YouTubers’ PlayStation Giveaway Causes Chaos in Union Square Park

YouTubers’ PlayStation Giveaway Causes Chaos in Union Square Park

Union Square Park in Manhattan erupted in chaos on Friday after a throng of what the police estimated to be several thousand young people descended on the area, drawn by the chance to receive video game consoles being given away by two YouTube streamers.

By the time the police dispersed the crowd around 6 p.m., “quite a few” people had been arrested; officers and some of those caught up in the melee had suffered injuries that were still being evaluated; and at least one of the social media stars who had summoned the crowd was facing the prospect of criminal charges, according to a top police official.

“It was uncontrolled. It took us a while to get it under control. And a lot of young people got hurt,” the official, Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey, said, speaking against the backdrop of a trash-littered plaza at a news conference after the park had been cleared.

The streamers, Kai Carlo Cenat III and Fanum, had announced plans to hand out PlayStation 5 consoles at the park at 4 p.m. The two are members of the streaming group AMP, which has legions of fans on YouTube and the streaming site Twitch. Mr. Cenat’s YouTube channel has more than 3.6 million followers.

The event was spontaneous and came together without a city permit, Chief Maddrey said. The police learned of the gathering from a social media post at around 1:30 p.m., he added. By 3 p.m., he said, “the post had gone viral.”

Hordes of young people were soon packing the park and spilling onto the surrounding streets and sidewalks, where they blocked cars and pedestrians. The popular Union Square Greenmarket shut down early. Subway trains began bypassing the Union Square station.

As 4 p.m. approached and the crowd grew restless, the Police Department initiated a Level 4 mobilization, its highest-level response. While parts of the crowd remained mostly peaceful, others tipped into unruliness. One cluster of people stormed a construction site and then began hurling building materials, rocks and bottles at one another, the chief said.

“You had people walking around with shovels, axes and other tools of the construction trade,” he said, adding that others had been lighting fireworks and tossing them toward officers and one another.

When the scheduled giveaway time came and went, the pandemonium increased. Water bottles, basketballs, a computer and fireworks sailed through the crowd. One group of young people pushed back against police officers carrying riot shields as they tried to move in to make arrests. A knot of more than 200 people standing near a flagpole at the center of the park directed a vulgar chant at the police. Images from the scene showed people climbing onto cars stuck in the crowd.

People in the crowd began to “commit acts of violence against the police and the public,” Chief Maddrey said.

By 5 p.m., the police had pushed most of the crowd onto Park Avenue, with hundreds of young people flooding both lanes, stopping traffic, banging on cars and hurling things. Those who refused commands to move up the avenue were tackled and taken into custody.

“That’s my friend you’re arresting,” a teenager yelled at an officer. “That’s my boy.”

“You want to get arrested too?” an officer replied before grabbing the teenager, taking him to the ground and putting him in zip-tie cuffs.

The police pushed a group of young people up the avenue, moving up a block at a time every few minutes as several helicopters hovered overhead.

At 19th Street, a crowd of those being driven north collectively took a knee and started a “Black Lives Matter” chant. At 20th Street, they sat on wicker chairs outside an upscale restaurant as employees locked the doors and looked on from inside. At 22nd, dozens of teenagers stormed through a CVS store, grabbing water bottles, candy and snacks and then distributing them to others in the crowd.

Chief Maddrey said the crowd had been given several chances to leave the area before officers began to make arrests. He said the total number of arrests was still being tallied. Officers loaded some of those they had detained onto a city bus, which itself came under attack as people tried to free those who were being taken away.

Mr. Cenat was taken to safety, and police officials were considering whether to file charges against him related to “inciting a riot,” Chief Maddrey said.

“This shows the power of social media and the danger of social media,” he said.

One of those in the crowd, Josh Ortiz, who lives in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, said he was at the park to see the two YouTube personalities.

“I just came out because I wanted to see them,” Mr. Ortiz, 18, said. “I think a lot of kids thought they could get a free PC or PlayStation and start making money, but I just wanted to see Kai. He’s the biggest Black creator in America right now.”

He said that things had initially been peaceful but that a few people had “started going crazy.”

“It’s between bothersome and funny,” he said. “There was a big explosion just a second ago, but if you know, like I do, that it’s just kids with fireworks, then it gets kind of funny.”

Mr. Ortiz said Mr. Cenat deserved some blame for the chaos.

“It’s kind of Kai’s fault,” he said, adding that the event “wasn’t planned well” and that Mr. Cenat could have chosen “a more open area.”

As the scene in the park unfolded, a large group of teenagers swarmed the entrance of a nearby Best Buy store, prompting workers to lock the doors.

“These guys are huge,” said a 21-year-old gamer from Queens who would identify himself only as Zap. He said that 90,000 people had been watching Mr. Cenat’s livestream several days ago when he announced the giveaway.

Adam Mass, a 20-year-old student from Brooklyn, said he had come to the park after hearing about the pandemonium.

“I heard they were out here,” Mr. Mass said of the two streamers, whom he referred to as a “big deal.”

“I didn’t even want to get a giveaway,” he added. “I knew something was happening, though, so we came here.”

Hurubie Meko contributed reporting.

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