ROOSEVELT, Utah – Police in a small Utah town are being accused of overreacting after using pepper spray to break up a group of Polynesian men and boys performing a traditional dance called the Haka after a high school football game.
The police action came after a pair of officers unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the dozen or so performers who were blocking an exit after the Union-Uintah game Thursday night, the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune reported.
A form of the Haka has been popularized by rugby players in New Zealand who chant, beat their chests and gesture aggressively before matches. The Maori tradition also can include fierce facial expressions. Haka are now performed at football and rugby games around the world.
The group in Roosevelt, a town of 8,000, had traveled about 125 miles east from the Salt Lake City area to watch a relative play his final game for Union, which lost to rival Uintah and finished the season without a victory.
The group reportedly was trying to boost Union's morale with the Haka as the players left the field.
Spectators, coaches and players told police that everything was fine and they should let the men perform, Jessica Rasmussen said, but officers asked them to make room and started using pepper spray.
Rasmussen said she and other bystanders also got spray in their eyes, ears and mouths.
Union fan Jason Kelly said the way police reacted was an embarrassment to the community of Roosevelt.
"I've never seen anything like it," Kelly said. "It was totally unprovoked."
Police said the incident is under investigation, and anyone wanting to lodge a complaint should contact the department.
Police said many people in the crowd knew the group was going to dance, but the two officers and others didn't.
Spectator Shawn Mitchell said while he didn't view the dancers as a threat, the impromptu performance might have played a role in how police responded.
"If they're going to do something like (the Haka), maybe some planning could be done ahead of time," he said.