Rattling the cages at ZooMass
The past and future of riot culture at UMass Amherst.
March 4, 2016
ZooMass. For decades, this moniker has been used to describe the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The school’s party atmosphere is something that students took, and take, pride in — for better or for worse. Large gatherings and riots like the Red Sox World Series celebration in 2013 and Blarney Blowout in 2014 have made the “ZooMass” name seem legitimate.
This is the Zoo and we are the animals.
But in recent years, UMass administration has tried to separate itself from this image. Spring 2015 marked a turning point for the university, as administration implemented new strategies to stifle off-campus gatherings and limit negative impacts.
With Blarney Blowout, the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration that takes place on and off campus, approaching this Saturday, March 5, the university looks to continue separating itself from the notorious, riotous celebrations that have plagued its reputation in the past.
The Boston Red Sox Riot
On Oct. 30, 2013, the university teamed up with the Student Government Association (SGA) to try and limit riotous behavior during the World Series game, sponsoring a cookout with carnival-esque inflatables and airing the game on a giant projector screen in the Southwest Residential Area. The plans to minimize rowdiness, however, quickly backfired.
Students’ responses to the victory were loud and rowdy, similar to the riot after the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss in 2012. Bottlenecking hundreds of students into one confined space did little to limit the partying. Police officers in full tactical gear stood on the outskirts of the excitement and, while their intentions were to keep students safe, looked more like predators than protectors.
Some students climbed the thin, leafless trees in Southwest and popped the blow-up structures, while others blasted music from their dorms. Eventually police officers moved in to break up the gathering and, when students refused to move, the officers fired pepper pellets. Students sprinted back to their dorms, and by the end of the night, 15 students were arrested, more than the number of arrests reported in Boston following the victory.
Blarney Blowout 2014
Any simmering tension that lingered after the Red Sox riot exploded four months later. By 11 a.m. on March 8, 2014, the Townehouse and Brandywine apartment complexes flooded with thousands of students, all dressed in green and ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Police, again dressed in full riot gear, ordered the crowd to disperse. Students who resisted or carried open alcohol containers were arrested, pepper-sprayed and even tackled. Soon the roads of North Amherst were lined with handcuffed students.
When the dust finally settled, over 50 people were arrested, the majority of them being guests visiting the school.
UMass was left with a scar on its reputation.
Blarney Blowout had always been an issue for the university, but in 2014 the unsanctioned celebration became a national story. Videos of pepper-sprayed attendees angered students, and they hosted an on-campus protest against police brutality. The university hired former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to investigate the handling of Blarney in an attempt to quiet the rumblings of the student body.
On Sept. 19, 2014, USA Today confirmed that Davis’s report found the university at fault. The report made it clear to both the administration and students that the handling of Blarney had to change.
Blarney Blowout 2015
On March 7, 2015, an unfamiliar emptiness fell on the Townehouses. Snow filled the quad, split by paths tenants had shoveled out in anticipation of Blarney. But by noon the space was vacant, with only a handful of police officers standing by both entrances, preventing small crowds from entering.
The university had deployed two new strategies to stop Blarney: alternatives and restrictions. The alternative came in the form of a free concert at the Mullins Center, organized by the SGA, featuring Kesha, Juicy J and Ludacris. The university reportedly spent over $305,000 on the event.
But the restrictions proved to be more troubling for students. On-campus students couldn’t host guests; the visitor lot in the Townhouses was off limits; and on-campus parking was restricted to UMass students only. Dozens of police officers patrolled the Townehouse parking lots to be sure that anyone who entered was a resident.
Michael Borzi, a senior accounting major, lived in the Townehouses last year, and he said that the constraints were excessive.
“I had my brother come visit me because Blarney was usually a great time,” said Borzi. “He was left with no place to park and officers almost didn’t let him into my house. It was really frustrating and I didn’t see why it was necessary.”
Borzi, who now lives across the street from the Townehouses, believes 2014 may have marked the beginning of the end of Blarney.
“For the school, last year was a success,” he explained. “No police brutality controversies, no investigations, less arrests. Students being mad about their guest and parking privileges is nothing to them compared to all that.”
For the most part, it was a peaceful day in Amherst, aside from a few small incidents. Eight people were arrested, a low number compared to the previous year. The day was hailed as a success for the university and has undoubtedly served as a blueprint for future celebrations.
“Mullins Live” and the Future of Blarney Blowout
Borzi predicted that this year will be similar to last. Once again, on-campus students are not allowed to sign in non-UMass guests for the weekend of March 4-6, and the same parking restrictions have been put in place. SGA planned a “Mullins Live!” concert to coincide with Blarney celebrations, featuring Migos, Capital Cities and Jason Derulo.
Though the school hopes to change the culture surrounding the infamous first Saturday in March for new and future students, seniors have expressed disapproval of the “new age” Blarney.
Senior economics and sports management major Luke Patti believes the mass gatherings that were once synonymous with Blarney Blowout only became explosive because of handling by police.
“The controversy all started when kids drinking beer outside were dealt with by cops in full-on riot gear,” Patti said. “Now everything is fixed because we can’t have our friends come visit us, and we get questioned trying to go to our own house? To me that’s just solving a problem with another problem,” he continued.
Christian Leach, another senior that lives by the Townehouses, approves of the university’s attempts. He said he believes the school should continue to focus on positive solutions.
“For some people, [the concert] is an exciting thing and it is better than a bunch of kids getting arrested,” the operations and info. management major said. “I think they should do more of that kind of thing… But some people want to participate in Blarney Blowout, and that’s not Blarney Blowout.”
After facing much scrutiny in March 2014, UMass administration and police in Amherst have attempted to stifle the “riot culture” at the flagship UMass campus, and that’s understandable. The concert is an exciting and positive idea that works, but the restrictions on students both on and off-campus set a troubling precedent. Many view the rules as too controlling, reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality.
“All the restrictions make it clear how little [administration] trusts us,” Borzi said. “So it’s pretty hard to trust them.”