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Gunfire, Threats, Stampedes: The Future of Outdoor Festivals

July 11th, 2022 by Guest Communications


Written by Jeff Gammage and Ximena Conde, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 8, 2022

(TNS) — Irem Ozdemir had never been to Philadelphia’s big July 4 celebration. And now she never wants to go back.

Not after panicked reports of gunfire sent her and her friends running off of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, terrified that they were about to be shot or trampled in the crowd.

Her native Turkey feels safer, she said, with security forces trained on people and bags at events.

“We don’t have random shootings,” Ozdemir, 24, said on Tuesday, still upset after two police officers were wounded on the parkway. “If something happens, it’s terror, which is horrible too. But this is crazier. It’s your country. Why do you try to shoot people at random?”

No one seems able to answer that question. But the incident on the parkway — and an attack on an Independence Day parade that killed seven in Chicago, and a thwarted mass shooting the same day in Richmond — has people nervously calculating the risk and reward of venturing to big festivals after more than two years of pandemic cancellations.

“It’s like a mob mentality now where I think everyone’s on edge, just this ripple effect where no one feels comfortable,” said Jenkintown mother Alexa Hayes, 37, who while not on the parkway on Monday won’t be taking her two young children to large events for now. “You never know what the person next to you is going to do and how are they going to react.”


Experts say that, fraught or not, huge open air gatherings will continue to be staged in Philadelphia and elsewhere. They’re too lucrative. And too many people want to go.

“What are we going to do, cancel all these events for the rest of time?” said Jeffrey Debies-Carl, a sociologist at the University of New Haven in Connecticut who studies the effect of environment on people and behavior. “We shouldn’t let a handful of people shut down civil society.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in operations. Or that people in attendance won’t be tense and on edge.

“What we’re seeing is an overwhelming sense of fear — a car backfiring, firecrackers — triggering a stampede,” said Dane Dodd, who works on security matters with military and law-enforcement officials as vice president of Advanced Utility Solutions in Indianapolis. “When a crowd starts to surge and run, that’s when people really get hurt.”

A dozen people were injured in Orlando on July 4 when crowds bolted after mistaking fireworks for gunfire. The same thing happened in Harrisburg, though no one was hurt.

Philadelphia’s July 4 celebration came to a chaotic end shortly before 10 p.m. Monday, when two police officers were shot as the music ended and fireworks began. A Philadelphia highway patrol officer suffered a graze wound to the head, and a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department officer was grazed in the right shoulder.

Both were treated and released from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

The city said it had “enhanced safety and crowd control measures” in place for the celebration, including 17 metal detectors at entry points and 100 guards staffing them. Police investigators think the bullets could have been fired from a mile away, from well outside the event, by someone shooting a gun for July 4.

Thousands of people who were on the parkway panicked and ran amid reports of a shooting.

The incident now has West Philadelphia’s largest business association considering whether to cancel its summer block party series.

The West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative expected to draw hundreds of people to its kick-off at Cobbs Creek on July 16. Now, said group president Jabari Jones, he’s not sure he can have sufficient security staff on hand.

“It’s really unfortunate, but this is where we are as a city,” he said.

In a letter to collaborative members this week, Jones pointed to a fatal shooting at a West Philadelphia cookout last July 4. In recent years the Police Department has cited safety risks in denying block-party applications on hundreds of streets.

Jones said he’s talking with police commanders and business owners about security, and reviewing proposals for hiring private details. Friday is the deadline for going forward or calling off the July 16 gathering.

Welcome America Inc., which puts on the Fourth of July celebration, said it remains committed to hosting events in the city. And City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said the Wawa Welcome America celebration will be back next year.

“We’re not here to allow the bad actors in Philadelphia to take over and win,” he said. “If we acquiesce to this madness then we will be retreating all of our lives as a city and that’s not going to happen.”

Philadelphia is a big city that does big things. And does them well. The Made in America music festival — a gated, ticketed festival where everyone must pass through metal detectors — arrives on Labor Day weekend. The World Cup lands in 2026. The Chinese Lantern Festival, a smaller celebration, is going on now at Franklin Square.

Old City resident Heather Green has been eager to get out of the house and be around people after all the pandemic disruptions. But this week she decided to skip an abortion-rights rally at Independence Hall, unsettled by the danger on the parkway and by a shooting in her neighborhood near 2nd and Market streets.

“I’ve felt much more aware, apprehensive,” said Green, 48.

South Philadelphia resident Alyson Schwartz, 30, said she won’t be attending any crowded outdoor events, not unless bag checks, metal detectors and tougher security become standard.

On July 4, 2013, she found herself caught in a crowd that was running for cover on the parkway after a loud bang was mistaken for gunfire. These days she checks potential escape routes at concerts and even supermarkets — which security experts say everyone should do.

Others are making day-by-day decisions.

Nick Komorowski, 28, said if the parkway shooting had been a targeted sniper attack, as in Chicago, then he would likely avoid concerts and crowds for weeks or months to come. But random bullets falling from the sky? That’s less likely to change his behavior, the Wynnefield resident said.

“Post pandemic, people are not going to say, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere anymore,'” said Temple University professor Christine Cleave, who worked 15 years on the city’s annual July 4 celebration, and now teaches event operations and management.

But what will happen, she said, is organizers will adjust to new conditions. That could include the development of specific, active-shooter protocols.

“It’s not the happiest thing,” Cleaver said, “but it could give comfort to your attendees, ‘Oh, they have thought about that.'”

Others envision the security conversation between program organizers and attendees becoming much more direct and formal, like flight attendants addressing plane passengers: Here are the locations of the exit doors. Here are the emergency lights. Here’s how to brace for a crash.

“We’re already seeing now, for Philly and Chicago, there’s some changes — a hardening of security, stuff getting canceled. Those are probably most effective at making people feel safer,” said Debies-Carl, the New Haven sociologist.

But the appearance of security is different from true safety, he said. That can only come through the difficult resolution of complicated societal crises: guns, mental health, violent ideologies.

Ozdemir said it’s hard to convey the terror of being on the parkway on Monday, the stampede of people, the threat of injury.

“It was like a horror movie,” she said.

She came to the United States to work as an au pair in South Jersey, interested not just in the job but in experiencing American life. She had attended the Philly Pride Festival, then went with friends to the parkway.

“It seems like a dangerous place, the Middle East, but at least we know no one will do a mass shooting,” she said. “The security in our country seems safer than here.”

Inquirer staff writers Max Marin, Anna Orso and Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

This article appeared on Emergency Management News and is shared with consent:


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