When Whites Riot, Humanity is a Given

When Whites Riot, Humanity is a Given

Two weeks ago, hundreds of young whites clashed with riot police in Keene, NH, during the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival. The details regarding the riot’s spark are not clear. Witnesses describe the scene as a college party that spiraled out of control. Observers talked about how participants threw bottles and rocks, turned over dumpsters and a car, and uprooted traffic signs. The police responded in kind by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at rioters. Around thirty people were injured.

White privilege emanates from the images of the rioters bouncing on cars, tearing down street lights, and tipping dumpsters published in the Boston Globe and Daily Beast. Skeptics may scoff at this thought because of Keene State President Anne Huot’s willingness to punish students who were rioters. Yet, privilege in this context is not about engaging in riotous acts with impunity and without consequence. First, and most importantly, privilege is about participating in such acts with little-to-no fear of persecution, let alone death. Few, if anyone, will seriously point to race and pathology to condemn the white participants. Young whites will not be criminalized based upon their race and appearance to the point where all of American society will view them as threatening. There will not be any police occupation and the city will retain a sense of normalcy. Most importantly, and unlike in Ferguson, the riot will not lead to larger questions about white criminality, culture, or humanity.

"I Fit the Profile Am I Next?" Justice for Trayvon Martin July 20 Rally in Oakland. (Licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Steve Rhodes)
“I Fit the Profile Am I Next?” Justice for Trayvon Martin July 20 Rally in Oakland. (Licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Steve Rhodes)

In Ferguson, African Americans’ humanity was subject to question if they defended Michael Brown, engaged in riotous acts, or participated in nonviolent protest. Conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and writers for the National Review tried to depoliticize African American protest after Michael Brown’s shooting. They tapped into longstanding conservative arguments to explain the rebellion in Ferguson: protesters were really “thugs” and “criminals” looking to take advantage of chaos. Those who engaged in riotous acts in Keene were drunk and rowdy. Of course, some see excessive drinking as a potential character flaw, but no one would point to an intrinsic flaw in whiteness to explain such behavior. Acting “crazy” while white is not the same as protesting while black. No one will point to participants throwing bottles in the faces of others to explain how young whites are inherently violent. And, just as The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in “The Old Jim Crow,” white power will criminalize black protest.

After Michael Brown’s death in August, conservative writer Lee Habeeb pleaded for a black leader to admonish Michael Brown and the looters. Habeeb’s argument implies that Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising reflected badly upon black America. Yet, after the Pumpkin Riot, no one will talk about how it reflected negatively on all of (young) white America. No white leader will be expected to stand up and ridicule the protesters. It is possible that Bill O’Reilly may talk about the riot. The point is that neither he, nor any white public figure, has to publicly condemn the riot. It is understood that the riot is not a product of a racialized white humanity, or even a corrupted form of it. Authorities will blame it on a few “bad apples” and outsiders. Explanations underscoring individual acts of criminality are much easier to process when humanity is a given.

It is possible that some may try to point to the police usage of riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets as evidence that police violence is colorblind. It is true that the police wore riot gear and shot tear gas and rubber bullets in their attempts to contain the melee. Yet, despite law enforcement’s usage of tear gas and rubber bullets, there is little evidence of the asymmetrical police response to the Pumpkin Riot that was seen in Ferguson. There were no reports of police keeping guns raised in protesters’ faces, calling them “animals,” or dehumanizing the participants in any other way. The police did not use military-style armored vehicles to contain the rioters, they locked arms and formed a human barricade. Remember when John Oliver ridiculed Keene’s police department about its possession of a military-style truck? Well, law enforcement did not even use the Bear Cat. At points, according to a witness in Melanie Plenda’s Daily Beast article, the police just watched the riot unfold because they were outnumbered.

On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of young whites clashed with riot police in Keene, NH, during the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival. (Jeremy Fox / Boston Globe Correspondent)
On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of young whites clashed with riot police in Keene, NH, during the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival. (Jeremy Fox / Boston Globe Correspondent)

While one should analyze the Pumpkin Festival Riot in the wake of Ferguson carefully, the disturbance in Keene brings the fight for black humanity into stark relief. It is possible that the masculine rebelliousness exhibited by many of the white rioters will be dismissed as a phase or a rite of passage towards mature adulthood. The Ferguson participants’ anger is not as easily dismissed because black humanity and citizenship remain in question. Many whites see African Americans as physical threats, and as intellectually and politically immature. African Americans are civic neanderthals in this racist characterization — black Americans can use their bodies as lethal weapons and they are not fit to exercise the franchise because of a willingness to protest and practice racial solidarity in electoral politics. One needs to look no further than conservatives characterizing Obama supporters as “low information voters.” African Americans are not allowed the luxury of exhibiting a similarly rebellious attitude without much of white America and the criminal justice system interpreting such assertiveness as a threat to white prosperity, private property, and the system of representative governance.

Comparisons between the Pumpkin Festival Riot and Ferguson also resist comparison because more is at stake for African Americans in the 21st century. Racist policing and entrenched police power, incarceration, parasitic municipal institutions, racial segregation, and economic inequality constitute obstacles to racial equality and real threats to black life. We are fighting for justice and humanity on multiple flanks. We are not only fighting for justice in the myriad of police killings that have transpired in the last few years. We struggle for the right to protest without law enforcement, conservatives in power, and white Americans labeling us as criminals.

After the Pumpkin Festival Riot, there will be no conversations about how popular culture corrupts white youth. After a black woman or man is shot, America debates the impact of hip hop culture on the deceased’s character. After a black man or woman is shot, black leaders lecture young black women and men on the merits of respectability. White leaders will not tell the pumpkin rioters to pull up their pants, to stop cursing and using slang, and to lay off the pound cake. There will be no calls for white leaders to condemn white violence against gourds and white-on-white crime before protesting “reverse racism.” Politicians and pundits may deliver platitudes about the need for a national conversation about race in the wake of Ferguson, but not one person will call for any conversations about the problem of whiteness in American society. PBS will not air an “After the Keene Pumpkin Festival” special. There will be no occupation in Keene because white humanity is a given.

Suggested Readings

Banfield, Edward C. “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit,” in The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Old Jim Crow.” The Atlantic, October 15, 2014.

Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Kaufman, Scott. “Whites Riot Over Pumpkins in NH and Twitter Turns it into Epic Lesson about Ferguson,” Raw Story, October 19, 2014, accessed October 19, 2014.

Featured image caption: Brett Myers/Youth Radio, “Michael Brown Sr. with Rev. Al Sharpton and Attorney Benjamin Crump,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” call and response at the St. Louis Peace Fest. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.