The Wheeler Street Roundup

Party-goers' YouTube videos are working for the police

May 6, 2011
Greg Bishop

Over 100 arrests last weekend and more on the way! Macomb Police Chief Curt Barker says authorities will use footage posted on the video-sharing site YouTube to find more suspects stemming from last weekend's block party.

Caught on Tape

Suspects
Image of suspects captured from online videos taken from Macomb Police website

As of Thursday morning there were 104 arrests, the majority for city ordinance violations like underage drinking. There were five arrests for aggravated battery after bottles, and Chief Barker claims bricks, were thrown at officers. There was also one arrest for manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance. Police arrested that individual walking up to a crowd in possession of ecstasy pills.

More arrests are on the way, says Barker, as police compile a list of suspects from the videos. The Police chief encourages people to go to the Macomb Police website to see the images they capture from the various online videos. There are more stills from videos posted on the Macomb Police Department's Facebook page. They ask the public to contact crime stoppers with tips.

The videos

May 1st, the Sunday following the busted block party, videos started rolling in via the social network and video sharing site YouTube. These were moments captured by devices that 20-something regularly at their hip; cell phones or flip cameras.

The images paint a picture of a party gone too far, eventually leading to riot and crowd control police shutting it down. Searching YouTube for "Wheeler Block Party 2011" will bring up dozens of videos. Many of the videos include instances of bystanders being sprayed with what Chief Barker indicates is pepper spray. Some of the videos show the stop sign and bike fire. Others, like the one from "Dude That's So College" is sophomoric and perfect for an accepting reality TV crowd--Jersey Shore in the Mid-West. All of the videos depict the riot police spraying people with pepper spray.

Permit denied

The Wheeler Street Block Party is an annual unsanctioned event in Macomb, attended by many students of Western Illinois University. Party planners tried to apply for an events permit this year but that was denied by the city because, according to Barker, Macomb does not allow for events permits involving alcohol.

Last Saturday, Macomb police estimated that up to three or four thousand students and non-students attended the party, more than previous years. In the middle of the afternoon revelers tore down a stop stop sign and lit a bicycle on fire.

Boiling over

When State Police, McDonough County Deputies, and Macomb Police arrived, the party-goers began throwing bottles, according to Barker. That's when the Mobile Force Unit was called in with pepper spray canisters and a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a crowd control tool used in Iraq and at G-20 protests. All together there were 78 law enforcement officers, in and around the area, during the operation. About a quarter of available officers were in full riot gear--called on the scene to deal with the street fair gone wrong.

Chief Barker says the use of the Mobile Force Unit was not a drill, as some have speculated. Barker says the unit in full riot gear was there on standby in anticipation of what could possibly go wrong. As for why the vandals who tore down the stop sign were not arrested before the Mobile Force Unit showed up, Barker says non police were being pelted with bottles, a claim party-goers deny. Some in attendance at the block party claim the bottles didn't start getting thrown until after the Mobile Field Force arrived with what revelers say was a very intimidating and unnecessary show of force.

What's next?

An after-action review involving all the agencies that took part in breaking up the Wheeler Block Party bust will be forthcoming to help authorities better determine how to better react to similar situations in the future and how to avoid the likes of what happened April 30th in Macomb. Chief Barker hopes party organizers, the city and WIU can work together next year to create an event that will be "socially responsible." One criticism Barker had about Wheeler Street, something he claims is the cause for the vandalism, is the lack of entertainment during the block party.

When asked if they would charge anyone with violating the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, a law that makes it a felony in the state of Illinois to record police in public, Barker said they will not. When asked if the evidence from the videos were admissible in court as evidence, being they were obtained in violation of the eavesdropping act, the Police chief did not have an answer only to say authorities are likely to not go down that direction at the moment. About pursuing eavesdropping violations in the future, the Police Chief did not dismiss that option.

Opinion

This was a seriously out-of-hand situation, something that should have never escalated to the point of using chemical agents and sound weapons on people celebrating the end of a long semester. The people celebrating in the streets were not being violent or threatening. There were not fights in the streets between gangs or insurgents running around with AK-47s. Some 20-somethings saw police standing on the outer perimeter doing nothing, especially when the stop sign was taken down, and they took advantage of the situation--expressing their youth-like rebellion.

The police could have had a better handle on the situation at the beginning of the celebrations simply by patrolling the streets. Instead, police decided to flex their muscles and use all the new shiny gear they waste valuable resources on. Gotta test that stuff on something, why not a bunch of drunk frat boys? Serve and protect!

A detailed investigation is necessary to determine which came first--the flying bottles or the Mobile Field Unit. Will this happen? Will there be an independent investigation of what happened April 30th? Doubt it. We'll just continue the track towards a seriously dark world of storm troopers in black, marching down American streets. Hey, is the game on?

Another alarming aspect of this whole thing is it's a sign of things to come. Crowd control tactics used in war-zones and G-20 protests, protest turned violent by agent provocateurs, will be used for potentially any arbitrary gathering of people. Is there such a thing as peacefully assemble? The Wheeler Street Block Party of 2011 was not a gathering of anti-war protesters or people sitting-in government buildings demanding collective bargaining and anti austerity measures. Wheeler Street was full of revelers who had no particular political cause for assembling with others. Their only purpose that day for those partying was to celebrate the end of another semester.

In more depth

This weekend on WMAY's Saturday Session with Bishop go deeper into the story to hear the entire QnA with Chief Barker and to get the word from some of the revelers, some who were behind the cameras. That's this Saturday from 3 to 7 only on 970 WMAY, The News and Talk of Springfield.

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