“It’s a blast to do things you’re not supposed to.” That’s what Steven French, a participant in the riot at Keene State, had to say about the incident over the weekend. What started as a “Pumpkin Fest” turned into a beer-fueled riot that was, in his words, “f*cking wicked.”
There is something disturbing about his nonchalant attitude. Only a few months ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Ferguson, and left in the street for hours. What resulted was large-scale protests, many of them peaceful, and a call across the nation for an end to the militarization of the police and the institutionalized racism that plagues law enforcement and society. Conversely, the riots at Keene State occurred for no greater purpose. The event this weekend provides a retrospective on the vast differences in police and media response to predominantly white or predominantly black incidents. Ultimately, the senseless actions of students and visitors of Keene State only detract from the legitimacy and importance of what Ferguson stands for.
In the aftermath of both events, the media response has differed drastically. While Ferguson activists were profiled as thuggish gang-bangers, the predominantly white crowd involved in the Keene State riot was simply identified as rowdy. The kids simply “got too drunk,” and were blowing off steam. These kids tore down street signs, flipped cars, started fires, and threw bottles at police. One bystander, who had her car’s tires slashed and hood dented as rioters stomped on her car, also is disturbingly nonchalant. When asked her how she felt, she responded, “just disappointed, I guess,” continuing by saying “It was such an influx of people that were here yesterday. It’s just that riot mentality.”
Has our society reached a place where it is seen as natural that crowds and alcohol form “just a riot” whereas the murder of an unarmed kid and subsequent peaceful response is seen as violent protests by “animals”? In the days following Brown’s shooting, the media was dominated by images of looting and closed circuit footage of Brown allegedly stealing cigars. While looting did occur, media outlets made the conscious choice to ignore the larger and more important part of the protests. In regards to the alleged theft,the last time I checked, shoplifting a few dollars of merchandise was not a capital crime.
The media took to the story, but the outrage against the rioters has been noticeably absent. After Ferguson, newscasters asked if the protestors had fathers, and postulated that none of this would have happened if they had had good father figures. They asked where the leaders of the black community were, and why black on black violence keeps happening. After Keene, news outlets simply summed it up as a classic case of kids being kids. Michael Brown was just a kid being a kid, walking down the street. Yet, he was shot six times from close range. Where were the parents of the kids who thought alcohol legitimized rioting? The participants were violent and destructive for no reason whatsoever. In Ferguson, they had a reason.
Unfortunately most people will ignore that reason. While well-informed people can see the hypocrisy and racism in the response of police and media, but most people are not well informed. Because the Keene riots had no purpose, many people will see the protests in Ferguson as similarly purposeless. Furthermore, the distrust that the black community feels towards law enforcement will only increase. The police have repeatedly failed to protect black citizens, choosing instead to shoot and arrest them out of misdirected fear. But when the offenders are white, the response is drastically different.
The Keene State riot rubbed this fact in the face of Ferguson activists, and all people who stand for racial equality. By taunting the police to bring out the BearCat, they make light of the Ferguson police response to demonstrators seeking to end the horrible string of police killings of unarmed black youth. It did not end there. At one point Saturday evening, participants clustered around a fire began to sing the national anthem. In this eerie moment, it is as if the rioters saw it as their right as Americans to assemble. Only, this was no lawful assembly. The singing of the anthem is a unified show of support for a system that has alienated the black population. Our criminal justice system prefers to remove black criminals from society in the project to prison pipeline. Instead of fearing the system, the Keene rioters literally sang the praises of a system that repeatedly protects them, at the cost of their black counterparts.
We have a responsibility as global citizens to not let Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or the countless others to have died in vain. It is time for widespread change to the criminal justice system, from the policing of our citizens to the dissemination of news on media. As students at Boston College, we are in an incredible position to be catalysts for societal change. We stand to be in positions that can affect change in the future, and the onus is on us to use that power for purpose.