You may have seen #pumpkinfest trending on Twitter last night. My fiancé Bret and I live and work in/near Keene and Bret was in Keene for part of the riot picking up friends who were stuck in town. He showed me some videos he took and I was absolutely disgusted, so I wrote down my thoughts. Sorry for posting this to my art blog but I am damn angry.
The atmosphere of Saturday’s Pumpkin Festival was soured when a night of riots broke out around the Keene State College campus. Police attempted to break up an out of control party, where students were reportedly throwing everything from bottles to pumpkins, by unleashing teargas and pepper-spray bullets on the crowd. By midnight there were fires, hospitalizations, overturned cars and at least a dozen arrests. Police in riot gear struggled to control thousands of intoxicated co-eds. The situation clearly escalated to an appalling degree, but the actions of the Pumpkinfest rioters have deeper implications. To call these events the result of a party gone wild is to blatantly ignore one of the most important current events in our country: the ongoing civil rights protests happening in Ferguson, Missouri.
It is not a stretch to compare these two events. Both involved large civilian gatherings; teargas deployed by riot police; the throwing of bottles and starting of fires; harsh verbal and physical confrontations; and the list goes on. Read a description of one and you may mistake it for the other; but the physicality of these events are where the similarities end. In Ferguson, protests began in response to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop in a community where police distrust was already an issue. The community of Ferguson was and is fighting for the future of their historically disadvantaged and abused race. Keene rioters were fighting for their “right” to party. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but the actions of the Keene rioters show an absolutely despicable lack of respect for the rebirth our country’s civil rights movement.
Perhaps the most regrettable aspect of the situation is that Keene and Ferguson do have a common problem that deserves protesting: the militarization of American police forces. Keene’s police department has recently been fodder for comedians like John Oliver for being in possession of a Bearcat military transport vehicle. The Bearcat was leased to Keene through a federal “use it or lose it” program that provides civilian police departments with military gear and equipment as long as it is used once per year. Keene PD cited the annual Pumpkin Festival as the reason it would need a Bearcat; unsurprisingly, this absurd speculation quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mirroring the events in Ferguson, an overzealous response by police did nothing to disperse the crowd, instead incensing them and escalating the violence. It is baffling that Keene’s police force chose to duplicate the widely criticized tactics used in Ferguson.
Things would be different if rioters had been responding in an organized fashion to the use of teargas on unarmed civilians, but that was clearly not the case. The #pumpkinfest hashtag on Twitter abounds with photos of white frat boys taking grinning selfies in front of freshly flipped-over vehicles, a stark contrast to images from Ferguson where white policemen aim assault rifles at peaceful black protesters. The atmosphere of the Keene riot is unapologetically gleeful in acknowledgement of its drunken rambunctiousness; meanwhile Ferguson protesters look alternately devastated, angry, tired, joyous, supportive, powerful. It doesn’t take long to realize that next to Ferguson, Keene reeks of white male privilege. Who else, after all, could participate guilt-free in such an ignorant, twisted re-enactment of an ongoing civil rights movement than a bunch of white men?
Although I did not attend Keene State, I spent plenty of time on campus in the last few years visiting my high school sweetheart while he earned his degree there. As an outsider I was appalled time and again by the “bro” culture at KSC. The campus is in a state of perpetual drunkenness; nowhere, outside of the internet, have I heard such blatant racism, misogyny and homophobia passed off as jokes between white men (it’s worth mentioning that Keene’s student body, and by extension the population of the state of New Hampshire, is overwhelmingly white). I felt deeply ashamed when I heard that Keene State students had decided that a drunken riot was their idea of a great night, but, having heard the filth they think constitutes a joke, to see this bunch of ignorant white men making a mockery of the Ferguson protests leaves me honestly unsurprised.