Keene Pumpkin Festival, an annual event in New Hampshire ended in scenes of violent riot on Oct. 18 — the root of which remains murky. Posts on Twitter drew sobering attention to media comparisons between Ferguson and the more recent Pumpkin riot. Perhaps the most widely circulated quote from the festival is that of an 18-year-old rioter who traveled from out of state because, “It’s a blast to do things you’re not supposed to do.” With unimpressive quotes like this, and considering Keene State College’s track record for stirring up chaos and destruction in the absence of a compelling cause, it’s not hard to see why the Pumpkin Festival was initially an object of ridicule on social media. But according to several Twitter users, there are more than a few reasons why the fire-starting, bottle-throwing, street sign-throwing and Subaru-flipping that took place last weekend should be taken a bit more seriously.
At first glance, the conflict sounds almost like a joke. White, college-aged kids decide to riot at an annual pumpkin festival. An innocuous small-town event turned “rowdy” seems hardly anything worthy of serious consideration, especially in the absence of the kind of justifiable anger driven from by a notable cause. Well, for starters, just ask students at Keene State College who had to clean up after the riots. This was more than the aftermath of innocent horseplay among a few stray frat brothers. The riots were rumored to have begun at a crowded backyard party and spilled into the streets following frustration over police intervention. Evidently the damage inflicted sent at least 25 to the hospital and was enough for police to use tear gas to disperse the crowds that mainly consisted of college kids.
Yet, rubber bullets were also used, one aspect that suggests special treatment. It is precisely the combination of “vanilla” descriptions in the media and the actions of police that led the Twittersphere to — rightfully — erupt in a frenzy of ironic disdain. Many tweets referring to the event compared the treatment of these riots to events that transpired in Ferguson, Missouri, leaving teen Michael Brown dead by the hand of a police officer and sparking protests and unrest.
Tweets about the Pumpkin Festival riots are raising relevant questions about race. It’s abhorrent that one unarmed teen was shot six times in Missouri, while outright violence in New Hampshire was met calmly with measures such as pepper spray. One tweet highlighted this gross disparity, “‘White people riot for this —’ Puts a pumpkin on the stage. ‘Black people riot for *this* —’ Simulates being shot by a cop.”
Another tweet addressing the issue reads: “The kids at #keenestate threw beer cans at cops and got arrested. Mike Brown threw his hands up and caught SIX shots.”
Not all tweets were this serious. Many mocked initial reactions to Ferguson by applying them to the Pumpkin Festival riots. For example, one tweet read, “I am urging the parents of white youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing LL Bean. #Keene.”
But #PumpkinFest and all other witty sarcasm aside, the tweets point toward a larger issue: There is something tragically wrong with a criminal justice system that treats groups engaging in the same or similar activities differently when the only variable is race. If this isn’t an indicator of systemic racism, then skeptics must just be blind. And it doesn’t stop with police behavior, either.
The hashtags and tweets also do a clever job in drawing attention to how the uprising was handled by the media. This perception issue isn’t just limited to the police, it’s also culturally perpetuated by the press. One circulating meme compared word choice, pointing out that black protestors are labeled “thugs,” while their white counterparts are merely “rowdy.” The Pumpkin Festival rioters engaged in mischief, but the Ferguson riots were a display of “animal” behavior. Where Ferguson was an instance of “destroying the community,” the Pumpkin Festival was just a bunch of “booze-filled revelers” causing trouble.
Tweets addressing the problem are important because they come from real people speaking out. The beauty of a medium like Twitter is that it provides a forum for thought-provoking sound bites that come from the people. The large numbers involved in the discussion simply help catapult the issue onto a national stage.
The country owes Twitter a thank you for turning a riot people didn’t take seriously into a learning opportunity.