Police used pepper spray and tear gas to break up a crowd of as many as 8,000 college-aged adults Saturday, as partygoers at an annual off-campus block party refused orders to disperse and pelted officers with beer bottles.
A few dozen people were seen being arrested and several were injured by flying glass during the afternoon and early evening just blocks from James Madison University. A number of fires also were started in trash bins.
"This today was just outlandish," said Lt. Kurt Boshart of the Harrisonburg Police Department, who added many of the problems were most likely started by people who come to the party from out of town and not JMU students.
Harrisonburg police were on standby starting Friday evening in anticipation of the large crowds that flock each year to the off-campus housing area for Springfest - a three-day party known to draw thousands of JMU students.
The Fox Hill Townhomes on Devon Lane typically serves as ground zero for the block party, but the crowds usually spill out to other student-housing complexes along Port Republic Road.
By Friday night, property managers shut down Fox Hill, so the partygoers were forced to find somewhere else to go.
Police say the party headed to Village Lane, where things started to get out of hand.
By Saturday afternoon, the crowd swelled to 8,000 people, police say.
Andrew Reese, a 20-year-old JMU sophomore, said the party just got too wild. He said he had a few friends at his home on Forest Hill Road but several uninvited guests started to flood the area.
"It definitely got to the point where it got out of control," said Reese, who added partygoers started to throw beer bottles at police officers, cars and at home windows.
Around 4 p.m., police declared the scene an unlawful assembly.
Boshart said officers first went in and asked people to leave the area but were pelted with beer bottles. At that point, he said, police pulled out to regroup.
Commanders on the scene called in HPD's Civil Disturbance Unit and additional riot teams from the Virginia State Police and Staunton Police Department.
Boshart said officers were determined to regain control.
"We will restore order," he said as police began to take action. "We will make sure the neighborhood is safe."
For about two hours, dozens of officers showed up to the command center set up near the Days Inn off Port Republic Road, near the Interstate 81 overpass.
Around 6 p.m., about 200 officers were on the scene, many of them in full riot gear, and headed into the crowd.
They began using a public address system to notify people that they were assembling unlawfully and needed to leave or be arrested.
Many partygoers left, but about 1,000 refused. They began pelting the officers with beer bottles, pieces of wood and coolers.
Officers began using pepper spray, which can be effective as far as 20 feet away. The civil disturbance unit then used tear gas to disperse the remaining partygoers.
Many ran out, covering their faces, and shouting obscenities at the officers.
Reese said he was pleased to see police take control of the party.
"At some point, you have to put your foot down," he said.
Shortly after the crowd dispersed, many partygoers began to head to Sully Drive off Devon Lane and regrouped. Several began lighting multiple Dumpsters on fire.