Rioting in Black and White: From Pumpkin Fest To Ferguson, And Back

Terrance Heath

A riot in New Hampshire, and a likely acquittal in Ferguson, Missouri, underscore that blacks and whites still live in very different Americas, under very different rules. The comparison was inevitable, as the images of unrest in Ferguson were still fresh in the minds of Americans, when a riot of a different color broke out in Keene, New Hampshire last week.

Predominantly white Keene State University students and non-students destroyed street signs, threw liquor bottles and billiard balls, set fires, pushed barricades, shouted curses at police officers, and flipped at least one car.

Students weren’t the only ones getting, “rowdy.” Pumpkin Festival coordinator Ruth Sterling even fought with local reporter Jared Goodell, wresting away his microphone in an attempt to keep him from covering the riots.

More than 30 people were injured, most by thrown items. Eighty-four people were arrested over the weekend, and social media helped police identify more participants.

Even as the Pumpkin Fest riots started, Morgantown, West Virginia was burning.

White West Virginia University students rioted after a football game — complete with gang signs.

Morgantown, WV Riot

When the media referred to Keene’s rioters as “rowdy,” and said that West Virginia Students “partied a little too hard”, the irony was not lost on Twitter users who remember how participants in riots and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri were portrayed just two months ago.

Keene and Morgantown are not Ferguson, but the tweeters have a point. There are major differences between black riots and white riots:

  • When white people riot, there is no collective responsibility. The events in Keene and Morgantown are not taken as “proof” that whites are inherently lawless or more prone to violence than anyone else.
  • When white people riot, is it not because of the moral failure of white culture, white parents, or white leadership. No one asks how many of the rioters in Keene and Morgantown came from “fatherless families,” or questions their “work ethic.”
  • Blacks and whites to riot about different things. That’s probably the biggest difference between black riots and white riots.

In Ferguson and other places, blacks took to the streets in response to the death of another young black man, and/or when our system of justice let his killers walk free. Historically, black riots are driven by a collective lack of faith in the justice system, and feelings that the concerns of the community remain unheard.

Yet, blacks have repeatedly reacted peacefully to injustice. When fears of widespread riots following the not guilty verdict in the trail of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin proved overblown,Brittney Cooper suggested that “Will blacks riot?” is the wrong question:

Rather than preaching to Black people about not rioting, these are the kinds of questions we should be asking and answering. What alternatives are there when the system fails? It should be clear by now, that despite centuries of being disappointed by the system, African Americans believe in the value and potential of this democracy more than even white people do. We shed our lives for it; sacrifice our dignity to it; and internalize our anger in the face of it.

In Keene and Morgantown, predominantly white groups of students rioted because it just seemed like the thing to do.

One rioter, Steven French, told the Keene Sentinel that he traveled from Haverhill, Massachusetts to attend the festival because he knew it would be “f*cking wicked.”

“It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he continued. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

French’s oblivious enthusiasm for mayhem doesn’t compare to the life-and-death concerns that motivate protests in Ferguson and elsewhere. They do bring to mind, however, The Clash’s 1977 punk anthem “White Riot”; though French and his peers are probably not what Joe Strummer had in mind, when he wrote lyrics appealing to young whites to find a worthy cause to agitate for, as he felt blacks in the UK had.

One week before the riots in Keene and Morgantown, activists travelled to Ferguson for a weekend of direct action, to demand justice for Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and others. The weekend extended in to all of October, including a National Day of Action on October 22.

After the Pumpkin Fest riot, Ten demonstrators pulled a red wagon filled with pumpkins scrawled with words like “HATE,” “RACISM,” and “WHITE PRIVILEGE” to the steps of the St. Louis County Justice Center . ” and smashed them at the feet of nearby police. Three were arrested.

There may be further unrest in Ferguson. Leaks from the investigation telegraph the outcome that prosecutor Robert McCulloch probably intended when he made the unusual decisions not to recommend charges to the grand jury. Leaks that seem to confirm officer Wilson’s story received a lot of media attention, while the autopsy report’s suggestion that Michael Brown could have been shot from behind was almost completely ignored.

Activists, citizens, police, and businesses in Ferguson are preparing for the worst.

If there is no indictment in Ferguson, and rage returns to Ferguson’s streets. Will Americans remember the riots in Keene and Morgantown? Will Americans finally ask themselves why the system fails, and what alternatives there are when it does.

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