Police estimate crowd of 60,000 gathered Tuesday outside Memphis Zoo

By Kontji Anthony - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - A flash mob of nearly 60,000 people outside the Memphis Zoo led to fist fights, shots fired in the air, and four arrests Tuesday evening.

The incident happened while Memphis City Schools students were on spring break, and text messages to meet at the school went viral.

Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery said he saw the crowd outside the Zoo.
"I thought it was a parade," he said.

According to police, fist fights first broke out around 2:00 p.m.  By evening, up to 60,000 people were outside the zoo. Around that time, someone shot two bullets into the air.

"What happened at the zoo could have been disastrous," Lowery said.

Witnesses inside the zoo said people sent text messages to meet for Free Zoo Day.  The crowd evolved into a flash mob.

Memphis social media expert Dave Barger said flash mobs have been occurring for years.

"Flash mobs were put together through people passing notes in school or good old telephone for get-togethers," Barger said Wednesday. "That has evolved into texting, Twitter and Facebook."

Flash mobs don't usually end in violence.  Last March, a much smaller flash mob had a pillow fight at Overton Park, using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.  But last week, police in Philadelphia cracked down on flash mobs that started as a gathering organized by teens that turned violent.

"Stop the stupidity," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said. "Cut it out. We are not messing around."

Philadelphia actually prevented a flash mob by listening to tips.  Back in Memphis, Lowery said the city and its citizens need their own plans.

"We need to notify the proper authorities that a flash mob may be occurring at this intersection," he said. "We need to head it off."

Memphis Zoo president Chuck Brady issued a statement on the Zoo's website saying staffers were reviewing policies.

Zoo visitors also left messages online on the Zoo's Facebook page, some saying Free Tuesdays need to end, while others were confident everything will work out.

Mayor AC Wharton released a statement saying he is committed to keeping the city's attractions safe for everyone.  Meanwhile, Police Director Larry Godwin is working on a safety plan to handle large crowds at the Zoo.

Zoo President Response to Free Tuesday

The Memphis Zoo and our staff appreciate all the thoughtful comments and concerns regarding yesterday's Free Tuesday event. At this time, we are collecting your thoughts and reviewing the event's policies and practices with City officials and Zoo managers.

The Zoo is committed to being a family-friendly place where people can connect with our animals, and Tuesday afternoons should not be an exception to that commitment. Our review of yesterday will help us avoid future guest experiences that are not in line with our high standards.

We sincerely apologize for the inconveniences that our guests and neighbors experienced yesterday. Our highest priority is the safety of our guests and animals, and we want to remain Memphis' premier attraction for families.

Thank you for your thoughts and support.

Mayor Wharton gives statement regarding events near Memphis Zoo and Overton Park

Memphis, TN --- March 31, 2009, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton gives the following statement:

"Regarding yesterday evening's events in the vicinity of the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park, I would like to first add my thanks and compliments to Colonel Billy Garret and the West Precinct of the Memphis Police Department for their swift response and successful crowd control efforts.  The dangerous, isolated acts of a few individuals will not jeopardize the safety and security of those citizens who choose to visit the Zoo or who reside in the surrounding neighborhoods.  

Chuck Brady and Director Larry Godwin have already communicated this morning, and they will continue to refine and enhance their plan for handling large crowds at the Zoo in the future. Our plan is to avoid any further disruptions so that the Memphis Zoo remains a safe and fun destination for families throughout the Mid-South.

I have also instructed Director Godwin to report back on the comprehensive and collaborative security measures for all of our city's many wonderful public assets and attractions. This is going to be a great summer in Memphis, and I am committed to making sure that every citizen, family, and child can enjoy what our city has to offer."

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