Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst rallied in protest Tuesday against the police response to an unruly outdoor party last weekend, alleging that town officers used overly aggressive tactics to break up the large crowds.
The rally was held as university leaders said they would not tolerate drunken, irresponsible behavior and called for an in-depth look at the incident, including police conduct.
Referring to videos that show police clad in riot gear aggressively detaining partiers, in one case disabling a man with a blast of pepper spray to the face, UMass students denounced the Amherst department’s handling of the pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which led to 55 arrests.
“The videos definitely show that students were treated like animals,” said Zac Broughton, president of the university’s student government association. “They wanted to send a message.”
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said officers worked “diligently and professionally” to disperse unruly crowds at the Blarney Blowout that swelled to more than 4,000, and said they were pelted with bottles, full cans of beer, and snowballs. Town police responded to the disturbance because the party occurred off campus.
In a statement issued Monday, Livingstone said police had to break up the large gatherings to protect public safety, and denounced students for “dangerous and assaultive behavior.”
“The events of this past Saturday were extremely upsetting and hazardous,” he said. “The behavior of many participants of this melee caused the public and first responders to be placed in a very dangerous situation.”
Broughton said there was no excuse for students who were destructive and violent, but that police clearly overstepped their bounds.
“The lack of respect showed to students was very evident,” he said.
Police say the huge daytime party, which drew students from many other colleges, quickly descended into a drunken melee. But some students said the event was largely peaceful, and that police caused the situation to escalate.
“It was a complete mishandling,” said Jenna Grady, a sophomore who helped organize the protest but who was not at the party. “A lot of students are outraged.”
Grady said students at the rally alleged that some officers acted without provocation, and that one student said he was pepper sprayed after being handcuffed. A female student said police pulled her down by her hair.
“It’s horrific,” she said.
Robert Caret, president of the UMass system, and Henry Thomas, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said in a statement that the unruliness was distressing, but that “the actions of all parties — university, municipal, commercial, and others — should be considered.”
“If there are credible allegations of excessive force on the part of police, we will look into them,” said Ed Blaguszewski, a university spokesman. “We take those concerns very seriously.”
Police officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Town Manager John Musante has defended the force’s response, saying officers handled the situation well.
Officials have said that of the 55 arrested, 21 were UMass Amherst students. Charges included inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, failing to disperse, and alcohol violations.
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, whose office is prosecuting the cases, said he intended to hold offenders accountable.
“The mayhem created by this weekend’s Blarney Blowout was inexcusable,” he said in a statement. “Our office intends to vigorously prosecute those persons who incited riots, destroyed property, and assaulted police officers.”
Problems with the event have escalated in recent years. University administrators warned students earlier this month they would crack down on rowdy behavior, saying they were “acutely aware” of the strain wild parties puts on the community. Students were told that campus and town police would swiftly address dangerous situations.