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The Oxford Square’s one big problem

We have almost made it through another Ole Miss football season, enjoying the rewards but also facing challenges that come along with large crowds and revelry that descend upon the Oxford Square home game nights.

Saturday’s Mississippi State contest, the season finale here this week, should be rather quiet considering it comes at the tail end of Thanksgiving holiday.

This season’s closest calls, when crowds and drunkenness and questionable activity late at night reached uncomfortable levels, occurred during the Alabama and Memphis game weekends, with lesser versions the Auburn weekend and others.

The Alabama game brought in tens of thousands of students from the region who don’t attend Ole Miss but wanted in on the big, hyped-weekend when the nation’s number one team faced the ranked Rebels and the party was on. The football game was in the daytime, also, which meant the Oxford Square was ripe for large crowds to hit the bars and consume into the night.

And, whenever large crowds of intoxicated young people gather in one place at once, that means non-student visitors from neighboring towns join in the activity. Some just want to have fun. Others have business intentions.

The allure of more than 10,000 young people reveling together in one place can be appealing to drug dealers, who quietly blend into the crowd along streets and alley ways, while Oxford police do their best at patrolling from horseback, while utilizing surveillance cameras installed at key locations.

The same thing happened for the Memphis game, when students and non-students from the Memphis area came to the evening game and then hit the Square, many sticking around until past 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Reports of crowded alley ways, aggressive young people shouting obscenities, and rampant drunkenness matched or exceeded the Alabama game, making some Oxford locals and business owners out at the time uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Oxford police hold a position and try to get to sunrise by averting a disaster – the kind of headlines and horror that nobody would expect in Oxford like deadly gunshots ringing out on the Square or a mass mob fight.

That’s why some in the Oxford police department say they can’t enforce the laws when crowds get that large so much as keep a position and try to keep the peace.

It’s called survival, and that’s the same thing they do many nights on Beale Street in Memphis and in the The French Quarter in New Orleans.

But this is Oxford.

Most citizens don’t know much about what happens that late at night on the Square, though some have heard rumors of gangs showing up late at night and more. But few will argue that anytime tens of thousands of imbibing young people and adults crowd into bars and line streets for a big throw down party that certain elements are sure to follow.

One Oxford Square business owner suggested recently that if “people sleeping quietly in their beds along North and South Lamar at 2 a.m. the nights of the Alabama and Memphis games had any idea what was going on and how bad it was” they would have shuddered with nightmares.

Yes, on the biggest nights when crowds line the streets with outside influence pours in and intoxication becomes a norm the hours of between 11 a.m. and about 2 a.m., the Oxford Square is not for the faint-hearted, or the unescorted.

This isn’t any body’s fault, by the way. No city official from today or tomorrow is either responsible for this or holding the simple solution.

This is a perfect storm of a problem that began years ago, the day Fraternity Row on the Ole Miss campus was closed to open parties after games and the street throw down shifted to the Square.

This is a perfect storm that strengthened as Oxford has grown so incredibly popular, known certain moments as a let-your-hair-down place, much like the beach or New Orleans.

This is a perfect storm that has strengthened further as Ole Miss has grown, and Oxford has grown, and our small Square remains the same size, as popular as ever, with more large-scale bars pouring it on than we could have ever imagined before.

“People here drink a lot,” another Square business owner told me. “A lot.”

But the larger concern is not Ole Miss students or their parents – though each can have moments. Rather, the biggest concern is those that follow them to the party, coming here to get in on the action resulting from the energy.

The result can be loud, large and sometimes testy street mobs in the late hours that make the Square more of a scary place than a picture-perfect postcard.

We want to be known for delivering a good time, but we don’t want to be known for that.

And since the Square isn’t getting any bigger and the crowds and risks keep getting larger, we as a community need to begin having open and honest conversations about what this late night, big-party night future looks like on the Oxford Square, planning and thinking ahead before the 2017 football season.

More police? Perhaps. New laws limiting loitering after 10 p.m. on the Square football game nights? Perhaps.

But make no mistake. This is a challenge that we as a community need to face, openly and honestly together.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. You can contact him at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.