What The Media Left Out About The Riot In Keene

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
Font Size:

As we left our daughters’ school near Boston and headed for the Keene pumpkin festival in south western New Hampshire, one of my daughter’s received a text message cautioning about rioting at and around Keene State College. My wife went on the web, where news reports described extensive injuries and a massive police response.

We worried a bit that the festival might be cancelled, but before long our thoughts turned to the possibility of a rainout as we drove through a downpour in north-central Massachusetts. The skies cleared with the setting sun and as we entered Keene our thoughts turned only to the challenge of finding a place to park our car.

Signs indicated that we should park at the county fairgrounds and take a bus the last few miles to Keene’s famous Main Street (the widest in the U.S., they claim). We took our chances instead, and after a few roadblocks and detours we found expensive if convenient parking a few blocks from Main Street.

Along the way we passed one large party of young people spilling into the street from a backyard, but otherwise only hundreds of people of all ages walking to and from the town center. On Main Street we encountered a crowd of thousands, and more carved pumpkins than we could have imagined. Some were the primitive but delightful efforts of young children, others were amazing works of art. Still others advertised local businesses and there were even proposals of marriage. The pumpkins were arrayed on rustic shelving running several blocks down both sides of the street. At the majestic square that stands at the top of Main Street stood the pièce de résistance, a fifty feet high tower of pumpkins all aglow with burning candles inside.

Behind the tower in a gazebo-like band shell four young Beatles impersonators reminded us old-timers of a better time with faithfully recreated songs of our past. My wife reminded me that all that we could see and hear around us was a marvelous present-day expression of community and good will.

Children were dressed in their Halloween best and little ones were being pulled in wagons and pushed in strollers. People posed for photos by their personal contributions to the massive pumpkin display. A man whose proposal of marriage to his sweetheart was carved into several pumpkins among the hundreds on the amazing tower was summoned to the band shell with his bride-to-be. They even danced to a Beatles tune to the delight of onlookers.

My wife was right. This was a wonderful celebration of American life in just one of the thousands of small communities that dot the landscape. We could only imagine how people might be celebrating the fall season in other towns and villages across the country.

With some effort we found a restaurant that could accommodate us for dinner, and then wandered back to our car. The festival was winding down and teams of local citizens soon would compete in the challenge to clear what turned out to be over 21,000 pumpkins (not a new world record) from Keene’s Main Street. By all appearances it was the end of a wonderful day in a beautiful New England town.

Not so, reported the Keene Sentinel the next morning. “Hordes of college-aged people overwhelmed the area” requiring “police [to] fight back against unruly mobs.” Google “Keene” and you will find references to mayhem, chaos, riots and armed police in riot gear firing rubber bullets and using tear gas.

Early reports of hospitals overrun with the injured were exaggerated, as they always are when the media sniffs a good story of violence and human suffering. Still, there is no doubt that what occurred beyond Keene’s Main Street was as much a display of wanton hooliganism as the festival on Main Street was a celebration of community and good will.

No doubt stories about thousands of happy people, about families enjoying a public celebration of fall in a glorious part of the country, don’t sell papers or attract clicks on the web. But the people of Keene deserves better than they are getting from those reporting on a Saturday’s events. Some students at Keene State College and young people from across New England had one thing in mind from the beginning – to get drunk and stage a riot.

“It’s just like a rush,” one 18 year old told the Sentinel. “Your revolting from the cops. It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

Another young person described it as a “protest.” But what in the world could they have been protesting?

Was it that the police were trying to preserve order and safety for the tens of thousands of people who had come to enjoy the day? It was a disgusting performance by irresponsible, coddled and ignorant youth – the very people who are supposed to be the future leaders of our towns, states and nation.

It is unfortunate for Keene that these ill-mannered hooligans chose the day of the pumpkin festival for their riot, but for the rest of us the contrast of wanton drunkenness and violence only a few blocks from a marvelous celebration of good will provides vivid testimony to the consequences of the permissiveness and indulgence that increasingly characterizes our institutions of secondary and higher education. But it also reminds us that there are a lot of good, public-spirited, people in our communities. It is those people, not the hooligans, who give hope for our future and whose futures should be our concern. The self-proclaimed “protesters” should be expelled from school, thrown in jail, and sent home for a good spanking.