Olympics: Sledgehammer ending to night of confusion

Mike Rowbottom witnesses an over-reaction by the authorities in Salt Lake City
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The Independent Online

"Riots," said the cashier at the convenience store beside my hotel, wonderingly. "We don't have riots in Salt Lake City."

"Riots," said the cashier at the convenience store beside my hotel, wonderingly. "We don't have riots in Salt Lake City."

But a few hours earlier, as Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, a riot is exactly what the Mormon capital found itself dealing with after an incident reported to have begun at the popular Bud World venue near the Olympic plaza.

Shortly after midnight, the whole drunken sprawl had reached the junction of Pierpont Avenue and West Temple in the downtown area, which was where I had just dined with a group of journalists. As we stepped out, the roads and pavements around us filled with people, all running in the same direction. The first thought was that the streets were being cleared after a bomb warning, but it soon became clear that something else was happening.

As the straggling crowd halted, the attention turned back down the road to where a group of around 30 riot police in shiny black helmets and visors were grouped outside the Hilton Hotel foyer. Most of those around me were young, male and – I would have guessed – drunk. Their mood was a volatile mix of heady excitement and surly anger.

"What's this all about?", I asked. One person said it had begun when police had ejected a group of youngsters from a concert. Another said it had begun when a girl had refused to raise her top for another group.

The scene on the street was just as confused. While most stood watching, a number of others, occasionally shouting "USA, USA" or "Utah, Utah", roamed methodically around a nearby parking lot and found missiles – traffic cones, a metal grill, a piece of brick – which they hurled at the still huddled group of police.

Someone, somewhere, began a systematic smashing of glass. A little way down Pierpont Avenue by this time, I assumed it was the windows of the Macaroni Grill in which we had recently been sitting. The morning revealed, however, that the windows remained intact – it was the large glass and metal ornamental lamps all around the restaurant which had been smashed.

Yes, this was a riot – but one which remained within reasonable parameters.

Whether that could be said of the response was another question. Triggered by reasons unknown, the riot police outside the Hilton decided to charge the crowd, which fled in front of them.

The air grew loud with the sound of helicopter blades as police hovered overhead, illuminating the streets with powerful, directed lights. Reports eventually indicated that up to 300 police officers – including a Swat team from the local sheriff's office – had become involved. At various points in the evening, police fired a number of foam bullets – less lethal munitions, in their own charming vernacular – into the crowd and later said they had made 30 arrests in an incident which went on until around 2.30am.

An 18-year-old bystander, Kyle Blackman, was reported as saying that the trouble had started after police had missiles thrown at them as they attempted to break up a fight. "Someone threw beer at the cops and they opened up on us," Blackman said, adding "I fell and felt myself get shot".

A Games that had begun with a real sense of foreboding about possible terrorist attacks ended with the resounding crack of sledgehammer on nut.