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September 1, 2008 | by  | in News |
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Third annual Castle St Munters Ball

Increased police numbers and a massive media presence were met by drunken scarfies happy to play to type as the unofficial Undie 500 car rally hit Dunedin in the last weekend of the mid-trimester break, with 30 arrests.

The lead-up to this year’s event was a long one, with the ongoing battle between students and authorities over permission to hold an official 20th anniversary event after last year’s “riot” filled column inches in local media throughout the year.

Dunedin authorities made it very clear that no Undie 500 event would be welcome back in the city. The Dunedin City Council (DCC) instituted a liquor ban in the student area over the month of August (only to be enforced when the invading hordes arrived), while police announced that extra enforcement would be brought in from around the South Island to deal with anticipated trouble. Both agencies helpfully stressed the dates they were expecting trouble on – the weekend of 22 August.

In the days before the unofficial Undie 500 set off from Christchurch, local and national media industriously filed stories on the trouble they were anticipating, and by 22 August, media crews were roving the streets of the student area.

The convoy that set out from Christchurch was far smaller than in previous officially sanctioned years, with about 40 cars and 300 participants. They were checked by police at several stages on the journey, including a major checkpoint upon arrival in Dunedin, with no major problems found.

Friday night saw five Undie-related arrests: one Canterbury student was arrested for setting a mattress on fire, while two other Canterbury students and two Otago students were arrested for disorderly behaviour.

Saturday saw the residents of the student area and their guests take advantage of sunny weather to drink outside flats during the day, much like last year. However, even as late as 10pm, authorities were confident that there would be no major disorder (the trouble last year started in the early evening).

That changed when the Gardies Tavern closed at midnight, as bar-goers spilled out to join a crowd gathering around a couch fire on Castle St. Much like last year, conflict between police and the crowd started as police tried to clear the area around the fire. As the police set up a skirmish line, the chanting and bottlethrowing started.

The crowd involved was much smaller than last year’s, and consisted of about 300 people. Most people on the street retreated to front yards as the confrontation with police clad in riot gear started, although many chose to egg on their more aggressive peers from that vantage point. The police moved the crowd down to the area by the St David St lecture theatre, where it dispersed by around 2am Sunday morning. Thirty arrests were made.

It appears that Canterbury University students could not be blamed for the third year of Undie 500 disorder. Reports suggest that most of the Canterbury contingent had headed into town before the disorder started.

Many had hoped for a quiet weekend in order to provide support for reinstating the official event. Of those arrested on the Saturday night, only three were from Otago University.

The remainder of arrests were locals, roughly split between students and non-students. The overrepresentation of non-students is particularly frustrating for Otago University Student Association (OUSA) President Simon Wilson, “because it tars the name of Otago students and there’s nothing you can do to stop them turning up.”

In the wake of the disorder, the finger-pointers have inevitably started playing the blame game. Mayor Peter Chin set his sights on the media, telling the Otago Daily Times that wild speculation from all forms of media lead to “a lot of expectation something would happen there.”

“On the night, television channels were stalking around, along with other media,” Chin said. “It ended up a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Wilson agrees. “I think that the build-up that happened beforehand had people thinking that something was going to happen,” he says, and also thinks that the media exaggerated the events of the night in their post-disorder coverage.

“The behaviour of those involved was really stupid [but] it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as last year, despite the portrayal of television media. There were only 300-odd people in the street, and around 150 of those would have been in the crowd in front of the police; the rest were just watching.”

The national media responded by saying they were only doing their jobs. TVNZ public affairs manager Megan Richards said that the motivation behind One News coverage of the weekend was “to be there in the event something happened, not to incite anything.” TV3 South Island bureau chief Phil Corkery agreed, saying that TV3’s coverage was responsible. “We cannot ignore a big news event like this.”

Chin also joined DCC liquor licensing coordinator Kevin Mechen in condemning supermarkets offering below-cost booze deals on the weekend. Countdown and New World were both offering a $20 for 24 cans of Tui and Export Gold beer deal, which has so incensed Mechen he is considering approaching police to discuss the supermarkets’ suitability to hold liquor licences.

Chin said the expectation for disorder was “tacitly supported” by retailers offering “massively discounted” alcohol. “How responsible is that?” he posed to the Times. “We have this alcohol issue – it’s not just a student problem.” However, both supermarkets have said the deals were part of chain-wide promotions, and had nothing to do with the Undie 500.

Some students are blaming the media and the police, with some saying that there were many first-year students involved, enticed by media coverage of the event. Residents of Castle St were upset by police pushing strangers into their houses, or forcing them out of their own flats and into the skirmish.

One female student has alleged that a police officer hit her across the face with a baton after she responded by requests to move into the street by informing the officer she was in her own house. Her boyfriend allegedly came to her defence by grabbing the baton, and was rewarded by being struck in the neck by another officer and being arrested for assaulting a police officer.

A Critic reporter was arrested and charged with obstruction for attempting to take photos of the confrontation, despite the unhindered presence of reporters from a number of media outlets. The reporter was due to appear in court last Friday.

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