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Like ‘The Purge’: Mayhem at Union Square after influencer event goes awry

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Union Square Park was still being cleaned up early Saturday morning after an influencer’s giveaway event there the previous day saw a mob of his fans rampage and do property damage.

Kai Cenat, who sports hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitch and is known for posting clips of himself playing video games, had promised to give away free gaming consoles and other equipment at the event. What happened, though, according to one witness, was like a scene from the action/horror movie “The Purge,” about an annual event when people are free to go berserk and commit crime.

Jackie Romanillos, who is in her 30s and lives in Long Island City, said she had been getting a bite to eat nearby at Singapura restaurant, at 20th Street near Broadway, when she saw something on TikTok about the gonzo giveaway gone wrong. An hour later, she decided to drop by and take a look for herself — only to find the situation still raging out of control, with gamers fighting each other and other mayhem.

“There was still madness,” she said. “There were still a lot of people here that were just behaving irrationally. Madness. It was like the scene from ‘The Purge’ where everyone goes out and just does anything they want to. They ruined the place. It was just like really a terrifying place. It was like walking into a nightmare.”

(Audio interview by Jefferson Siegel)

Romanillos said, as she was taking photos of the wildness, she stood for a while next to a news crew for safety, but eventually decided it would be a better idea to leave.

“I lived here all my life,” she said, “and to see New York be ripped apart by a stupid event…and [for an influencer to] cause such chaos. … I hate to see the city this way. I hate to see it being ripped apart like this.”

Allen Silverstein, a community liaison to local police, was at the scene afterward during the police press conference. He said it had been mainly a case of too many people swarming into one area too quickly, after which some people started throwing stuff at each other, with the situation eventually spiraling out of control. Silverstein said police had to link their arms together during the height of the chaos to keep from being trampled.

Things kicked off around 12:30 p.m. Soon, thousands of Cenat’s followers had turned up. Police said the number at one point was around 1,000 people, but others said it grew even larger, to at least 2,500. Cenat did not have a permit to hold the mass gathering.

According to reports, no gaming equipment was actually given out.

Chief Jeffrey Maddrey, center, asked for more help from parents. (NYPD News / Twitter)

Cenat was charged with riot, inciting a riot and unlawful assembly. Sixty-five others were arrested on various charges. Around 30 were minors under age 18. Four people were treated by E.M.S.

Speaking later, Chief Jeffrey Maddrey, chief of department for the New York Police Department, detailed the damages and pointedly urged youths “not to destroy things.” He said the event had started out with a crowd of just 300 people, but that it kept growing — with police several times mobilizing more officers to respond to the the crowd’s growing size.

“This event grew exponentially, rapidly. That’s the power of social media,” he said — later adding that it was also “the danger of social media.”

But the swelling crowd “started becoming more and more unruly and disorderly,” he said, adding that the youths were determined to see the popular influencer.

Police removed Cenat from among the crowd — a video shows a bodyguard lifting the influencer over a police barrier, with the video star then being walked off surrounded by a circle of cops.

The group was slow to disperse and some “were not following orders,” the chief said. Photos show some of the revved-up gamers standing atop buses and cars.

When police tried to clear them out, arrests happened.

Given that the group was young, officers tried to be “very, very delicate,” Maddrey explained, though adding, “When it was time to make arrests, we made arrests. And I think we were very professional in how we did this.”

A group of police responded to the scene on Friday. (Photo by Jackie Romanillos)

Some of the gamers, on the other hand, were not exactly delicate. Maddrey said his police car was “destroyed” and so was that of new Assistant Commissioner Kaz Daughtry. Other cop cars were also damaged, he said. Dubbed the N.Y.P.D. “shadow commissioner” by some, Daughtry stood with Maddrey during the press conference.

Maddrey said some of the youths-gone-wild also damaged nearby food carts and local stores. Some, he said, grabbed plates from outdoor-dining spots and threw them at police officers.

People also reportedly splashed cans of paint on the park’s paths.

According to reports, the Union Square Greenmarket was not affected.

In terms of injuries, the chief said one 17-year-old was taken to Bellevue Hospital. Police at first thought a male had been shot on Broadway a few blocks south of Union Square, but it turned out he was hit by a firework — which is, in itself, serious.

“Heavy-duty explosives were thrown out there,” Maddrey said, adding that’s something that’s very dangerous in a tight crowd. There were also plenty of serious injuries that were not part of any official report, he noted.

“I saw people leaving here with their heads split open,” he said, “cuts, bruises, lacerations. Myself, [I was] hit in the head. Something down in my leg is hurting.”

A sergeant suffered a broken hand, according to the chief.

Department of Sanitation workers cleaned paint off Union Square’s south plaza the day after the wild influencer event. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Maddrey said if the organizer had only notified police beforehand and applied for a proper permit, it would have allowed them to prepare for the event and set up police barriers. Dealing with “flash mobs” is an ongoing challenge, he reflected.

“We have to reach out to some of our influencers and ask them to be responsible about this,” he said, adding, “We do not want our young people to destroy things.”

The top cop said what was really needed was parents — that parents should have come and yanked the young gamers out of the pandemonium.

“I had thousands of kids out there,” he said. “I need thousands of parents out there. … I need to implore the parents — I need your help with this. … When it gets to the point that they’re disorderly, we want the parents to take control and let us take a step back.”

Around 7 p.m. Friday evening, Julie Stein, the Union Square Partnership’s executive director, sent out a “Union Square district alert” e-mail announcing that “the area is now safe.”

“As you may already know, earlier today there was a large, unpermitted event in Union Square Park,” the business improvement district leader said. “The crowd became so large that NYPD mobilized a response to clear the area. Union Square Partnership is working with our City and State partners to assess damages to Union Square following the event and to clean up the area — you will see additional sanitation resources mobilized tonight and tomorrow morning to restore the public space for all as quickly as possible.

“Although there were some injuries and arrests, according to the NYPD, the area is now safe,” Stein wrote. “The park interior is closed this evening as sanitation crews work to clean the area. We urge our local residents and businesses to exercise caution and follow guidance from authorities. We will be following up with City officials and NYPD in the days ahead to discuss how something similar could be prevented in the future.”

Around 3 p.m. Saturday, local activist Gail Fox reported that the area was being spiffed back up again.

“Business as usual at the Union Square Greenmarket,” she said. “In the south plaza, they’re power-washing off the paint. I can smell the cleaners and paint.”

However, calling it “a shame,” Fox said that people at the giveaway event the day before had gotten access to tools from an M.T.A. construction vault and used them to do damage.

— With reporting by Jefferson Siegel


  1. Gail Fox Gail Fox August 7, 2023

    Thank you to NYPD, UNION SQUARE PARTNERSHIP (theBID), NYC SANITATION and all who assisted on Friday, August 4th, with the CROWDS and the difficult situation. WELL DONE.
    I saw the letter from Julie Stein, Executive Director of the BID, issued after, as noted in the article, letting people know the area had been cleared. It also contained information for local businesses who might need assistance and support in the aftermath. The SBS — Dept. of Small Business Services — has an emergency assistance unit, or one can contact the BID.
    Union Square is an amazing neighborhood and community.

  2. John Penley John Penley August 7, 2023

    NO COPS ! NO RIOT ! Hey, Adams and your NYPD, Leave those Kids alone ! Stop looking at photos and sending them to the media to bust more kids. To Mary R, give me a break — don’t you remember the Weather Underground or Malcolm X or The Black Panthers ? I could go on but this was a sign that young African American people [not your dismissive ‘Kiddies”] are being neglected and need help and more access to resources. Your take on this is kind of racist and the ’60s left was not just peaceful hippie protest by a long shot.

    • Mary Reinholz Mary Reinholz August 8, 2023

      The cops came because there was no legal permit for the Twitch star to provde giveaway merch, which never materialized, and these wondrous kids you cite were creating chaos: jumping up on cars, grabbing plates from diners, hurling bottles and construction material, raiding a CVS for food and getting other kids hurt. So, Penley, you don’t know what you’re writing about. This was not a high-minded gathering for justice but for freebies that didn’t appear. Poor darlings were frustrated.

  3. Barbara Kahn Barbara Kahn August 6, 2023

    I can’t comment on what others saw or described or experienced, but I can say what I saw and experienced. I was walking home across the park from the east to west side at about 3:45pm. The crowd increased as I crossed, and I was trying to figure out the best way to get through. While there were a large number of mostly African-American teens, they were not rioting or destroying anything. I could see that the Greenmarket looked uncrowded, a possible route for me to take. I guess the police had just arrived at the downtown side, because there were a bunch of kids running toward where I was standing. Others yelled at them repeatedly, “Don’t run from the cops!” They know their history. They stopped running and melted into the crowd around me. None of the hundreds around me were damaging anything. The shrubbery was intact. I did see some kids sitting atop the statue and pulling wood from the construction and lifting traffic cones. All I can add to the eyewitness accounts is that I was never threatened or afraid. The only teen who spoke to me saw that I was looking around. He moved away from the railing where he was leaning so I could take the stairs and asked, “Do you need help?” If in fact there were violent incidents, they were not done by most of the youths. They were just milling around, wondering what to do or trying like me to leave the park. I didn’t know what the event was for, but it looked to me like an event, not a protest. I stayed for awhile, out of curiosity. Later, I was stunned to turn on the news to see, “Breaking News! Riot in Union Square!” By eleven o’clock the description included “mayhem,” “youths out of control.” And I have no idea why the actions of such a small % of those gathered necessitated shutting down the entire surrounding neighborhood well into the 8pm hour, with mounted police blocking the street a block away. I am sorry for those who were accosted or injured or for the store window I heard was broken. I can only say that I was surrounded by hundreds of confused, upset teens, none of them threatening. Since then my eyewitness account on social media has been challenged by people who repeated the news accounts or posted videos from TV, none of which showed the violence that was described. I am not challenging anything others actually witnessed in person, only the media and official ‘spin.’

  4. Mary Reinholz Mary Reinholz August 6, 2023

    Gripping eye-wittness account of kiddie riot in Union Square over Play Station giveaways offered by Twitch dork Kai Cenat that apparently did not materialize. The incident strikes me as a ridiculous perversion of Union Square’s proud history as a place for union rallies and varied demonstrations. Peaceniks once burned their draft cards there to oppose the Vietnam War. Protestors had ideals. All dapper Nightlife Mayor Adams managed was to say there needed to be more parental control.

  5. Simon Simon August 5, 2023

    And us taxpayers have to foot the cleanup bill!

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