Collaboration and resolve will be needed to prevent more “wilding” attacks such as the one that terrified Florida State Fair visitors Friday.
Law enforcement, fair executives, school officials, community activists and vendors all need to work together.
The Gasparilla Parade sponsors’ thoughtful response to outrageous behavior at their event provides an effective model for such collaboration.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Monday reported how at various times Friday night hundreds of youths, coordinating their actions through social media, would stampede through the midway, knocking people down, starting fights, throwing candy apples at officers, even snatching the purse of a woman in a wheelchair. Deputies ordered the fair closed.
Ninety-nine individuals were ejected for disorderly conduct, including a 14-year-old boy who was later killed trying to cross Interstate 4. Twelve individuals were arrested. There were many more offenders, but officers couldn’t apprehend most of the culprits, who quickly ran back into the crowd.
The wilding episodes are a nationwide phenomenon and have occurred sporadically at the fair and other local festivities as far back as the 1990s.
Such mayhem must be stopped, but that will be more complicated than simply adding more security.
Nearly 200 deputies were on hand Friday, and they still were overwhelmed. There may be a need for additional security, but the fair can hardly be expected to marshal an army to maintain order.
The better response is to focus on preventing such outbreaks, and that is going to take outreach and cooperation.
Wilding outbursts usually take place on “Student Day,” the first Friday of the fair when young people are admitted free. Hillsborough students are given the day off school.
Sheriff David Gee suggests allowing free admission only during daylight hours. Another approach would be to the limit free admission to kids 12 and younger.
During Gasparilla, school officials make robocalls to parents to warn about underage drinking and misbehavior. Similar warnings could be useful for the fair.
Participants in wilding incidents have been mostly African-Americans. Gee rightly plans to seek the counsel of the NAACP, the Sheriff’s Black Advisory Council, Pastors on Patrol and others on how to make clear to teens that engaging in such hooliganism is no harmless pastime.
It probably would be beneficial to also talk to young people, who may have some insight into what could possess some of their schoolmates to behave with such reckless cruelty.
In a letter to the president of the Sheriff’s Black Advisory Council, Gee stresses he wants a “holistic” approach. That is wise. Ye Mystic Krewe, which sponsors the Gasparilla Parade, did the same a few years ago, working with residents, businesses, law enforcement and school officials in developing a plan that dramatically reduced complaints. Changes included altering the parade route, doubling the number of portalets and increasing law enforcement presence in neighborhoods.
With as many as 50,000 people visiting the Florida State Fair per day, some problems are inevitable.
But there should be no tolerance for the semi-organized attacks that shut down one of the region’s premier events Friday.