It's easy to make jokes about what has already come to be known as the Great Pumpkin Riot of 2014. Events in Keene, New Hampshire this past weekend read like an Onion article: The annual Pumpkin Festival in the sleepy college town ended with riot cops and tear gas as students and young people flipped cars and started fires in the street. Pumpkin-spiced madness! Smashing Pumpkins!
But there's good reason to take the riot seriously.
This was not a riot over pumpkins, of course. It was a riot over nothing, young people gathered in small town streets en masse and inebriated, then buoyed into further riotousness by overzealous SWAT policing. Mask Magazine rightly contextualizes the incident in the canon of nihilistic "party riots," à la the Bellingham, Washington student riots last year, which featured a young woman twerking on a cop car. But just because these riots weren't necessarily about anything — not pumpkins, not sporting events, and certainly not police shootings — is not evidence they're devoid of content or meaning.
The playful levity with which the media, if not the local police, are treating the riot seems as much to do with who was behind the destruction as it does with the seasonal theme. It was white youth who pulled down street signs and flipped over cars, and as a result they were described as "rowdy" and "boisterous." In Ferguson, where property damage and confrontations with cops were no more extreme, the rioters were deemed "violent" and "criminal." Black riots, it seems, get read as somewhat more threatening.
The difference was adeptly highlighted by Twitter comments about how the platitudes typically applied to black communities following a riot seemed absurd when applied to the Keene riot. "Why are they tearing up their own community," quipped one Twitter user. "Where are the leaders in the white community? They need to speak out #pumpkinfest," wrote another.
These were pointed riffs on the charges leveled at black communities in the wake of protests turned riotous. They highlight how blacks are forced to account, as a whole, for unruly behavior in a way that is never demanded of whites as a community. Black behavior is scrutinized and vilified. When white youth behave the same way — even without the significant imprimatur of protesting the police killing an unarmed teen — the response is so different it is risible.
The Pumpkin Fest incident is being described specifically as a "white riot" (The Clash references aside). It's accurate, and notable due to the qualification: "White" is applied because riots are presumed the purview of blacks in this country. As Raven Rakia has pointed out, the same activity that gets called a protest when carried out by white people is deemed a "riot" when the participants are predominantly black. "The decision to call one riots and the other protests has nothing to do with the amount of violence in the demonstrations," Rakia notes. "Violence is a realistic factor, and sometimes, a tactic, in all of these protests." It takes a considerable amount of chaos, fire, property damage, and heightened police response to merit the description "white riot."
The New Hampshire riots do not carry with them the same moral or political weight as the unrest in Ferguson. The riots in the St. Louis suburb were a wholly righteous manifestation of anger — some small violence in a deeply violent context, which sees black youth killed by cops at a rate 21 times that of white youth.
Still, we should take party riots seriously, and not write off this sort of rebelliousness as simply drunk and disorderly. It goes too far to call a party riot like Pumpkin Fest some libidinal manifestation of youth in revolt. But it doesn't go far enough if we ignore a desirousness for rupture and unrest — for riot — pulsing through popular culture. It's reflected in (and fed by) a pop culture landscape in which Katy Perry croons, "Warrants out for my arrest," and Miley Cyrus says she "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and Icona Pop blares, "I don't care. I love it."
The party, evidently, has incorporated the language of the riot. Are we really so surprised, then, that the riot came out of the party? Kesha couldn't have said it better when one 18-year-old Pumpkin Fest rioter told the Keene Sentinel, "It's just like a rush. You're revolting from the cops…. It's a blast to do things that you're not supposed to do."
All riots are certainly not good riots; the KKK have staged riots too. And the mere fact of refusing police dispersal orders and fighting back is not necessarily a political act with any lasting imprint — the riotous kids of Keene aren't heroes. But party riots open up a space in which white kids, not usually the targets of police violence, can learn what it's like to be in opposition to aggressive policing. It's an important lesson to learn for those who enjoy white privilege. The rupturous narratives of contemporary pop music and movies are not confined to clubs, Spotify lists, and cinemas — they can seep into the streets into very real riots. Turn down for what? The turn't up kids in Keene made clear: not for Pumpkin Fest, not for police.
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