November 17, 2017

Questions Linger after "Flash Mob" at UT Chattanooga Library Dispersed with Mace

By Josh Hadro

Can a library embrace an “impromptu rave” during finals week?

  • Students descend on library for party during finals week
  • Mace used by police to disperse crowd
  • Gathering went "beyond harmless fun," says administration
  • Followup flashmobs at University of Kentucky and UNC Chapel Hill

(Updated 4/30 with information on latest flashmobs at the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina)

Using text messages and social networks to coordinate, hundreds of students gathered outside of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) Lupton Library Thursday April 23 around 11 pm in an attempt to get inside for an "impromptu rave," according to multiple accounts. The official police description of the incident called it "a large riot," as reported in The Chattanoogan.

"Beyond harmless fun"
During the mass gathering, a number of students began jumping off the building facade to crowd surf on the arms of students gathered below, as is visible in a YouTube video of the incident. In addition, according to the official University statement from Chuck Cantrell, assistant vice chancellor and spokesman for UTC:

"The crowd began storming the library doors, chanting ‘Let us in!’ ‘Take the library!’ and other statements as they attempted to enter the library. UTC Police told the crowd to disperse. Instead members of the crowd began to climb up on the library and jump into the crowd. Some threw items at the police officers on site."

He continued, indicating that the students had gone "beyond harmless fun," and "that the crowd disrupted the operation of the library."

To drive the crowd off, "Police sprayed mace above the heads of students," according to The Chattanoogan. "The Library was closed for a a little over an hour to allow the crowd to disperse and police regained control of the site," the paper reported. In the end, city police arrested five students and issued one misdemeanor citation.

How to prepare?
The event seems to have been inspired by a similar Finals week event at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill last fall, and there are reports that at least some library staff were aware that students would attempt the finals week party. Still, the scope of the gathering was likely far beyond what any of the staff had expected.

Jason Griffey, head of library information technology at UTC, spoke to LJ about the incident, though he was not in the library at the time (nor was he speaking on behalf of the library or the university). Speaking instead as a member of the community and an advocate of social media (he is co-chair of the LITA Blog, Interactive Groupware, and Wiki Interest Group, or BIGWIG), Griffey wondered whether the library may have been able to engage with the students under different circumstances:

"What would have been the result of having the doors open and welcoming the students into the library for a time? How do you deal with a crowd that big as far as the security of the building, belongings, and the collection? I’m not sure about any of that, and it’s a real ‘what if’ to think what might have changed."

An anonymous commenter calling him or herself as "a student" on the Chattarati post piecing together the timeline of events was convinced the incident could have been avoided, writing: "The event probably would have been much shorter, quieter, and calmer if the library hadn’t locked everyone out and if the police hadn’t gone over the top on discipline."

Indicating that the university would be better prepared next time, UTC Chancellor Roger Brown told the Chattanooga Times Free Press: "We are going to try to do an earlier and quicker response when we start to see text messaging or social network messaging. I am not certain we can change one of these events on the spur of the moment, but we would certainly like the opportunity to try."

Followup flash mob at UK
Perhaps in a response to Griffey’s questions, a similar scene played out at the University of Kentucky’s William T. Young Library on the evening of Wednesday April 29, but without any serious altercations between students and security. 

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, hundreds of students gathered in library around 9 pm "to frolic in an apparent dead-week prank." The students danced in the lobby of the library and chanted for a few minutes before the building was evacuated, apparently as a result of a fire alarm being pulled.

On the video, students can be seen crowd-surfing as a security officer keeps an eye on the crowd from an upper floor, saying "just don’t want anybody to get hurt."

Encore rave at UNC
This evening, another rave is being held at the Walter Royal Davis Library of the University of North Carolina, Davis, an encore to the successful event held last year at the library (see link earlier in this story for video). Though it’s unclear whether the rave has the administration’s explicit approval, the Facebook invitation is viewable by anyone with an account on the site, and more than 1,700 students have indicated that they might attend.

The message indicates that the event planners are expecting no intervention by security personnel, and also asks students to use common sense in looking after one another:

Let us start by saying that the UNC student body makes events like this so easy. Do what you always do: look out for each other, keep people on their feet, and have a good time. If you feel so compelled, find yourself a “Rave-Buddy.”

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