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Sunday’s Italian Festival crowd undaunted by Saturday night’s skirmishes, untimely shutdown

The day after the Galbani Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival on Hertel Avenue was closed down 30 minutes early following two arrests for disorderly conduct on the packed street, people of every age and description were unfazed by the previous night’s issues.

“It was only two that made the trouble, so you just remove the two and go on,” said Carl Beaver of the Town of Tonawanda, one of an intrepid group of four senior citizens who traveled with two walkers with seats and one oxygen tank.

“This is only my second time here, but I’ve gone to Canal Fest for years and that gets shut down every once in a while, too,” said his friend Paul Schmidt of the City of Tonawanda.

Vendors and food stand operators interviewed Sunday said that not only is every Saturday usually the busiest day of the festival, but this Saturday night was especially crowded. That may have been a factor when Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda ordered at 9:15 p.m. that the festival close in 15 minutes, a half-hour before its scheduled closing time of 10 p.m.

Even that 10 p.m. closing time is early. Before 2014, the first three nights of the festival ran until 11 p.m., with an earlier closing on the final night.

None of the dozen people interviewed Sunday who had worked the festival Saturday night said they saw any scuffles or fighting, although staffers of some children’s rides and games booths said they saw a large group of police officers run down the street into the crowd around 9 p.m.

“About 30 cops came flying from this end to that end, running right through,” said Chuck Miller, who was operating a Crazy Ball game near the corner of Delaware and Hertel avenues. Before that, he said, “It seemed calm to me, just busy.”

Miller and others said they heard rumors that the trouble started with a fight in a fast-food restaurant parking lot on Delaware and that the people involved in that fight then moved into the Italian Festival crowd, possibly clashing again.

A 20-second video posted on YouTube shows two women holding each other’s hair, punching and slapping until a man separates them and they walk away. “Where is the police?” another woman can be heard yelling.

At WDS Concessions near Colvin Avenue, one of three locations selling fried ravioli, mozzarella sticks, eggplant Napoleon and fried lasagna, Jessica Comstock said an announcement was made from the main stage around 9:15 p.m. that the festival would close at 9:30. Like other food sellers, Comstock said her booth had lines of customers out front when the announcement was made.

“People were mad,” she said. “We didn’t see any fighting or any trouble. There can be some rowdy teenagers, but I feel like it’s under control.”

At Campi’s Pizza, where people were already lining up at noon Sunday for ultra-thick slices, workers said they had a whole rack of dough ready to be topped and baked when the order came to shut down. “We had lines of people waiting” when the booth had to close, one worker said.

Police presence during the festival Sunday included two parked mobile command units, uniformed Buffalo police officers on foot patrol, two Erie County Sheriff’s Office reserve deputies on horseback and guards in golf carts from a private security firm, Buffalo Protection & Investigation Inc.

Jeff Rinaldo, a Buffalo police lieutenant who was working for Buffalo Protection & Investigation on Sunday, described Saturday night’s trouble as “a few minor skirmishes.”

“It wasn’t anything major, but the street was densely packed,” Rinaldo said. “It’s nothing that doesn’t happen other places, you get a bunch of kids together and there is some pushing and shoving.”

Two people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct as a result of the skirmishes that led to the closing of the festival, said Buffalo Police Spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge. Their names and other details were not immediately available Sunday.

Also, around 8:55 p.m., Diamond M. Allen, 38, of Custer Street, was arrested for trespassing at the festival. The police report said that Allen, 38, had been warned by police on Friday and earlier Saturday not to enter the festival area, but was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, after entering the area anyway. The police report did not say why he was barred.

But on Sunday, under a hazy blue sky, any issues of the night before were waved off by those who turned out to feast, stroll and enjoy the music and cultural activities.

David Giza’s three sons, ages 5, 4 and 2, showed off finger puppets and danced in front of a rack of fans in the sultry heat. “In the morning, less people are drunk and those who were drunk are probably still sleeping,” said Giza as he smiled at his boys. “I’m planning to come over here for just an hour or so.”

Tye Pope, who brings her two daughters and son, ages 13, 7 and 2, to the festival every year, said the whole family looks forward to their visit, no matter what time they arrive. In fact, she said, “I usually come later in the evening.”

Joyce Williams, who spent both Saturday and Sunday cooking and serving “deep-fried Italian delights,” including cauliflower, mushrooms, onion rings, lasagna, mac and cheese, cheese-stuffed jalapenos and ravioli, at one of the three RJ Concessions booths, said she didn’t see anything unusual Saturday night. But Williams said she heard people making remarks about trouble elsewhere in the crowd.

Despite the chatter Saturday night, Williams looked forward to another busy day Sunday. “When you have good food and good people, they want to come back,” she said.