As the sun dipped toward the western horizon on Saturday, Sandy Hill residents crossed their fingers and held their collective breath in the hopes that their streets would remain incident-free through the post-Panda Game night.
Many noted the increased police presence over last year’s force, with numerous Ontario Provincial Police officers augmenting uniformed Ottawa Police Service counterparts in the area. The aim was to prevent a repeat of last year’s post-Panda Game, when things got out of hand as thousands of partiers took to the streets, causing damage to property, including, in one case, flipping a car over and trying to set it alight.
At dusk, it seemed the large police contingent was having the desired effect, but nervous residents waited and watched, as they had done throughout the day, fearing the calm might burst at any moment.
Steve Higham, who lives on the block between Somerset Street East and Templeton Avenue — the eye of last year’s riot — erected temporary construction fencing in front of his and two neighbours’ houses. Others in the same block hoped yellow caution tape would be enough to discourage the house-climbers and defecators that plagued them a year ago.
“Some of my neighbours consider this a traumatizing event, and the neighbourhood as a whole goes into this weekend with a lot of trepidation, anxiety and fear,” Higham said.
Why that particular block? Higham said a frat house that existed there about a decade ago and received free beer from a brewery, setting a precedent.
While the frat house no longer exists, the tradition does. “The only thing easier than Carleton boys is their football team,” read one sign painted on a bedsheet and displayed for all to see. Another asked, “What does a Carleton grad call a uOttawa grad?” (“Boss” was the answer provided.)
Higham added there was reason for “cautious optimism,” however, following criticism of police responses to both last year’s post-Panda activities and last winter’s occupation of parts of downtown Ottawa by the “Freedom Convoy.”
“Those are going to be very motivating for the police to get a win,” Higham predicted. “Nobody wants to see the police out in riot gear. We just want them to be out and visible so people know that they can’t be out carrying alcohol and spilling onto the street. Something has to happen before that gets out of control.
“The police didn’t have a (Panda Game) plan last year beyond 6 p.m., but we know a lot of planning has gone into that this year.”
One convenience store worker, who asked not to be named, said that last year post-Panda scene was “terrible.”
“Students were coming in here and just taking things and then leaving, and I couldn’t do anything to stop them.”
This year, he said, more police were on hand in the morning as many students made their way through the neighbourhood to an organized pre-game tailgate party at Sandy Hill Arena.
“The police came in and talked with me and gave me a number to call if there are any problems.”
One 79-year-old woman stood outside her property, shooing away uOttawa fans who got out of a car in front of her. “Go away,” she told them. “No parties.” The woman said she hoped the police presence would be greater this year and she hoped the officers would stay until one or two in the morning.
Another Russell Avenue resident strung yellow caution tape in front of her home to try to remind students to be respectful.
“My partner and I were outside for seven hours last year,” Meagan LaRose recalled. “I had eggs thrown at me and people screaming in my face. It was not a fun night.
“And this is not new,” she added. “It was on the news last year because they overturned a car, but in 2018 they were climbing on people’s porch roofs and peeing in people’s gardens. And we don’t find the university is taking it seriously.”
This year, she added, residents set up a group chat whereby they could reach others if they felt unsafe. “But there’s really nothing else we can do. And we don’t want to antagonize anyone.”
The bombardment of parties in the area, LaRose added, “is one of the main things that propels people to move out of the neighbourhood.”
Higham wasn’t going anywhere, at least not Saturday night, as he and his family and a guest stayed home and waited to see what would happen.
“It was like a zombie apocalypse last year,” he said, “and I’d be far more anxious if I weren’t here tonight.”
As those who appeared to be uOttawa students returned to Sandy Hill from the game at Lansdowne Park in the afternoon — the Gee-Gees thumped the Ravens 37-7 — they were met by a large presence of first responders.
Russell Avenue resident Dominic Salotti said he didn’t want to paint the issue strictly as residents versus students, adding that some students he knew in the area were similarly frightened by last year’s problems.
“We all have a right to live in a healthy, vibrant and safe community, for ourselves and our children, just like the Glebe, like Rockcliffe, like Kanata. Like anywhere else,” Salotti said. “We hope everyone’s having fun, and we hope everyone’s having fun respectfully. And we’re glad that people are safe this year.
Third-year uOttawa political science/history student Mica Oestreich, who lives on Russell Avenue, as he did last year, said he didn’t feel this year’s larger police presence was out of line.
“I thought that last year the police might’ve helped exacerbate the situation by trying to cram everybody into one area. They had fenced the area and tried to cram everybody into a block. It was bodies on bodies,” Oestreich said. “I’ve liked the strategy this year, with people dispersed into a wider area. That seems to be the biggest change, and I think it’s a good change.
“I can’t blame them for wanting to keep things safe after last year. It did get out of hand.”
Oestreich added that he didn’t feel anyone’s ability to party this year had been threatened by police.
“I’ve passed 15 parties. I think people are fine.”
By 9 p.m., the streets and sidewalks in parts of Sandy Hill were teeming with students. The intersection of Somerset Street East and Sweetland Avenue was pretty much impassable for all the police and revelers in that area.
One resident, Gordon Johnson, watched the scene from his second-storey balcony, noting that, apart from the size of the crowd, people seem generally well-behaved.
“I saw one guy arrested. He threw something at the police,” Johnson said. “But this is the best I’ve seen it in three years. I think all the extra police have helped. I’ve never seen so many here.”
The crowd appeared to be most dense on Somerset between Sweetland and Russell, where people milled about almost shoulder to shoulder. One young man sat on the road with his hands behind him in cuffs.
Along side streets extending off Somerset, groups spilling out from house parties gathered on sidewalks and roadways.
Meanwhile, more and more young people seemed to be swarming towards Somerset.
Around 8 p.m., a tweet by police said officers had issued 85 provincial offence notices for open alcohol. Two individuals had been arrested, one for public intoxication, while the traffic division issued a pair of $2,000 provincial offence notices for loud mufflers.
An hour later, police posted that officers were “working to disperse crowds in Sandy Hill. Objects are being thrown at officers — this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. Police operations will continue into the morning.”
At least two people had been arrested, based on police tweets, including one for mischief. “Illegal activity will be met with strict enforcement, and all appropriate enforcement options will be utilized,” one post said.
“Please avoid the area. We are asking partygoers in the Sandy Hill area to go home,” police added.
About the same time, City of Ottawa Bylaw and Regulatory Services tweeted that its enforcement activity had resulted in 16 tickets: 14 for noise, one for littering and one for vaping in a taxi. There were also 81 parking tickets issued, and nine vehicles were towed.
That post also committed to an “increased presence” in Sandy Hill and near Carleton University throughout the evening.
Shortly before 10 p.m., Russell Avenue resident Brian Beesley took a walk with his wife to witness what was going on in his neighbourhood.
“I’m shocked and appalled,” Beesley said. “This is unbelievable. There are at least a thousand people on Somerset, and people keep coming. It’s early, and we don’t know what’s coming next.
“We’ve spent the day waiting for this to happen, thinking maybe it won’t, maybe it won’t. But this is a mob. I think you’ve seen the last Panda Game because of this.”
Every now and then, the thrum of the crowd was punctuated by the sound of a thrown bottle smashing on the road. “This is f—ed,” one person said. “I just got hit.”
Meanwhile, a line of police stood on Somerset, across Russell, preventing the crowd from moving west on Somerset.
Between 10 and 11 p.m., with washrooms being at a premium, numerous people were seen going into alleyways and backyards. Police tweeted that another arrest had been made for public intoxication and resisting arrest.
By 11 o’clock, it remained impossible to say how the night would end.
The crowd on Somerset near Russell was far smaller than it had been two hours earlier, but a few hundred people still mingled there amidst empty drink bottles and cans and a boom box set to heavy bass.
Other groups milled about on other streets, or wandered in all directions in groups of two, five or 10 or more. Lots headed west, towards the uOttawa campus.
“You going back home?” one asked another. “No,” the other said, laughing. “To the bar.”
With files from Postmedia staff
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