Cleveland Heights Freaks Out, Cancels Arts Fest Because of Social Media "Chatter" 

Fearful of another "flash mob"-style riot that marred the 2011 Coventry Street Fair, officials in Cleveland Heights canceled the festivities that were to have taken place Sunday afternoon. It's the second year in a row that the event has been called off.

Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson, who said the decision was "not just a snap judgment, but based on days of planning and looking into things," claimed there were red flags on social media that indicated that the safety of the event might be compromised. As of press time, it was unclear which emoji caused the bells to go off.

When called to clarify specific tweets and Facebook posts that were cause for gravest alarm, the police chief was thrice unavailable for comment, likely because he was busy reading Twitter.

Mayor Ed Kelley, however, told the PD that he was especially sensitive to potential violence because police in South Euclid had to use pepper spray to quash youth skirmishes at a Sacred Heart of Jesus church festival the weekend prior.

South Euclid Police Chief Kevin Nietert—after a truly robust phone-tag session—said those types of skirmishes happen every year.

"Off the top of my head, I'd say we arrested four to six this year," Nietert said. "All for minor offenses, fighting and things of that nature. We certainly didn't have a riotous situation."

Nietert said that every year—the former St. Greg's has had their annual church festival for decades—there are hundreds of teenagers who arrive each evening. They come from all over the East Side: South Euclid, Lyndhurst, East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Euclid. And with hundreds of teenagers, there are often incidents.

"The only thing different about this year was that we purchased a pepper ball gun," Nietert said, when questioned about Mayor Kelley's remarks. "It's just like pepper spray except it's dispersed like a paintball gun. And I want to emphasize that we used it mostly as a preventive measure. We asked the youths to disperse and they ignored us."

Nietert said that even when officers explicitly said they were going to fire the pepper spray, the youths continued to ignore them or curse at them.

"Once we fired the pepper ball gun, they dispersed peacefully," he said.

Nietert also said that his department saw some social media "chatter" for the Sacred Heart of Jesus festival, but that most of it was, well, social.

"It's not like they said 'let's go shoot the place up," Nietert said.

Nietert didn't see the social media activity related to the Coventry street fair cancellation and wouldn't comment on whether or not it was a prudent decision to cancel, citing a lack of information.

Online commenters, on the other hand, certainly felt like they had enough information. On the PD's website, Facebook and community news outlets, residents have articulated (as only online commenters can) their frustrations with the police department and the tawdry state of America's youth. Scattered among samplings from the region's most vocal bigots was a simple question: Why couldn't police just bulk up security on the day of the event?

"I can't have Chief Robertson call you back. All I can do is give him your number," said Chief Robertson's secretary.

Memories of the Coventry "flash mob" in 2011 might still be too fresh. A large pack of young people descended upon the fair that fateful day, knocking people over, wreaking general havoc.

Sixteen teenagers were arrested (for underage drinking, fighting, etc.) and Cleveland Heights instituted a 6 p.m. curfew for all minors in the Coventry and Cedar Lee business districts after the incident. It was later modified to permit concert attendance and the patronizing of certain businesses.

There was also a flailing attempt on Cleveland City Council to criminalize flash mobs organized via social media, but that was opposed by an ACLU, who couldn't keep an institutional straight face, and promptly vetoed by Jackson.

The recent decision to cancel the Coventry Street fair feels like little more than lingering anxiety about youths organizing violent outings over social media, an anxiety that firmly took hold in Northeast Ohio's imagination in the summer of 2011. Back then, police were practically deploying S.W.A.T. teams to combat merry adolescents with squirt guns.

More by Sam Allard

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