It's the Great Pumpkin Riots, Charlie Brown

The city of Keene, New Hampshire holds a Pumpkin Festival every year, in which participants supply enough lighted jack-o-lanterns to take a run at the world record.  They set that record last year, with over 30,000 carved pumpkins. Since it’s now into its third decade, there are generations of young and old artisans carving pumpkins side by side.   It sounds like a wonderful small-town tradition.

For some reason, this year’s Pumpkin Festival disintegrated into riots, with tear gas, pepper spray, ambulances, and dozens of arrests.  Outside agitators were blamed for organizing violence and vandalism that left the town in shock.  There has evidently been some trouble over the past few years, but this time it went completely off the rails.  Most disturbingly, even though outside agitators have been blamed for turning the town into a war zone, no one really knows why they were rioting.  It appears to have been perpetrated for the sheer hell of it by college students, who derived some perverse nihilistic amusement from tearing a beloved family festival to shreds.

The situation was so out-of-control that the governor of New Hampshire had to weigh in with a statement, as reported by CNN:

“State and local public safety officials are on the scene and have been working closely together to defuse the situation,” Gov. Maggie Hassan said a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation and provide any assistance necessary to Keene.”

Bonfires burned into the early hours of Sunday morning on city streets that were littered with broken beer and liquor bottles, video from CNN affiliate WMUR showed.

“I am saddened and disheartened at the events surrounding this year’s Keene Pumpkin Festival,” said Keene State College President Anne Huot. “Despite the concerted efforts of organizers, city officials, police, and Keene State College, there continued to be disruptive behavior at parties in multiple locations around the city, injuries, and property damage.”

Huot said Keene State students bore some of the responsibility for the unruly behavior, but also suggested that some outside the community had billed the event “as a destination for destructive and raucous behavior.”

Things got really ugly:

“I got hit with a Jack Daniel’s bottle, like across the face,” Keene State student Roger Creekmore told WMUR.

Steven French, 18, who was visiting from Haverhill, Massachusetts, described the chaotic scene to the local paper, The Keene Sentinel, as “wicked.”

It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he told the paper Saturday night. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

Other young people shouted expletives at police, started fires in the road, pulled down a street sign and apparently tried to flip over a Subaru, the Sentinel said.

“Revolting against the cops?”  I wonder where this young imbecile might have gotten an idea like that.

New Hampshire Public Radio says there were a total of 30 injuries, 20 of them serious enough to require trips to the hospital.  Attending to the injured was not easy, as the rioters had a habit of pelting police and paramedics with rocks and bottles.  Here’s what happened to a woman who made the mistake of attending this family fun festival with her 12-year-old daughter:

Stephanie Konopka of Swanzey was visiting the festival with her 12-year-old daughter Saturday afternoon, and said her car was surrounded by a mob of hundreds of college age students while driving down Winchester Street at about 2 p.m.

The crowd nearest her car, proceeded to kick, punch and shake her vehicle, she said. Then they started screaming at her daughter who was sitting in the back seat. She said her daughter started crying hysterically.

“They started yelling directly at my daughter, and when they saw she was crying, they started to do it more,” Konopka said. “They put their faces in the window and made these horrible faces and screamed these terrible things at her. And I was helpless, I couldn’t get to her. I was just trapped in the car. I couldn’t open the door, I couldn’t move the car. And then they started taking off their shirts and pushing themselves into the windows. At that point she was just beyond consoling.”

Police eventually arrived, dispersing the crowd. Konopka said though there were still people in front of her car, she started to pull forward just to get out of there.

Both city and college authorities were overwhelmed by the riots, to the point that the city manager said every single available police, fire, and rescue worker was called in, with reinforcements from the state police.  One Pumpkin Festival organizer lost her cool during a local media interview, threatening to “pull the plug” on news coverage because she blamed reporters for helping to incite further riots through their coverage.  “This is a family-friendly event,” she cried.  “The footprint of the Keene Pumpkin Festival is 100 percent safe???we have a bigger crowd than we???ve ever had, I want them to have a wonderful evening and not be disturbed by people who aren???t even at the Pumpkin Festival.???  That’s either a very deep state of denial, or a misguided attempt to convince hooligans coordinating their mischief on social media to pack it in by convincing television reporters to turn their cameras elsewhere.  Note to Pumpkin Festival organizers: these kids are not watching the chaos on broadcast television and ringing each other up on rotary-dial phones to organize carpools.

As for the college, this isn’t the first time they’ve had trouble, which will naturally lead to questions about why they didn’t do more to head this gang of vandals off at the pass, and what steps the plan to take next year.  An early attempt to blame the whole thing on outside infiltrators didn’t go over well, so there is now talk of expelling Keene State students who were involved in the fracas:

Initially a statement from Keene State College put the onus for the incidents on “a large number of out-of-town visitors.”  It also confirmed that Keene State students were among the injured and that their parents were being notified.

A second statement issued later in the night from President Anne Huot, was more contrite.

“I am saddened and disheartened at the events surrounding this year???s Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite the concerted efforts of organizers, city officials, police, and Keene State College, there continued to be disruptive behavior at parties in multiple locations around the city, injuries, and property damage,” the statement read. “We are mindful that Keene State students played a part in this behavior and we intend to hold those individuals accountable for their actions. We deplore the actions of those whose only purpose was to cause mayhem. And we are grateful for the swift response of law enforcement and first responders who worked to minimize injuries and damage.”

The statement went on to say that in the weeks leading up to the festival, school officials had been in talks with students, parents, landlords, and coordinated efforts with local and state authorities, but still were, “unable to influence the outcome of this event that was predetermined a year ago.”

Huot is referring to other large brawls on Keene State’s campus that resulted in injury and arrests last year.

Which leaves us right back at the questions about maintaining public order that we seem to be asking incessantly these days, from one freak-out to the next.  It seems strange that in an era where little kids face suspension and expulsion for such offenses as chewing their Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, there might be any debate about the summary expulsion of college students who helped organize a violent riot.  The sense that this is something that can be gotten away with is part of the reason it keeps happening.  The Christian Science Monitor puts the Pumpkin Festival melee into contest with “recent trends on college campuses, where riots have become more spontaneous and commonplace. For example, colleges involved in this spring’s Final Four basketball tournament saw riots, as have a number of other campuses. Some of the riots are sports-related, but many ??? like the ones in Keene Saturday ??? appear to have no apparent cause other than students’ bad behavior spiraling out of control.”

The CSM observes that as far back as 2005, a heft percentage of students in an Iowa State sociology class told their professor they thought participating in a riot would be fun, and nearly half the male students said they’d enjoy watching one.  “For some, riot culture appears to be becoming a badge of pride,” the article concludes.  “Earlier this year, Barstool Sports, a blog for college men, boasted: ‘No campus is safe. No ice cream truck is safe. It???s total mayhem in our country???s colleges. I dare somebody to have a normal old-fashioned party without it turning into a full-scale riot with rubber bullets and pepper spray balls flying. You can’t.’

Our media and political culture is quick to invoke broad sociological arguments to explain individual actions, portraying people like Trayvon Martin in Florida or Michael Brown in Missouri as helpless victims of vast and sinister forces, rather than holding them accountable for what they actually did.  Such a mindset inevitably results in a loosening of standards.  When the standard is no longer “don’t physically assault people, even if they disrespect you,” the standard has been lowered; the subsequent thousand hours of cable-news roundtable argument and op-ed hammering of society at large is merely a negotiation over how low it will go, and for which groups.  Likewise, when the bar is no longer set at “riots and vandalism are absolutely wrong,” it’s not surprising that young people might begin asking just how far down that bar can be pushed.  A culture that refuses to energetically defend its standards displays provocative weakness, and frankly chaos is a lot of fun – there would be far fewer barbarians rampaging across history if that wasn’t the case.  There would have been even fewer people in those Occupy Wall Street camps if participation didn’t look hip and cool.

A great deal of the philosophy young people imbibe – not just today, but reaching back for generations – is meant to justify anarchic behavior, seductively portraying it as morally justified resistance to decadent or unfair society.  When society seems to have no convincing answer to those arguments, you get riots over nothing at all… because they look like fun, and because deep down, some of the young participants yearn for the appearance of an authority compelling enough to stop them.  Some people just want to watch the world burn, but others secretly hope firemen will appear to douse the flames they have set.  In the age of social media, it’s easier than ever to get a fire going.

Hopefully the authorities will figure all of this out in time to give the good people of Keene the Pumpkin Festival they deserve next year.  “What makes you say they deserve it?” the aspiring vandal asks.  Because they carved the pumpkins, you fool.