting and throwing objects, thus causing tensions to rise.
In response to the careless actions of the partiers, police proceed to toss canisters of smoke, then tear gas, into the growing crowd around the armored vehicle. While some people in the crowd retreated away from the avenue, many others stayed in the immediate vicinity. Police retreated after an airborne beer bottle damaged the driver’s side window of the BearCat.
By the time police returned a few hours later, the partygoers on Fetterman Ave. had returned to celebrating Block Party in full swing. Once again the BearCat had returned, accompanied by officers in riot gear, armed with pepper spray. However, this time around, police did not administer an advance warning before cracking down on the crowd. One video clearly shows an officer pepper spraying a young male without warning, who was standing nearby capturing the events unfold on his cellular phone.
“No one was doing anything wrong, there was no fighting or throwing of bottles until the police provoked it. Yeah, kids shouldn’t have been throwing anything at the cops, but they were using unnecessary force. There was no reason for an armored vehicle to come or police in riot gear,” said an anonymous Bloomsburg University student who was on Fetterman Ave. that Saturday.
In an article by a WNEP news reporter Nikki Krize, Bloomsburg Chief of Police Leo Sokoloski commented, “It was like a snowstorm where students and young adults were tossing bottles, cans and anything that wasn’t nailed down at police and party-goers.”
Once the police officers began pepper spraying nearby party-goers, they turned their nozzles to the people on porches, people running away from the scene, and seemingly anyone within range of their mace. If someone was threatening the officers, or causing the situation at hand to become worse, that’s when a moderate amount of force is necessary.
Yes, too many students had gathered in the small area of Fetterman Ave. without acquiring a permit, as other large gatherings in Bloomsburg had done, but was a BearCat and riot gear truly necessary to lighten the congestion in the alley?
The town police did have the right intentions. They were trying to ensure the safety of local citizens, and keep order on a day known to get out of hand. Yet, the mere presence of a large, armored motor vehicle obviously provoked less than honorable actions from the partakers of Block Party on Fetterman Ave.
From evaluating both sides’ accounts of the events, it appears that the whole situation could have been avoided. The police could have arrived on Fetterman Ave. with squad cars, or on horses, instead of an intimidating vehicle, the likes of which most people have only seen in action films. Instinctually, a student sees the flashing lights of the police car; they flee that area.
Both the students and the police were in the wrong. The students provoked the police by aiming their recyclables at the officers. On the flip side, the police provoked the students by using excessive tactics and unwarranted force. It is hard to conceptualize how verbal slander and walking away from the scene warrants getting pepper sprayed point blank.
“I saw one student get sprayed, and he raised his hands up surrendering. The police proceeded to slam him into the ground with excessive force, holding his head against the ground,” said an anonymous student witness to the actions taken on Fetterman Ave. Police officers from all over are trained in many types of combat including how to subdue an unarmed and armed suspect. Can the local police rightfully justify the use of weapons on unarmed bystanders many of them under the age of 23 in a residential area.
No matter what the goal of police was that day, the actions taken were clearly not the route to go. Hopefully, next year they will formulate a plan to tactfully deal with situations similar to what occurred on Block Party 2013 on Fetterman Ave. Also, hopefully, the participants of Block Party on the alley to how to behave maturely when confronted with the law.
Editors Note: Research, interviews, and writing by A. Zoe Baldwin and Jaclyn Beltrami.