In Defense of the Dinkytown “Riots”

Unless you live under a rock, or are a rock, you’ve probably heard about the so-called “riots” that took place in Dinkytown this weekend. The riots on Thursday and Saturday were directly – maybe indirectly – caused by the Minnesota Gophers Men’s Hockey team winning and losing on each night, respectively.

On both nights, the headline-hungry local media infiltrated the scene as crowds of alcohol-fused college students scampered to see the commotion on the corner of 14th Avenue SE and 4th Street SE.  On both nights, several people were arrested for what the policing community calls “unlawful assembly.”

"They always send the best snaps."

“They always send the best snaps.”

As a full disclaimer, I was present for and observing both gatherings. It is imperative that these events are no longer seen as riots. In fact, they were far from it. The word “riot”, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, is defined as “a situation in which a large group of people behave in a violent and uncontrolled way”. If you want to see a real riot, look no further than what happened in Ukraine last month. Aside from the quintessential freshman know-it-alls throwing the occasional beer bottle, nobody in Dinkytown behaved violently on either night. The mass of people infiltrating the commercial node was nothing more than a street gathering, caused by corresponding intersection sidewalks reaching a critical mass of pedestrians.

On both nights, the college bars running at maximum capacity emptied after both games. People were either cheering or sulking depending on the night, but most was calm as the sidewalks started becoming more crowded. After that, the sequence of events was similar:

2) After the game, many students head towards the corner of 4th and 14th from the bars. The narrow sidewalks on both streets quickly become filled.

3) Since cars are still allowed through, people wait for the walk signal to cross on the crowded intersections. On Saturday specifically, cops only let a few people cross at a time.

4) A group of inebriated male students, tired of the wait on the sidewalk, jump into the gutters and parking lanes of the street. More people, observing their somewhat belligerent comrades, join in the crowd.

5) Groups of people from all corners fill into the street intersection, and the “riot” mob quickly forms within a matter of seconds. People cheer their successful street invasion, begin taking pictures of the group, send them via Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram and other obscure mobile apps, and invoke the interests of their fellow Gophers sitting at their rentals around the area.

6) About 98% of the people in the crowd sing songs, dance around and capture the rare instance of being able to stand in the middle of a major intersection without vehicles endangering their safety. It is at this moment when the other 2% start causing minor havoc by shooting bottle rockets and climbing stoplights to get a better look. The riot police then come in full mace-possessing, helicopter-wielding force, and the rest is history.

Of course, the blatant, doomsday-ish, in-your-face TV and paper reporters capture and interpret the scene as true history. The rare crowd incites some onlooking, dramatic reporters to claim that the crowd was “nothing like they’ve ever seen“, and lead another to follow some cops as if it was a political revolution. Again, for 98% of the crowd, it was a fun, interesting anomaly to participate in a harmless gathering in the middle of an open road. The 2% of the crowd that wanted to take it to the next level is what caused the cops to react, leading to 29 total arrests in the two nights.

I promise officer, I was just trying to get a better view!

I promise officer, I was just trying to get a better view!

The way that I see it, this rare gathering that incites a metro area to wave its proverbial finger at an entire student base is unwarranted and ignorant. When a large group of people enter a street, it’s instantly called a riot. But think about it –  Isn’t large group of vehicles on a road just called a traffic jam? Why does a gathering of people incite such a different response? Don’t 98% of drivers just go about their normal commute while the 2% cause truly dangerous, life-threatening accidents?

Some people may claim that if the crowd assembled where pedestrians were allowed – Perhaps the Northrop Mall within campus – this would not have happened. I can almost guarantee that troublemaking 2% would incite the same police response that everyone saw in Dinkytown.

In my urban-leaning mind, the real problem lies in the infrastructure provided for pedestrians in the pedestrian-heavy commercial area. The percentage of street that is dedicated to vehicles is simply too high. The rest of the area for pedestrians is too small to hold a peak demand like seen this weekend and frankly, most weekend nights. Why does level of service only apply for vehicles?

At a minimum, city and county officials should invest in expanding the small sidewalks at intersections. There is plenty of space currently for concrete sidewalk bump outs to be built that would help delineate the parking lanes on each street. If officials were more progressive and ambitious, a traffic lane could be removed on 4th to allot more sidewalk space. If truly innovative, sections of 14th Avenue within the commercial district could be converted into a Nicollet-esque pedestrian mall, which would allow people to freely walk in the street on occasions not limited to sports riots.

Overall, many things could have mitigated the street gatherings in a better fashion – restricting the media’s overdramatic representation being one of them – but perhaps the riots would not have happened in the first place to the same extent if people were allowed to walk freely normally. Yes, those few rowdy sports fans would probably still light old couches on fire and cause unnecessary property damage, but the hoop-lah of it all would probably be more subdued. The abnormality of many people forming in Dinkytown would be a normal occurrence on most nights, and would not incite a large portion of the student population to post pictures to social media sites.

Chris Iverson

About Chris Iverson

Chris Iverson is a transportation engineer & planner for the City of Bellevue, WA and currently lives in Seattle. He holds degrees in both Civil Engineering & Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota, and worked on a myriad of transit & multimodal transportation projects in the Twin Cities. He is a former Minnesota Daily columnist, RAGBRAI participant, bad musician, marathon finisher, and an unabashed generalist.

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