Boston faces riot-control test

A student was killed last week as police tried to curb unruly celebrations. Would a World Series win turn violent?

The city of the Fenway Faithful is buzzing with pent-up energy, the kind that may aid and abet a Red Sox triumph - or a riot in the streets.

As Boston reels with hope for its first World Series victory since 1918, residents and officials here are also grappling with difficult issues of mob control and public safety. Last week, the celebration after the Sox won their series slot, beating the Yankees in New York, turned deadly. Thousands of fans filled the streets near Fenway Park, and in the chaos a Emerson College student was hit in the eye by a police pepper-spray bullet. She died hours later.

The Boston Police department has been criticized for its role in the death, as it attempted to control a joyous crowd turned riotous. The resulting publicity is prompting debate about proper police response, and is shaping preparations for crowd control if the Sox win this week.

The death also highlights a challenge that goes beyond Boston: an unruly brand of sport celebration, especially among college-age males. The challenge is especially acute here, where the culture is ruled in equal measure by sports and academia. This city could be a test case for understanding why such a tribal response has become an almost automatic extension of tense playoff games.

"What's happening, and not just when there are losses, but when [the team] is victorious, fans torch cars, turn them over," says Leonard Zaichkowsky, a sport psychology expert at Boston University. Celebrations should be associated with joy and gratitude, but they too often transition into a hostility and destruction, he says.

This "mob mentality" isn't new. It was seen in Roman spectator riots in the 6th century. And Europe has long dealt with soccer "hooligans."

But in America, rioting has increasingly marred celebrations in professional and college sports.

Earlier this year after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, a 21-year-old was hit by a car in the rowdiness that erupted in Boston. Dozens of students were arrested for flipping cars and setting fires at the University of Connecticut when the men's and women's basketball teams won national championships last spring.

Mayor's and police respond

Last week, with tens of thousands of fans in the streets here, some hurling garbage cans and throwing bottles at officers, police in riot gear tried to contain the chaos. The pepper bullets were not supposed to land above the shoulders, but one of them hit Victoria Snelgrove in the eye. The use of so-called nonlethal force in this case turned deadly. In a statement, Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole took full responsibility for any errors on the part of the police and announced that an internal investigation would be opened.

She has also harshly condemned rioters, but the police will shift to lower-powered pellet guns.

Mayor Thomas Menino announced some broader steps to control crowds, including limits on the length of waiting lines outside sports bars and a ban on live broadcasts showing fans within. He also met with members of the university community "to prevent hooliganistic activity after victorious sporting events," says Seth Gitell, a spokesman for the mayor.

While there may not be a simple explanation for the psychology of rioting, the behavior does tend to fall within a certain demographic: white, male, and college-age. The violence usually begins with a small percentage of youths, and then the anonymity provided by crowds lends itself to a sinister version of "follow the leader."

Rob McCarter, a junior at Northeastern University, headed to Fenway Park with a couple of his friends as soon as the game ended Wednesday night. He wasn't scared, he says, despite the cops in helmets and jackets and the vandalism taking place around him. He says he got a laugh out of a group that hurled a dumpster into a bank window, but "I wasn't going to be one of those guys to break stuff."

Mobs: causes and solutions

Society's acceptance of the rowdy, sometimes violent, element of sports allegiance is, in part, to blame. "Though it's antisocial, [the violence] is still a feat of skill," says Jerry Lewis, sociologist at Kent State University in Ohio. It's not unlike the skill that a football player exhibits on the field. "The identification with the team is expressed through these acts of violence."

Some see alcohol as a prime influence. In fact, Mayor Menino had considered invoking a state law allowing him to ban the sale or distribution of alcohol "in cases of riot or great public excitement."

The problem is not just alcohol, but a new brand of "extreme" drinking on campuses, say Brandon Busteed, founder of Outside the Classroom, which provides online alcohol prevention courses for students. When he was a student at Duke University, Mr. Busteed says, burning benches after basketball victories was the norm. He sought to provide alternative events in lieu of the alcohol-fueled vandalism that plagued Duke. Such sanctioned events immediately after sporting victories, say experts, could help cities counter rioting.

There is also a lack of public education, with no institution taking prime responsibility for education the public on the issue, says Professor Zaichkowsky. Is it the duty of the police? Team owners? The athletes? The city? "It falls through the cracks."

The Boston police have faced at least some criticism for use of pepper spray guns. Many say not enough study has proven that stun guns or other types of "nonlethal" weapons reduce death. "I think there really needs to be a national reassessment of this paramilitary force on citizens," says Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies in Chicago. "This is not Fallujah."

Meanwhile, a dean at Boston University has notified students and their parents threatening expulsion if students engage in illegal behavior.

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