Excitement and anticipation turned into panic and disappointment Friday as swelling crowds for the Soulja Boy concert in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union resulted in injury and an early shutdown.
The concert was held in the Pauley Ballroom, an event venue on campus with a maximum capacity of 900 people, and was organized by ASUC Superb. According to attendees, a large crowd formed in front of the venue, leading to overcrowding and a host of safety problems.
“Every time they let students up the stairs the crowd would surge forward,” said campus freshman Angie Chen. “It would be like a huge stampede, and it got really bad.”
The situation was not dire from the beginning, said campus freshman Reem Elyas, as a long line formed for the concert. At around 4:30 p.m., however, there was a “huge crowd surge,” which Elyas said she believes was caused by an individual who thought they saw Soulja Boy himself.
People began panicking, saying they weren’t able to breathe, Elyas noted. Some screamed that those in the front couldn’t breathe and that the crowd needed to move, she added, but nobody was moving.
“I personally started to have a panic attack,” Elyas said. “I started crying, and I had to leave because I was too close to everyone and I was starting to feel lightheaded.”
Elyas said it was difficult to distinguish between event staff and students, contributing to an overall lack of authority. While staff would attempt to manage the crowd and yell at people to move, people weren’t really listening, according to Elyas.
Chen echoed the sentiment that staff were largely ineffective and lacked perceived authority in crowd management. She noted that merchandise was thrown into the crowd, making them move around even more.
“I don’t think that the organizers of the event really understood how crowded it felt being in the crowd,” Chen said. “They were just kind of looking at us like, ‘oh my god, there’s such a big crowd,’ and hyping up the crowd and throwing merch.”
Some staff did try telling the crowd to back up, she said, but were generally unsuccessful. Chen noted that only ASUC Superb staff were present to manage the concert, with other organizing staff arriving much later on to set up a fence in the middle of the crowd.
Multiple comments on the initial Instagram announcement from Superb, some posted over a week before the concert, requested a larger venue for the event.
“I got really frustrated because I feel like we’ve seen things like this, obviously in a much larger way, at other events like Astroworld,” Chen said. “Immediately, when the crowd started coming together, I knew this was going to be a bad situation.”
Chen later learned that the Pauley Ballroom was not at full capacity — Superb managers later said 653 people were admitted to the concert, according to the number of student IDs scanned.
She guessed that the staff wanted to let more people in, but those people were held crowded near the stairs, creating a bottleneck. At one point, she noted, the staff let a small handful of people in, two at a time, causing another surge.
“At first it was just uncomfortable, but in 10 minutes it went from that to scary and dangerous,” said campus junior and transfer student Spencer Young in a text message. “With people at the back pushing to still get to the stairs, we all got more and more cramped and crushed.”
Young said the crowd crushed his legs against stair railings and later hyperextended his arm as he held the end of the railing to avoid falling. A health issue arose with someone to the right of the stairs, he added, and while the crowd briefly spread out to make space for the individual, it pushed back in shortly after.
According to Young, the organizers then cut people off at a flight of stairs, somewhat easing the pressure. Around this time, a young woman lost consciousness, and the surrounding people again attempted to make space in the crowd for her. Young was able to slip out of the crowd and speak to ASUC staff, then guide emergency medical technicians to the woman.
“It was a deadly situation that was on a knife’s edge for way too long a time,” Young said in a text message. “I want the conversation to not be hysterical, but rather maybe educational, something all clubs and event organizers can use to learn how to handle event organization better.”
Superb has issued an apology for the lack of crowd control, acknowledging its insufficient planning and communication.
According to the statement, the event entrance was closed early under the jurisdiction of campus administration. Superb apologized for any disappointment caused.
“It is unacceptable for us to allow conditions where people could be and were physically hurt, and we apologize for that,” Superb said in the statement. “We are actively reevaluating how Superb manages our events in order to ensure that everyone can have a safe and positive experience in the future.”
Superb managers said action plans for concerts hosted by the organization are a collaboration between Superb, UCPD and Event Services. They noted that an indoor venue was chosen due to forecasts of “intense rain from early to mid-January,” and for the “safety and security of the artist and audience.”
Superb managers attributed the “chaotic situation” to their failure to provide sufficient line structure. As the crowd grew, they said, Event Services communicated that the event would be shut down if more students were let into the venue, and Superb staff attempted to relay this message to the students.
The student who lost consciousness was treated by paramedics called by Superb staff and escorted away from the scene, they noted, and nobody had to be transported to a hospital.
“It was UCPD’s decision that security was not necessary at the Soulja Boy Concert,” Superb managers alleged in an email. “We agreed with the decision, especially to prevent students from feeling uncomfortable with police presence.”
However, managers noted that the crowd control measures were inadequate. Security breaches at the venue pulled Superb staff, already stretched thin, away from the crowd. Some were verbally or physically attacked by crowd members, they said.
They added that Superb has hosted internal discussions and met with ASUC advising, Event Services, Facility Operations and UCPD to reflect upon and produce solutions for the difficulties of the event.
New safety measures will include ticketing and reservation systems, crowd management training for staff, updated standards for the number of staff on-site at events and a larger budget allocation for safety.
“It is important that we recover the trust of the student body,” the managers said in the email. “To ensure that Friday’s events are never repeated in the future, we are making fundamental changes to how we hold large-scale events.”
Anna Armstrong and Ratul Mangal contributed to this report.