This weekend’s outbreak of pumpkin-fueled mayhem in Keene, N.H., provoked two equally incredulous reactions. First: Seriously — riots at a pumpkin festival? Second: Seriously — tear gas at a riot at a pumpkin festival? The college-age rioters may have truly believed they were just fighting for their right to party, and the police who responded may have honestly believed that Keene was on the brink of civil insurrection, but both badly need a reality check.
The melee started on Saturday afternoon, during the middle of the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival, when a party at a house near the Keene State College campus spun out of control. Outmatched officers struggled to contain the disruption as it spilled onto nearby streets. Showing little respect for New Hampshire’s state fruit or a community event meant to honor it, the rioters smashed windows, slashed tires, and overturned Dumpsters. Many of the rioters reportedly came from other schools; the next day, as Keene State became the object of national mockery, students from the college volunteered to clean up the mess.
Primary responsibility lies with the instigators, and Keene State College has vowed to punish any of its students who were involved. With plenty of video of the events, that probably won’t prove especially difficult. Reflecting the gravity of the situation, on Monday afternoon the governor of New Hampshire called for any other educational institutions whose students participated to hold them accountable as well. The best punishment would probably be to merely publish their names, ensuring that rioters will spend the next few years trying to explain any pumpkin-related indiscretions to future employers.
Still, rowdy students, sometimes displaying less than stellar judgement, are a stubborn fact of life on college campuses, and overreacting has its own dangers. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has faced a similar situation centered around the annual Blarney Blowout, which resulted in 58 arrests this year. A recent review by former Boston police commissioner Edward F. Davis called for the police there to adopt less aggressive tactics. “The donning of riot helmets and the use of chemical munitions had the effect of creating confusion and perpetuating the unruly behavior of the crowd,” the report found.
Indeed, in the Keene case, the mere presence of advanced weaponry only seemed to aggravate the situation. “Bring out the BearCat,” the students reportedly chanted, referring to an armored vehicle owned by the Keene police. The Davis report on the Amherst disturbances should provide some guidance for Keene and other college towns, too. It turns out that over-armed police forces aren’t just a problem for those protesting police brutality against African-Americans in Missouri. Whether it’s at a demonstration in Ferguson or a Pumpkin Festival gone awry in Keene, police shouldn’t respond to civil unrest with weaponry out of a war zone.