Kent State, of course, has a complicated history with large crowds, drinking, and overeager law enforcement. In recent years, there are two days annually — College Fest in the spring and the Saturday before Halloween in October — with the legitimate potential to turn ugly quickly in the Portage County college town. One bad decision by a 20-year-old deep into a case of Coors Light or a panicky officer from another town decked out in SWAT gear can push things over the edge from a party to a riot.
I made the 50-minute trip down to Kent this weekend to see how this year’s Halloween would go down in my former college town (I moved from Kent to Cleveland a couple months ago after finishing grad school there earlier this year). My goal was to spend 12 hours walking the streets — around 6 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday — documenting what happened from before most students went out until after most were long asleep.
I loaded up my backpack with a voice recorder, notebook, a camera for photographs, a chest-mounted GoPro camera for video, beef jerky and Red Bull and drove my car to the new parking deck next to the new Kent State hotel (downtown has really developed since I started grad school) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. College Avenue would be my base for the night. The quarter-mile long street is lined with college houses and is bordered by the university’s campus (with all the dorms) and other college housing to the east, the downtown bars a block to the northwest, and the police station a block to southwest. People drink there and walk through College Ave. on their way to and from the bars: It’s the natural meeting point for clashes between drunk people and police. (Check out this video from the 2012 College Fest riot on College Ave. from my former Daily Kent Stater colleague Phil Botta, for example)
When I get to the street a little after 6 p.m., a few people are on porches drinking, but no music and few costumes; the calm before the storm. The only people outside were the guys of Alpha Epsilon Pi preparing their house for what’s will hit their street a few hours later. They are pounding stakes in their yard and unrolling an orange construction fence (slideshow picture). I ask them what they’re doing. “It’s mostly just a loitering thing,” said a guy dressed as Walter White (fedora, sunglasses, goatee) explaining why his housemates are setting up a fence, “people leave and just sit here and then cops have a reason to go in.” Last year, they say, was completely packed outside: “you couldn’t move.”
On the other side of the street are a few people drinking on the porch under a blue lightbulb. I ask them their plans. “Tonight? Just having a bunch of my friends over,” said a Kent State student wearing fleece pajamas, flanked by his friends from back home, “it’s too cold to be walking around, last year I was shirtless and miserable.” What happens when the police inevitably come? “Nothing major,” he says mentioning a Stater article he read that police will really be targeting for noise violations, an infraction he seemed content to get in exchange for a solid party. “I don’t think it’s really gonna get big until 9 or 10 maybe, then they’ll shut down the whole thing” (that prediction was a couple hours off: his house was busted by the cops at 12:50 a.m.).
At 7 p.m, I cross Route-59 and head downtown. It’s completely dead: nobody’s out, few people are inside the bars. Walking back towards the college neighborhoods, I notice all of the law enforcement cars patrolling town: police from Kent and the surrounding towns, state troopers, and sheriff’s department. Every nearby law enforcement agency is out tonight as outsiders begin coming into town. Packs of students are soon wandering the streets, although the early groups seemed to be actually more into Halloween and the elaborate costumes than getting hammered and yelling at police like later groups.
With the sun completely down, I notice two police squad cars parked on the sidewalk of Summit Street (near Lincoln, a main intersection on the southeast point of campus) with their lights on, facing the slow moving traffic pouring into campus. It was an obvious move by police: they wanted people coming into Kent State to know police are watching. As I walk on the sidewalk toward campus, the first parked squad car sounded a horn — perhaps they were suspicious of a guy in his 20s carrying a full backpack on Halloween walking towards them. Instead of turning around I walked to the driver’s side door to identify myself and get some quotes. Inside the police cars, however, there weren’t any police officers, just four guys with “security” t-shirts who can’t answer questions.
I head to the Kent police department, and outside it looks like they’re preparing for battle. Parked on the street is the massive green Metro SWAT armored truck better suited to fight terrorism than underage drinking and noise violations (slideshow picture). If at some point tonight the truck is anything other than a show of force and waste of taxpayer dollars — the gun ports utilized, the armor protecting from bombs — the situation in Kent would be much more dire than ever seen before. Parked nearby is a sheriff’s department SUV pulling a trailer (picture). The police department’s garage is open and officers are gearing up. Inside the building is a cheery dispatcher who explained there are 50-100 officers meeting right now; every single Kent officer is on duty tonight and officers from the surrounding towns are joining in to control the Halloween crowd. An officer moving things into a car in the parking lot (politely) refused a 30-second interview — he was too busy getting ready.
Back on College Ave at around 8:30, it’s still not very busy but more people are beginning to come out. I walk up to a house with a group drinking on the patio — a Playboy Bunny, Scooby-Doo Abe, Lincoln, Walter White in a hazmat suit — and tell them what I’m doing and ask them their plans (picture). Abe Lincoln takes a break from beer pong and reaches deep into his Budweiser case: “Are you allowed to have one of these?” (picture) I crack open the beer and talk with the group. On the other side of the porch, a couple people were just given free cans of Red Bull from the custom Red Bull car and someone asks Woody from Toy Story: “Did you just add your red bull to your Gatorade and vodka?”
Scooby-Doo and the Fresh Prince say police are cracking down more on them ever since the new police chief took over and Halloween is less busy at this point in the night than last year: “This fucking sucks,” Scooby says in between drags off his cigarette. A guy who lives next door, the “risk manager” for the frat house, comes by to ask if people are parking out back. He’s in charge of keeping his frat out of trouble this Halloween (he only drank early in the day to sober up if he had to talk to police at night): it’s a “nuisance house,” he said, with three incidents with police — a couple issues with 17-year-olds walking into the sidewalk from the house with beers — a status that apparently allows police to raid the house at any time without a warrant. “They can enter the home and we have to pay for them to enter,” he said. “It’s over a $1,000 fine, we’re fucked, no Halloween party at my house.” The porch we’re on now is a “nuisance house,” too, he said: “Every house on College Street is a nuisance house.”
At 9:10 p.m. the first group of officers (about a dozen) arrived on the western edge of College Ave — just a block from the station (picture). They are dressing up for Halloween, too, with their all-black militarized riot gear uniform with body armor and helmets. They begin to walk two-by-two east down the sidewalk, through the now increasingly busy street. I introduce myself to the Lieutenant (identified by their UN peacekeeper color blue riot helmet) and follow them as they turn left on Willow Street and then left again down the new esplanade back towards the station (picture). Another group of officers were walking in the other direction. They weren’t out to bust anybody in the first rounds — I could hear them making small talk with each other and laughing — but just to make their presence known.
Then it begins to rain, temporarily dampening a crowd already sparse because of the cold weather. I head back to the house where Abe Lincoln, Scooby-Doo, Woody and the Fresh Prince were drinking. Woody saw me trail the officers making their rounds and half-jokingly suggested I was an undercover cop. A few more drinks and he was nearly certain — my backstory as a writer is exactly what an undercover cop would come up with — and chided me for not trying to infiltrate the other houses down the street serving alcohol to high school kids.
The rain stopped at 10 and I headed back downtown. This time it was packed. Downtown is a different atmosphere, it’s an older crowd with more elaborate costumes (picture), and people waiting in lines to get into bars instead of shotgunning Bud Lights or mixing Popov in a Gatorade bottle. People downtown were in good spirits enjoying halloween and it was, frankly, kind of boring.