At first glance, the detached brick houses and tidy yards of suburban Fleming Drive belie the stereotype of a messy, run-down student ghetto.
But people studying at nearby Fanshawe College have colonized this east-side subdivision, where they live four to a house and, on warm days, gather on the street for pickup games of lacrosse or sip beer and socialize on front porches.
St. Patrick’s Day, a sunny Saturday that felt more like June than March, began like this – albeit with an early, 10 a.m., start.
“Everybody was just partying and having a good time,” said Katie Taylor, a 21-year-old student who has lived in the area for two years. “It was so friendly.”
But that festive, low-key atmosphere eventually gave way to the largest riot in the southwestern Ontario city’s history. An SUV would be torched, trees uprooted and fences ripped apart to fuel the fire.
Parties are a staple of the street, and in the past have led to brawls, arrests and other disorder, but nothing on the scale of the weekend’s mayhem.
Throughout the afternoon, the crowd kept growing, until more than 1,000 people filled the streets. Police arrived, hoping to control the festivities. As evening fell, officers held riot shields and advanced on revellers. Those who were in the way, eyewitnesses said, were pushed to the ground.
The crowd fought back, pelting police with beer bottles and wrenching two-by-fours from fences to smash cruisers. Officers retreated, with revellers chasing their cars.
Then, things really got crazy.
Celebrating their “victory” and chanting “We won! We won,” the crowd overturned a CTV sport utility vehicle near the end of the street and set it on fire. The fuel tank exploded, scorching a woman, who fled shirtless into a nearby yard, witnesses said. Bystanders treated her with ice packs.
Doyin Onile’s roommates stood on the front porch of their corner house to keep people away, she said. That didn’t stop rioters from stealing their barbecue, using a shovel to rip a six-foot tree from the front yard, and scaling the roof. Someone dismantled Fleming’s street sign and put it on top of the fire.
“I walked out of the house and it looked like a movie. There was a guy standing on top of the car chanting,” said Ms. Onile, 20.
By morning, barely anything was left of her fence: Even the posts had been torn out of the ground. The crowd slowly dispersed through the night. Shortly before dawn, police moved in and ended the party.
As they surveyed the damage on Monday, residents tried to understand how a perfect day had ended so badly.
Natosha Cussion, 19, said police had unnecessarily ratcheted up the tension by pushing revellers down and angering the crowd.
“I don’t think it would have got so bad if the cops hadn’t been so aggressive,” she said.
Tammy Veneau-Szabo, 36, a stay-at-home mother among the few families remaining in the neighbourhood, was returning from a bingo game when she walked right into the crowd. She spent much of the riot hiding in the basement with her six children. The next day, she gave notice and went looking for a new home.
She laid the blame squarely at the feet of the students: Her window was smashed during a previous party, she said.
Former city councillor Bernie MacDonald said a satellite police station near Fleming Drive would help keep partying under control.
“My big concern with what’s going on there – and I live really close to the area – is that you have to have police presence,” he said. “This would either tip off police of what was going on or curtail any actions that could have taken place.”
Fanshawe president Howard Rundle, who is vowing to expel trouble-makers, said the college is in talks with the city to craft bylaws that would limit the number of students in the area. Eight of the 13 arrested so far are Fanshawe College students, and they have been suspended pending the outcome of their cases.
But students insisted the area’s reputation shouldn’t be entirely tarred by the incident. Many of the rioters, they said, live somewhere else. Most of the time, the parties are peaceful.
“I think the most destructive people don’t live here,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s sad because something like this gives all of us a bad name.”
With reports from Kim Mackrael and Oliver Moore
Police in London are very familiar with Fleming Drive, the notorious off-campus student housing area that is the scene of regular parties and sporadic outbursts of violence. After this weekend’s riot, police and school officials are acknowledging that ongoing efforts to tame the area have fallen short. Previous flare-ups include:
2008: Frosh celebrations got out of control, leading to hundreds of charges against people partying in the neighbourhood.
2007: Dozens were charged after a brawl related to a back-to-school party on Fleming Drive. Up to 500 people had been at the keg party when someone was hit with a bottle. The violence escalated, with revellers hurling punches and beer bottles at each other.
2001: Again at the start of the academic year, police were called to several townhouses on Fleming Drive to deal with rowdy partiers. They were confronted with an unruly crowd of about 700. Several police cars were damaged and tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.
Oliver Moore, with reports from Josh Wingrove and The Canadian Press
1. You’re probably being watched
If there’s one thing people should have learned from last year’s hockey riot in Vancouver, it’s that somebody nearby probably has a camera, says Rima Wilkes, who teaches sociology at the University of British Columbia.
“I kind of thought that after the Vancouver [riot]this would end, because people could see how easily you’re going to get caught,” she said.
2. Everybody pitches in
London police are being flooded with information about the rioters, and Fanshawe College is encouraging students to send tips and images of people who may have been involved to an e-mail account set up for that purpose.
Veronica Barahona, president of the school’s student union, said most students are happy to participate. “We’re trying to make sure that everybody that was involved does get the consequences,” she said.
Fanshawe plans to vet the information that comes into the account, and then pass on what it deems relevant to the London police.
3. Seeing shouldn’t always mean believing
As YouTube videos and photos keep cropping up online, Aaron Doyle, a professor of sociology at Carleton University, cautions people to approach the information with caution.
“There is a danger that images can be taken out of context and people will face a kind of unofficial ‘trial by social media,’ just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
After the Vancouver riot, he said, some people complained that Web pages used to identify alleged rioters led to harassment, not only of the people in the photos, but of their families and friends.