NEW YORK — As Sunday night turned into Monday, what has become something of a violent Easter night ritual began to unfold. Hundreds of people filled Times Square, some pouring out of the subway, howling and unruly. By night’s end, four people had been shot, and the police had arrested 33 people.
Whether gang related or expressions of youthful mischief, the violence well exceeded the outbursts in other years. It was enough that when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sought a word to describe the chaos, he chose “wilding,” a term that first became popular in 1989 in connection with the infamous Central Park jogger rape case, a time when crime in the city was at its highest.
“The mayhem in Midtown appears to be a bunch of gang members wilding,” the mayor said at a news conference on Monday. “There’s a bunch of people that think it’s cute to go out and to run around and to cause chaos, and we loaded the area up with police, but they can’t be everywhere.”
Though none of the shooting injuries on Sunday was life-threatening, the violence comes as the mayor has expressed concern about an uptick in homicides in the city. Crime rates remain among the lowest in the city’s history, but coupled with a shrinking police force brought on by tough economic times, any spike in violence can put city officials and residents on edge.
Witnesses to the mayhem called it frightening, describing masses of people racing up and down the streets whooping and charging at one another.
“It was nothing but chaos,” said Kyle Tuck, 22, an actor and bartender’s assistant from East Harlem, who arrived at Times Square around 11 p.m. to pick up his girlfriend from the Ruby Tuesday restaurant.
Officials are uncertain how the Easter night melees came into being. Police officials say they first noticed the unruly crowds in 2003, believing it to be an outgrowth of revelers spilling out from the International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center at 11th Avenue and 34th Street. Its first weekend, and one of its busiest, typically falls at Easter.
The next year, the police added extra patrols, including anti-gang units, to Times Square and the area around the convention center. Arrests usually numbered in the high teens or low 20s. In 2006, a teenager was stabbed; the next year, a teenager was slashed in the arm. Last year, there were 27 arrests, the most until this year.
This year, the participants seemed to have mostly skipped the auto show. Around Times Square, some business owners and workers are convinced that Easter has become a gang initiation night. Police discounted the notion that this was a gang event.