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After Keene, N.H., riots, soul-searching and a mortified citizenry

Residents fret over a beloved tradition

KEENE, N.H. – It takes a lot of work to clean up a smashed pumpkin.

Following a weekend riot, it will take considerably more effort to clean up the reputation of the Keene Pumpkin Festival after thousands of college-age students turned nearby streets into a drunken, bottle-throwing melee that led to 84 arrests, dozens of injuries, one flipped car, one small fire, and a standoff with 200 law enforcement officers that lasted eight hours.

For locals, the incident is a considerable black eye for the city, which is known for its postcard-cute Main Street and its beloved festivals, particularly the main event on the city’s calendar, the Pumpkin Festival.

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On Monday, as the city got back to normal, there was much head-shaking on that cute Main Street as residents dealt with TV satellite trucks set up on Central Square and the idea that Keene had become a national joke: the city where they had the riot at the Pumpkin Festival.

“It’s world news. It’s all anyone is talking about,” said Dawn Cole as she walked down Main Street with her daughter, Erica Cornellier. Cole said she could remember taking her daughter to the first Pumpkin Festival as a baby. Now both Erica and the festival are 24, and have grown considerably.

The concern now for the Pumpkin Festival, which this year had over 60,000 people in attendance, is whether it has grown too big to continue.

That was one of the big questions at a packed press conference on Monday featuring law enforcement, city officials, and the president of Keene State College. The rioting — the police used the term again and again — took place in the streets abutting the college’s campus, where many students live. This is not the first year there have been out-of-control parties that led to conflicts between young people and police.

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Mayor Kendall Lane said the future of the festival is something that will be discussed going forward, while Anne Huot, the president of the college, promised an expedited process to punish any Keene students found to be involved, including by expulsion. She said she was working with several other New England colleges to identify students from those schools who may have been involved. The incident was well documented on social media, with hundreds of photos and videos.

The word among the student body at the college was one of remorse and embarrassment, according to Conor Aten, a junior at the school. The Pumpkin Festival is known as a proverbial “big weekend” at Keene State, the kind of event that students invite friends from out of town to join. But, he thinks, the advertisement of the fun is what backfired.

Officials in Keene, N.H., addressed the media Monday.
Officials in Keene, N.H., addressed the media Monday.NECN screen capture.

“It’s a situation where people thought it was going to be crazier than it was, so they came ready to trash the place,” Aten said as he walked down Blake Street on Monday, the scene of some of the worst behavior. “A lot of people with no affiliation with the community had no problem destroying it. I feel terrible about it. I think a lot of students do.”

Police Chief Kenneth Meola said the problems began at approximately 1 p.m. on Saturday when police had to break up two separate parties, each with over 1,000 people in attendance, to treat injured people, mostly suffering lacerations and blunt force trauma from people throwing rocks, bottles, and cans.

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The situation escalated until police, with backup from several neighboring law enforcement agencies, confined the crowd to Winchester Street and Blake Street.

With those crowds having moved to the streets, “there were too many people with nowhere to go, who couldn’t get into parties, so it was like, ‘Let’s riot,’ ” said George Hebner, a 22-year-old senior who said he was at work that day and returned home to the aftermath outside his apartment. He pointed to a charred black spot in the middle of Blake Street. “That used to be my couch.”

The strategy of confining the crowd was credited by many with saving the nearby Pumpkin Festival; several people in attendance said they heard about something amiss in the vicinity only through social media and the presence of police helicopters. But in the streets where the melee occurred, it got ugly, and much of the aggression was aimed at police.

“I witnessed bottles. Full bottles. Full liquor bottles. Full cans of beer. Billiard balls,” Colonel Robert Quinn of the New Hampshire State Police said of the objects hurled at law enforcement. He said it would be an understatement to describe the conduct as “disturbing.”

“The potential for someone being seriously injured or killed was there,” he said. No one was.

Police say they responded with several nonlethal measures, including pepper spray, firing over 100 pepper balls, and 10 “sponge rounds” at those who were particularly aggressive, according to Meola.

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As for the future of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, Mayor Lane said it was too early to tell, but that the city would begin a dialogue with organizers and elected officials and host a public forum in December.

Locals like Lily Herkenham, 32, and Scott Silver, 30, who were walking down Main Street on Monday, said they were proud of the way the town and its students handled the messy cleanup. A GoFundMe page has been set up to replace the car that was destroyed, and it had nearly met its target, Silver said. “And there were more students who came out to clean the streets than had tried to destroy them.”

Read the governor’s full statement below: