A young man crossed 1st Avenue North in front of the Imperial Room five minutes to 2 a.m. Monday singing to himself the lyrics “Every day, every day,” from a Drake song.
The street was quiet. He told me it wouldn’t last long.
“Definitely in a couple seconds it’s going to be getting crazy,” he said.
A Minneapolis club promoter suggested a few days earlier that I check out the Sunday night scene in the city's Warehouse District, describing it as an out-of-control standoff between the police and hundreds of young revelers attending 18 and over events hosted by the clubs.
The Star Tribune nearly a year ago detailed challenges police face in trying to rein in downtown crowds on weekends, but I wanted to learn if there was more to write about, particularly regarding the situation late Sunday.
So I followed his suggestion to station myself outside of Envy Nightclub at closing time.
“Between 2 and 3 a.m. is when it all happens,” he said.
And the man in front of the Imperial Room was right: it did not take long.
Several people began fighting in front of Aqua Nightclub. Then dozens of people began streaming into the streets a few minutes after 2, and someone yelled, “Get off the street, get off the street!”
A herd stampeded down 1st Avenue toward Envy, so I walked toward them to learn what was going on. And then it hit me. My eyes watered; my throat burned; I started sneezing.
“What was that?” someone asked.
“Mace,” a guy said.
The cops had sprayed mace to get the crowd moving, and we were all coughing.
“There’s no hanging out right here … it’s not a chilling spot,” said a bouncer at Envy, trying to whisk people off the sidewalk.
“Move, let’s go … Everyone, let’s keep moving .. .You all gotta get off this corner.”
But the gathering outside Envy persisted. Several men started cursing at one another.
“You ain't gonna do nothing!” one man dared another.
But he did do something. Punches got thrown. A dozen people began swinging their fists and jumping on top of each other outside the club.
“Hey, hey, hey!” the bouncers yelled, swooping in to break it up.
I stepped out of the entrance to Envy to get a better view of what was happening – just as the police sprayed mace again into the crowd.
A policeman turned around and sprayed several young men who had crossed the street to quietly watch the commotion. They fled.
The mace hit us all with such force that some of the Envy security guards were forced to abandon the fight and run back inside. Tears were running down my face. I could barely keep my eyes open.
It was bedlam in the front hall of Envy. Dozens of people pushed their way back in, knocking against each other as they pulled their shirts up to cover their noses and wheezed. On the dance floor, a woman yelled to people trying to leave, “Hey, don’t go outside, it’s worse!”
It was only 2:10.
Police spokesman Sgt. Steve McCarty told me later that police use mace at least once a weekend downtown and that it is an "effective tool" in breaking up crowds - and fights.
He said that doing so is safer than police officers trying to break up a fight hands-on, especially when there are more combatants than cops.
After the brawl, people milled around the club for another five or 10 minutes, recovering, and eventually the mass of revelers drifted around the corner to Pizza Luce on N. 4th Street. One young club goer said this was all standard procedure in the nightlife of our city.
“I just got pepper-sprayed right here on the corner,” he said. “It’s normal; it’s normal. You’ll get used to it, you keep coming downtown, you’ll get used to it. They spray (expletives) because they want to.”
“They didn’t even want me to fight,” his friend said. “They sprayed my whole face. I’ve never been sprayed that bad in my life.”
Another friend began boasting about how he started the melee.
“They made me mad,” he said.
“Who made you mad?” I asked.
“The big one.”
“The big what?”
"The big ugly guy, I don’t know.”
Some guy was talking trash about his cousin, he explained when pressed for more details. But it was all very vague.
Another dispute broke out in the parking lot across from Pizza Luce, this time among females.
“Open the door!” yelled a woman, pounding on her friend’s car.
“Calm down, calm down,” a cop told her.
I asked another police officer what was going on.
“Oh, they were fighting.”
“It’s always stupid stuff,” he said.
I noted that it smelled like weed – which was not exactly helping my throat, still burning from the mace.
“It always smells like weed,” he said, chuckling as he walked back across the street to the pizza place. “It’s like the Minneapolis air freshener.”
What are your thoughts on how police handle the club crowds at closing time downtown? How should the Star Tribune follow up on the issue? Post your comments here or reach me at 612-673-4210 or firstname.lastname@example.org