Photo courtesy of Amanda Grunenwald.
Two Ohio State students and one other man were arrested early Sunday morning after Columbus police officers cleared East Woodruff Avenue with pepper spray.
Matthew Coleman, a 19-year-old majoring in biology, Brian Witt, a 21-year-old majoring in civil engineering, and Michael Shivak, 21, were arrested for assault on a police officer following the block party, Woodfest ’11.
All three were charged with assault on a police officer, and Coleman was charged with two counts of assault on a police officer. Coleman and Witt tried to evade police and sustained “minor injuries” in the process, according to Sgt. Richard Weiner of the Columbus Police Department.
Saturday evening into early Sunday morning, several houses organized a block party that spilled into the street, blocking traffic on East Woodruff Avenue between High Street and Indianola Avenue.
Hometeam Properties, the owners of several of the host houses on East Woodruff Avenue, warned tenants in an email Thursday to be safe at Woodfest and to clean up by Monday morning, said Alex Curti, a fourth-year in finance and logistics and resident of 62 E. Woodruff Ave., one of the party’s host houses.
According to the police report, officers encountered a large crowd on Woodruff Avenue and saw several house parties with more than 1,000 people blocking the street. Police responded to the situation and cleared out the area with the use of pepper spray.
Woodfest was a celebration of school spirit and American pride, said Chang Song, a fourth-year in finance and DJ of the block party.
“I would tell the crowd to chant ‘USA’ and they all followed,” Song said. “I was sober the entire time. It was a good vibe and everyone was having fun.”
Weiner met with reporters Sunday afternoon to discuss the situation.
“You cannot take over the streets and you cannot put other people at harm,” Weiner said. “When you’re told to move out of the street by officers, and you don’t, you’re going to get that response that we gave last night. We will fog the area.”
Weiner said several cans and bottles were thrown at police cruisers and the police wagon when trying to clear the area. He also said one officer was hit in the head with a full can of beer. Weiner said three officers sustained minor injuries, were treated at the scene and are fine.
Zac Stearns, a third-year in political science, said the situation seemed to be under control at first, but it got really crowded quickly.
“It started to get really crowded, people started to flood into the street, and that’s illegal,” Stearns said. “It went from being pretty in control, to not.”
Michael Gersman, a first-year in materials science and engineering, said police did not give any kind of warning when they sprayed the area.
“They didn’t warn us or anything, they just came through and started spraying. Actually, it got a lot worse after they came through,” Gersman said. “I think they realized it was a bad idea because they pretty much incited the riot.”
Weiner said police officers did, in fact, warn students.
“There was a lieutenant inside that wagon that gave the dispersal warning,” Weiner said. “You can’t hear it on the YouTube video, but that lieutenant has assured chain of command that the dispersal warning was given.”
Gersman said people were getting trampled, became angry and started yelling at police, and that it became more violent once they sprayed the area.
Weiner said police acted appropriately.
“I know there were a lot of issues between what people think happened, and what we did,” Weiner said. “I can tell you our response was more than appropriate. We cannot afford to let that go on; we cannot afford not to act.”
Gersman said the situation after the initial spraying was intense, and there were people running through the alleys everywhere.
“We all ran behind the streets on either side of Woodruff, people were throwing up everywhere, it was just a mess,” Gersman said. “I ended up finding some of my friends and ended up heading over to one of my friend’s place nearby. It was really intense.”
Weiner confirmed that several officers chased people through the alleys with pepper spray.
“Yeah, we were following people through the alleys,” Weiner said. “Because we learned in the past that if we don’t continue to move them on, they will regroup and come back.”
Curti said there was no damage to any of the houses and no damage to any of the cars that were parked on the street.
“I’m not really sure what the problem was, other than people being in the street,” he said.
Curti said the original plan was for three of their houses to have a cookout-type celebration, and it grew to much more.
“We tried to have our community ambassador to organize an official WoodruffFest, but they said they were unsuccessful,” Curti said.
Weiner said he was not aware of attempts to obtain a permit for the event. He said he was not surprised if attempts were unsuccessful because the permit process is long and difficult.
Weiner also said the Columbus Police Department was aware of the party and had people monitoring it throughout the day.
“We were monitoring a party. We were aware that there was going to be a lot of parties on Woodruff, so we had officers monitoring, making sure that everything was fine, and it was up until a point,” Weiner said. “All of the sudden we started getting a large crowd coming into the street, taking over the street.”
Representatives from Mayor Coleman’s office, Ohio State Police and Willie Young, the director of off-campus student services, did not return calls and emails to The Lantern on Sunday.
Gersman said he could not understand what the police were trying to accomplish.
“There was no violence or anything before they came and they pretty much caused a riot,” Gersman said. “Everyone was chanting ‘U-S-A’ right before the police came and started spraying.”
Brittany Schock contributed to this story.