Fat Tuesday Flashback: The South Street Mardi Gras Riot of 2001

It's been 16 years since 40,000 to 50,000 people jammed South Street on Mardi Gras and broke into stores, rioting and throwing bottles at police. We look back.
MARDI GRAS

Mardi Gras revelers vandalize a television news van on South Street in Philadelphia late Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2001. About a dozen stores were looted or vandalized as police tried to clear thousands of Mardi Gras revelers from a popular entertainment district.

This post was originally published in 2015.

Easter is early this year, which means Lent is about to start when it’s about 20 degrees outside. That will probably prevent any outdoor celebrations of Mardi Gras today, and everything is scheduled indoors. The rowdiest event seems to be a “bead contest” at Xfinity Live! On South Street, Tattooed Mom’s is holding an Arts and Crafts Happy Hour with proceeds going to Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens.

That wasn’t the case in 2001.

That year, Mardi Gras was on February 27th, and the high was 52. The general manager of the bar Fat Tuesday, Rich Frank, told CNN 40,000-50,000 people came to South Street. Problems started after 11 on Tuesday night. About a half-dozen businesses were looted. Large crowds were shown on TV during the day, attracting more people. Later, the crowd attacked news vans and tried, unsuccessfully, to tip them over. Cops attempted to clear South Street around 11 p.m. and members of the crowd threw bottles at them. About 100 were arrested. “Disappointing is the only word I can think to say,” city managing director Joe Martz said.

Jefferson Hospital’s ER was “packed,” according to the Associated Press, though no one was seriously injured there. But a mounted police officer was stabbed. A Temple University student says a cop encouraged her to flash her breasts.

The incident in 2001 was really an outgrowth of the year before in 2000, when there were smaller problems after 25,000 showed up. About 5,000 were expected that year. But the fallout was limited to mild property damage and public urination; Cafe Nola, which began the South Street Mardi Gras celebrations, told the Inquirer workers there weren’t even aware of the commotion on South Street. Cops made some arrests.

Frank Pryor, chief of patrol for the Philadelphia police, accepted cops made “mistakes” in the year after the event: There was not a major command post, as recommended for crowd control, and a radio breakdown left a fire engine in the mob. That’s when a cop was injured during the melee.

“You know, the last five years of my professional life has been to create Mardi Gras in Philadelphia and it’s now got a huge black eye,” Frank of Fat Tuesday said to CNN. “And I’m embarrassed to be from Philadelphia, the type of people that — you know, the kids that were out last night, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

People were outraged. “I hope the driver who ran over those animals on South Street does not get charged with any crime,” Brian Dunphy of Bear, Delaware, wrote in a letter to the Daily News. Another woman says she was taunted for not removing her top in a bar and said her boyfriend was threatened. “The military should be on hand and all military and police officers should be armed with tear gas and rubber bullets,” Gerri Deleon wrote to the paper.

Then-Philadelphia City Councilman Frank DiCicco, who represented the First District that includes the bars-and-pizza-places stretch of South Street, blamed the bars: “Those businesses who are pumping people full of booze from 7 a.m. in the morning until they basically explode should be held accountable.” He said people acted like “wild animals.” He set the standard of how Philadelphia deals with Mardi Gras now: There’s no celebrating. He wrote an op-ed against South Street celebrations in the newspaper. “The message is, there is no special-day event in Philadelphia,” DiCicco said years later. “Any special day I know of for Mardi Gras is in New Orleans.” This year, there will be a Mardi Gras Mummers parade in Manayunk.

People worried about the event in 2002, with a Vern Anastasio-led group calling for boycotts of businesses that advertise on Y-100 after the radio station co-sponsored an event with Fat Tuesday. Only about 10,000 showed up in 2002, with around 1,000 to 2,000 coming a year later. Bars eventually agreed not to advertise all-day Mardi Gras celebrations. Now festivities tend to be low-key.

This year, it’s freezing and there’s snow on the ground. Don’t expect any mayhem this time.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.