Kent State, of course, has a complicated history with large crowds, drinking, and overeager law enforcement. In recent years, there are two days annually — College Fest in the spring and the Saturday before Halloween in October — with the legitimate potential to turn ugly quickly in the Portage County college town. One bad decision by a 20-year-old deep into a case of Coors Light or a panicky officer from another town decked out in SWAT gear can push things over the edge from a party to a riot.
I made the 50-minute trip down to Kent this weekend to see how this year’s Halloween would go down in my former college town (I moved from Kent to Cleveland a couple months ago after finishing grad school there earlier this year). My goal was to spend 12 hours walking the streets — around 6 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday — documenting what happened from before most students went out until after most were long asleep.
I loaded up my backpack with a voice recorder, notebook, a camera for photographs, a chest-mounted GoPro camera for video, beef jerky and Red Bull and drove my car to the new parking deck next to the new Kent State hotel (downtown has really developed since I started grad school) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. College Avenue would be my base for the night. The quarter-mile long street is lined with college houses and is bordered by the university’s campus (with all the dorms) and other college housing to the east, the downtown bars a block to the northwest, and the police station a block to southwest. People drink there and walk through College Ave. on their way to and from the bars: It’s the natural meeting point for clashes between drunk people and police. (Check out this video from the 2012 College Fest riot on College Ave. from my former Daily Kent Stater colleague Phil Botta, for example)
When I get to the street a little after 6 p.m., a few people are on porches drinking, but no music and few costumes; the calm before the storm. The only people outside were the guys of Alpha Epsilon Pi preparing their house for what’s will hit their street a few hours later. They are pounding stakes in their yard and unrolling an orange construction fence (slideshow picture). I ask them what they’re doing. “It’s mostly just a loitering thing,” said a guy dressed as Walter White (fedora, sunglasses, goatee) explaining why his housemates are setting up a fence, “people leave and just sit here and then cops have a reason to go in.” Last year, they say, was completely packed outside: “you couldn’t move.”
On the other side of the street are a few people drinking on the porch under a blue lightbulb. I ask them their plans. “Tonight? Just having a bunch of my friends over,” said a Kent State student wearing fleece pajamas, flanked by his friends from back home, “it’s too cold to be walking around, last year I was shirtless and miserable.” What happens when the police inevitably come? “Nothing major,” he says mentioning a Stater article he read that police will really be targeting for noise violations, an infraction he seemed content to get in exchange for a solid party. “I don’t think it’s really gonna get big until 9 or 10 maybe, then they’ll shut down the whole thing” (that prediction was a couple hours off: his house was busted by the cops at 12:50 a.m.).
At 7 p.m, I cross Route-59 and head downtown. It’s completely dead: nobody’s out, few people are inside the bars. Walking back towards the college neighborhoods, I notice all of the law enforcement cars patrolling town: police from Kent and the surrounding towns, state troopers, and sheriff’s department. Every nearby law enforcement agency is out tonight as outsiders begin coming into town. Packs of students are soon wandering the streets, although the early groups seemed to be actually more into Halloween and the elaborate costumes than getting hammered and yelling at police like later groups.
With the sun completely down, I notice two police squad cars parked on the sidewalk of Summit Street (near Lincoln, a main intersection on the southeast point of campus) with their lights on, facing the slow moving traffic pouring into campus. It was an obvious move by police: they wanted people coming into Kent State to know police are watching. As I walk on the sidewalk toward campus, the first parked squad car sounded a horn — perhaps they were suspicious of a guy in his 20s carrying a full backpack on Halloween walking towards them. Instead of turning around I walked to the driver’s side door to identify myself and get some quotes. Inside the police cars, however, there weren’t any police officers, just four guys with “security” t-shirts who can’t answer questions.
I head to the Kent police department, and outside it looks like they’re preparing for battle. Parked on the street is the massive green Metro SWAT armored truck better suited to fight terrorism than underage drinking and noise violations (slideshow picture). If at some point tonight the truck is anything other than a show of force and waste of taxpayer dollars — the gun ports utilized, the armor protecting from bombs — the situation in Kent would be much more dire than ever seen before. Parked nearby is a sheriff’s department SUV pulling a trailer (picture). The police department’s garage is open and officers are gearing up. Inside the building is a cheery dispatcher who explained there are 50-100 officers meeting right now; every single Kent officer is on duty tonight and officers from the surrounding towns are joining in to control the Halloween crowd. An officer moving things into a car in the parking lot (politely) refused a 30-second interview — he was too busy getting ready.
Back on College Ave at around 8:30, it’s still not very busy but more people are beginning to come out. I walk up to a house with a group drinking on the patio — a Playboy Bunny, Scooby-Doo Abe, Lincoln, Walter White in a hazmat suit — and tell them what I’m doing and ask them their plans (picture). Abe Lincoln takes a break from beer pong and reaches deep into his Budweiser case: “Are you allowed to have one of these?” (picture) I crack open the beer and talk with the group. On the other side of the porch, a couple people were just given free cans of Red Bull from the custom Red Bull car and someone asks Woody from Toy Story: “Did you just add your red bull to your Gatorade and vodka?”
Scooby-Doo and the Fresh Prince say police are cracking down more on them ever since the new police chief took over and Halloween is less busy at this point in the night than last year: “This fucking sucks,” Scooby says in between drags off his cigarette. A guy who lives next door, the “risk manager” for the frat house, comes by to ask if people are parking out back. He’s in charge of keeping his frat out of trouble this Halloween (he only drank early in the day to sober up if he had to talk to police at night): it’s a “nuisance house,” he said, with three incidents with police — a couple issues with 17-year-olds walking into the sidewalk from the house with beers — a status that apparently allows police to raid the house at any time without a warrant. “They can enter the home and we have to pay for them to enter,” he said. “It’s over a $1,000 fine, we’re fucked, no Halloween party at my house.” The porch we’re on now is a “nuisance house,” too, he said: “Every house on College Street is a nuisance house.”
At 9:10 p.m. the first group of officers (about a dozen) arrived on the western edge of College Ave — just a block from the station (picture). They are dressing up for Halloween, too, with their all-black militarized riot gear uniform with body armor and helmets. They begin to walk two-by-two east down the sidewalk, through the now increasingly busy street. I introduce myself to the Lieutenant (identified by their UN peacekeeper color blue riot helmet) and follow them as they turn left on Willow Street and then left again down the new esplanade back towards the station (picture). Another group of officers were walking in the other direction. They weren’t out to bust anybody in the first rounds — I could hear them making small talk with each other and laughing — but just to make their presence known.
Then it begins to rain, temporarily dampening a crowd already sparse because of the cold weather. I head back to the house where Abe Lincoln, Scooby-Doo, Woody and the Fresh Prince were drinking. Woody saw me trail the officers making their rounds and half-jokingly suggested I was an undercover cop. A few more drinks and he was nearly certain — my backstory as a writer is exactly what an undercover cop would come up with — and chided me for not trying to infiltrate the other houses down the street serving alcohol to high school kids.
The rain stopped at 10 and I headed back downtown. This time it was packed. Downtown is a different atmosphere, it’s an older crowd with more elaborate costumes (picture), and people waiting in lines to get into bars instead of shotgunning Bud Lights or mixing Popov in a Gatorade bottle. People downtown were in good spirits enjoying halloween and it was, frankly, kind of boring.
I began noticing the near constant sounds of unknown sirens near and far, seen and unseen, heading to and from unknown places for unknown reasons. It was unsettling. You couldn’t tell if it was some freshman getting caught with a beer or if it was a full-scale riot was tearing up the middle of campus, but nothing was happening downtown so I headed back to College Ave. at around 11 p.m. to be in the middle of things.
College Ave. was a much drunker, angrier, busier, and hectic place when I got back (picture). It was packed with people wearing poorly made costumes aimlessly wandering streets lit only by dim lights and the flashing blue and red lights of police cars. The sirens, the sound of empty beer bottles rolling down the street, the crash of those bottles under the tire of a car driven by people foolishly trying to inch their way through the crowd, the police officers’ uniforms blending into the darkness before snatching people up and putting them in the back of a police van, the music emanating from the party houses, the fleeting conversations of people walking to their next stop, the poorly executed pickup lines by by people who clearly don’t go to school there (“Damn, look at the ass on that bunny,”) the clank of uncomfortable high heels worn by women in sexy referee costumes, the weed and cigarette smoke, the fighting words of people who accidentally bumped into each other, the guy angrily kicking over trash cans as he walks down the street, the drunken battle-cry of a woman wanting to beat up someone for “trying to fuck my boyfriend,” people yelling trying to find others disconnected from their groups, the visitors trying to figure out where to go, the guy wearing a knock-off Batman costume storming out of a party screaming “man, this is bullshit” with the cheap foam mask covering his eyes.
A group of officers were gathered on the corner of College Avenue and Willow Street and I kept watch. WIth their all-black uniforms, they really did blend in in the darkness when they weren’t moving (I guess that’s the point). Just before midnight, a guy dressed as a priest — a long brown robe and a large cross around his neck — unknowingly tried to walk past police carrying an open bottle of beer. Police grabbed the beer and put his hands behind his back. “How old are you?” an officer asks. “Twenty-one… I’m—I’m sorry, I’m 20.” They called for the police van to take him to jail. While they were filling out paperwork, police nabbed another guy in a red sweatshirt for for the same thing and found marijuana on him. “We’re just staying here, overhead lights on, and they’re coming to us,” Lt. Jim Prusha told me at the scene.
The house with the blue light, whose resident told me six hours earlier they were probably going to get a noise violation that night, was the hub of activity on the street (picture). The house, the patio, and the yard are full of people at around 12:40 a.m. when police decide to put an end to it. I didn’t see see them go in, but soon police surrounded the house and told everybody — even the people just walking through — they had to leave the street immediately, using their flashlights on the ground to motion to the crowd where they needed to go (“That way! You gotta go that way!”). Officers were saying the street was “shut down” but even they didn’t really know what that meant. I asked a sheriff’s deputy what happened: “I’m not sure, they called us down here, another group called us down here, I don’t know what happened. When I came, I heard them throwing beer bottles, I don’t know what happened before I got here” (just as he finishes telling me that, a guy in a Rex Kwon Do costume walks by and screams, “Hey, fuck you cops”). I stand there a few more minutes and another cop approaches: “Hey guy, we’re shutting the street, you gotta go one way or the other.” What does that mean? “It means the parties and everything, we don’t want it to get out of control and we need everybody to move that way.” A little bit later, I talk to another officer: what parts of the street are you shutting off? “All of them,” he says while flashing his light on the ground. All of the streets? “Yes.” I go to another officer: what’s going on? “Just clearing the streets.” What happened? “I’ll be honest, I’m a mutual aid, I can’t answer any questions, I just do what I’m told.”
“Shutting down the street” basically means the main houseparty was closed for the night and people were temporarily scattered away from it. College Ave. — located between the bars downtown and campus — remained relatively busy. About a half hour after busting the house, officers were on foot, talking on the corner of the nearby intersection when a group of three or four guys walked by on the other side of the the street, screaming at the police (“Fuck you!”) and yelling that they should be “fixing the heroin problem in Portage County” instead of working Kent’s Halloween. The guys turned left onto Willow, and several officers cuff a couple yellers (for disorderly conduct) and threaten to taze another if he came any closer.
I head back downtown around 1:30 — the crowds there are still going strong — and then walk down main street alongside north edge of campus and on the busy sidewalks of people going to and from the northern neighborhoods behind the strip of fast food restaurants.
I’m alone — other than a few people hurriedly rushing to the dorms — in the middle of campus, a half mile or so from the nearest activity when the bars close around two. The only sounds are are far-away sirens, a perfect time to launch the police scanner app on my iPhone. Now I have context to those sirens: someone’s getting transported to Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna. There’s a guy with an injured leg at McDonald’s. Someone’s passed on Franklin.
I head back to College Ave as more people head back to their dorms and apartments. People left excitedly earlier in the night in groups with carefully planned costumes are returning alone, disheveled and tired. I pass a guy who started the night in an elaborate lederhosen costume; his night is ending in short shorts and an untucked wrinkled dress shirt.
Back on College Ave. at around 2:30 a.m., the people still around are drunk with nothing to do. Two guys are on a sidewalk yelling to women about their dicks: “I got a foot-long for anyone,” they chuckled, “Who wants to ride this?” No takers.
Cops are occupied in the driveway of house on the street. A couple officers are talking to a guy leaning against his car while the others are standing by, watching.
People are staggering home. Just before 3 a.m., a girl in a Wonder Woman costume is struggling to keep up with her group of friends because she can’t walk in her high heels — she’s either too drunk or the heels are too flimsy and the ground is too cold for her to walk barefoot, she whined.
I then go and sit on a rail (my legs are exhausted) on the west end of the street near the crossing for downtown. Three guys in hooded sweatshirts pass by at 3:15, looking for something to do: “Hey man, where’s the party?” They must live elsewhere. I didn’t know, I told them (I honestly didn’t see any partying). “Well, where’s the good drugs then?”
I head back downtown and almost everybody’s gone. A city worker is using a leaf blower to blow trash from the sidewalk to the street (picture). Other than the group hanging out outside of Euro Gyro, the only other people downtown are the ones desperately trying to find a cab. A guy in mullet wig, cut off flannel shirt, cut off jeans, long underwear and work books is sitting on a ledge at the Kent Stage with his head between his knees on; I can’t tell if he’s awake. I can tell that he’s miserable. His buddy, a werewolf, futilely tries to wave down any vehicle that comes by every few minutes in hopes that it could be a cab. At 3:45, one of those van-taxis finally stops, and the 10 or so people trying to get home flock to it (picture).
I walk again towards the north side of campus. I’m getting exhausted and I’m considering making my 12-hour experiment a 10-hour experiment and going home early. But then I hear a blast coming from the north side of town — I didn’t know what it was: maybe it was a gunshot, but I may be too exhausted to accurately diagnose it — and then on the police scanner app something makes me pay attention. I can’t quite understand everything, but I can make out “revolver,” “suspects,” and “Crain” Avenue. I’m a quarter mile from Crain so I head that way, through the now-empty residential neighborhood behind the fast food restaurants in search of some police activity. From what’s on the scanner and the squad cars driving slowly by and looking at me as I walk through the empty streets, it was clear they were looking for someone — the guy with the gun probably. I finally reach Crain after 4 a.m., and see to my right four flashing police cars in front of a house (picture). I go on the other side of the street and watch. A K-9 handler is putting a piece of fabric on the face of an excited dog and they head to off to track somebody. Radio activity has them focusing behind Burger King, but they can’t find anybody. I walk back towards downtown and listen as police mention an incident near the post office on the other side of downtown. Then I hear about something else on the other side of town. I had no clue what happened until I emailed Lt. Prusha on Monday about what I saw near Crain Avenue: Gary Bacchus, Jr, (19, from Cleveland Heights) and Michael McCollins (21, from Cleveland) were arrested for three armed robberies between 3:30 and 4:22 a.m.: “The suspects approached victims brandishing firearms and demanding valuables. The suspects were stopped in a vehicle shortly after the last robbery.”
Kent’s still intact. For the most part.
46 people were arrested by Kent Police: 23 for “prohibitions” (i.e. alcohol) charges, seven for disorderly conduct, five for marijuana possession, four for aggravated robbery, four for noise violations, three for a “nuisance party,” and more. Kent State police and state troopers made more arrests, but I don’t have those stats right now. The police haven’t yet released their names, but I would guess most of the people arrested were not Kent State students, just like in past years and past events. They came to Kent for a party and didn’t know how to not get caught like people who have been there for a while know how.