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The Blue & Gray Press | November 18, 2017

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After Block Party at JMU, 31 Arrested in Crowd Riot

Robert Boag

In the aftermath of Saturday’s riot at James Madison University, police have taken 31 people into custody and have issued summons to 25 more who were at the scene, according to Harrisonburg’s Community News Network.

Harrisonburg Police Chief Donald Harper said at the City Council meeting Tuesday night that the most severe charges include assault and battery, as well as malicious wounding by mob. Five officers and one K9 were injured during the civil disturbance, but none of the injuries were serious. There was also extensive property damage, according to the JMU student paper the Breeze.

More than 40 individuals from Village Lane, an off-campus area where the party was held, were treated at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, hburgnews.com reported. Harper confirmed at the meeting that three people were transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The Saturday party was declared an unlawful assembly at 5 p.m. after over 8,000 people descended on the scene, the Washington Post reported.

This party happened during Springfest, an annual multi-day event usually held at Fox Hill Townhomes in Harrisonburg, according to the Breeze. Springfest typically attracts crowds of about 2,000 people, Harrisonburg Police Department Lt. Kurt Boshart told the Breeze.

Although the reason why party attendance jumped this year is unclear, Boshart told the Associated Press that he heard the event had been publicized on Facebook beforehand. He also said that many of the people in attendance were from other universities and areas of Virginia, according to hburgnews.com.

More than 200 officers from Augusta County, Rockingham County, JMU, Staunton and the Virginia State Police were called in, Boshart told the Breeze.

The Breeze reported that the location was changed once the police warned area residents that there would be officers present at the event. They also reported that the Harrisonburg community has not experienced a riot this serious in 10 years, when civil disobedience units responded to a crowd of more than 2,000 students.

Students received a text message from JMU’s emergency communications system after 6 p.m. telling “Non-Residents of Village Lane to disperse from social events in that area immediately for safety reasons,” reported the Breeze. Many students said an overcrowded phone system delayed their reception of the text.

After the party approached riot status, at 6:45 p.m. police threw grenades of teargas into the crowds that were still loitering, reported the Breeze. Some in the crowd were sprayed with pepper spray or hit with rubber bullets and beanbags.

Heather McElwain, a senior at JMU, was at the party Saturday afternoon when the event began to escalate. She was helping a friend who was sick when she saw dumpsters that were lit on fire. Shortly afterwards, she saw the teargas grenades as they were flying towards the crowds.

“I went upstairs to get my friends to get dinner,” she said. “As we were getting ready to leave, we saw a canister of [teargas] in the air. I pulled my friends into the closest townhouse.”

She opened the blinds to see what was happening.

“I saw three of the civil disobedience unit police officers with shields pushing this guy into a corner,” McElwain said. “They were pushing him against the wall of the townhouse we were in. He was trying not to collapse from the effects of the teargas.”

When McElwain tried to exit the townhouse, she couldn’t get outside.

“As soon as I made it to the door, people started screaming, and they ran inside the townhouse,” she said. “I moved out of the way so I could avoid getting trampled. Then teargas came through the door.”
She learned later that a teargas grenade was thrown onto the balcony of the townhouse she was in.

“Teargas was coming into the house,” McElwain said. “Everybody was running everywhere. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew that my entire face was burning from the teargas.”
McElwain collapsed because she said she couldn’t breathe.

“I just started crying the hardest I‘ve ever cried in my entire life,” she said.

She found one of her friends, who had been hit on the cheek with a teargas grenade and then blacked out.

“He was carried up the stairs, and when he came to, he was throwing up on himself,” she said.

As she and her friends left the scene, McElwain said police had blocked off the area.

“We decided to leave and we proceeded to walk out with our hands in the air,” she said. “Both me and my friend were breathing through our sweaters so we wouldn’t inhale any more of the gas. We asked if we could get out, and one of the cops turned to us and said, ‘you better, or you’ll get hurt.’ ”

John Roesser, a UMW junior, found out about the event as it was happening from one of his friends who is a junior at JMU.

“I was thinking, I can’t believe its actually happening to people my age, friends from high school,” he said. “They’re having teargas shot at them. That’s pretty intense.”

Roesser said he doesn’t think a riot like this would ever happen at UMW.

“In this apartment complex, there were 8,000 people,” he said.

“That’s double the size of UMW off the bat. Plus, I don’t think we have that kind of mentality.”

The civil disturbance is still under investigation.