The videos posted to social media depicted chaos: dozens of teenagers fighting, with many more egging them on, and scores of shoppers fleeing at one of the East Bay’s largest malls, hanging from rails and pushing down the stairs to escape.
One person was stabbed but would recover, authorities said. A gunshot was reported, but no one was found shot.
Yet days after the Sunday afternoon brawl at Bay Street Emeryville, shoppers, restaurantgoers and criminal justice experts strained to explain the sudden outburst of violence, one of several seen across the nation around the same period of time. Some said social media may have been a contributor, by connecting far-flung groups and promoting copycat behavior, while others wondered whether young people in the Bay Area and around the country are continuing to grapple with the social strains that arose during the isolating coronavirus pandemic.
Witnesses compared the melee to a massive schoolyard fight, with swarms of people rushing into the scene to get a glimpse of the action. At least one witness encountered a person claiming to be pepper-sprayed.
Some of the young people who took part in Sunday’s brawl had caused small disturbances at the mall in the weeks leading up to the melee, including by hitting employees with plastic cups and threatening them, according to an employee of Shake Shack who declined to give her name out of concern for her safety. She recalled the brawl with sadness and questioned the effectiveness of security at the mall.
“All I could think of is, ‘What if 400 people came together for something good?’ ” the employee asked.
Fatima Lara, a sales associate at H&M who left work an hour before the brawl began, added, “It feels a little unsafe, just because it was a lot of them. You never know what could happen if one of us tries to stop one of them. We don’t know what they could do, so we just would not interfere.”
One teenager was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery at about 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and released to their parent, said Paul Buddenhagen, Emeryville’s city manager. Multiple requests for comment to the Emeryville police spokesman, Capt. Oliver Collins, were not returned.
Similar scenes played out in cities across the country on Sunday during National Cinema Day — a promotion at many theaters that allowed moviegoers to buy tickets for any movie for just $4. The Bay Street 16 theatre complex, operated by the AMC corporation, participated in the promotion.
In the Los Angeles County city of Torrance, fights broke out as more than 1,000 young people congregated at the Del Amo Fashion Center, which also has an AMC movie theater on the premises. Other incidents were reported at movie theaters in Boston, Cicero, Ill., Albany, N.Y. and in Georgia, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Still, a more definitive connection between the brawl and the cinema promotion remained unclear. Officials at AMC Theatres could not be reached for comment this week.
The company that owns the Bay Street Emeryville property said in a statement that it was “committed to the safety and well-being of our shoppers, employees, retailers and residents,” adding that “we will continue to work … on actionable steps to ensure a safe environment and gathering place.” It did not say whether it planned to make any specific changes in the wake of the brawl.
Robert Weisberg, professor and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the events of the past weekend.
While the “TikTok effect” — of people seeing something on social media and wanting to emulate it — may be a factor in such instances, it remains to be seen exactly how much of an impact social media is having, he said.
“Mob activity like this is as old as the human race,” Weisberg said. Too many unknowns remain, he said, including what set off the fighting, and even whether larger-scale societal factors played a role. “I’d be very, very wary of drawing a conclusion here,” he added.
Social media and its ability to quickly connect technology-savvy teenagers and attract attention to a trending location may be a connective thread in some of the incidents, said Greg Woods, a lecturer on criminal justice at San Jose State University.
Woods also wondered whether the coronavirus pandemic had some as-yet poorly understood impact on teenagers’ social lives. For many teens, pandemic lockdowns also coincided with key developmental years as they near adulthood.
“Maybe — because we demanded so much from a particular population that is by definition most sociable — maybe we’ve skewed their ability to be sociable,” Woods said. “And they’re expressing themselves in these pockets of agitation.”
Public places across the region that attract big crowds of teens have had widely different responses to past instances of mayhem and violence.
In April, California’s Great America in Santa Clara announced that any guest under the age of 16 must be paired with a chaperone over the age of 21 anytime after 4 p.m. A social media post said the change was enacted due to “increasing incidents of unruly and inappropriate behavior across our industry and at other major entertainment venues.”
The Contra Costa County fair responded to a chaotic brawl of its own in May with a similar policy, requiring that minors be accompanied by adult chaperones at the popular Antioch event.
Lisa Hill, an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University-East Bay, pushed back against the notion that the fights could justify a crackdown on teenagers gathering in public, especially from law enforcement. Rather, she said, the incidents highlight a glaring need for parents to become more involved in their children’s lives and start taking the place of social media as a “teacher” on social behavior.
“We’re going to have to re-channel kids off of social media and refocus them back into pro-social activities,” Hill said. “This isn’t a police issue. It’s a family issue. It’s a society issue. It’s a community issue.”
Bay Area News Group photojournalist Dylan Bouscher contributed to this report.