Last weekend, the annual Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire, turned into a riot — as drunken New Hampshireans threw glass bottles at each other, set bonfires, and overturned at least one car. In response, police tear-gassed and pepper sprayed rioters to get them to disperse.
The incident got national attention because it crystallizes some uncomfortable truths about race and policing in America, a topic that's been in the national conversation since the killing of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, this August. For one thing, the Keene pumpkin festival — and the subsequent media coverage — made it clear that many news outlets treat violence among young white people as unusual (or even amusing), while political protests among young black people are considered dangerous and violent. But despite the difference in what young people were actually doing in Keene and in Ferguson, the police responded to both with military-style aggression — using tactics and equipment that police claim they only need to use in case of terrorist attacks, but then deploy against members of their communities.
That's why, as unexpected as a pumpkin festival riot may have been, the Keene police force had an armored vehicle at the ready precisely for this occasion — as John Oliver presciently pointed out two months ago.
In an August 17 Last Week Tonight segment about police militarization, Oliver gave a shoutout to the Keene police department, which got a BearCat, an armored vehicle used by the military, from the federal government to prepare for this year's Pumpkin Festival. (The department didn't actually use the BearCat over the weekend.) The Keene shoutout is at 7:17 of this video:
In retrospect, Keene might seem like a bad target for Oliver to make fun of. If Ferguson needs military vehicles and tactics to handle protesters, then Keene certainly does. The Pumpkin Festival was more violent than the protests in the St. Louis suburb — rioters in Keene reportedly caused 30 injuries.
That didn't stop CNN and other news outlets from describing the participants as a "rowdy crowd" — making them seem like a bunch of college kids behaving badly, rather than as a threat to public safety. The difference between a group of white youths behaving violently and being called a "rowdy crowd," and a group of black youths protesting the killing of their neighbor and being referred to as rioters, was not lost on some progressives on Twitter:
Pumpkin spice riot?! WVU sports riot? That’s impossible cuz I’ve been told many times in the last 2 months that only black thugs riot…— Tracie Thoms (@traciethoms) October 19, 2014
where are all the moderate whites, that's what I want to know? they SAY they're against this but I don't see them taking action @daliamalek— An Amazon Wishlist (@ShrillCosby) October 19, 2014
How many of the defiant white youth causing mayhem & destruction come from fatherless families? #PumpkinRiot— Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola) October 19, 2014
As the Twitter jokes acknowledged, no one is calling for "moderate whites" to denounce what white rioters did in Keene last weekend, even though people often assign that sort of collective responsibility to members of minority groups. And no one is talking about how "white cultural pathology," the breakdown of the white family, music, or fashion, contributed to the violence. The media has treated the Keene pumpkin riots as a standalone event, rather than an illustration of some deeper problem with white people.
How fear of terrorism turns into aggression against community members
While the news stories about Keene and Ferguson have been notably different in tone, law enforcement tactics had some marked similarities: the use of tear gas and pepper spray (and the procurement of military-style vehicles) to intimidate and disperse crowds. That's because the police response to the pumpkin festival followed the typical pattern for police militarization that is seen all over the country.
Local cops tell the federal government and their communities that they need military gear in the event of a terrorist attack. Then, once they get the gear, they don't let it sit around unused (and are often not allowed to let it sit around unused) — so they use it for drug busts or civil disobedience or pumpkin riots. This pattern's been documented across the country; read this Vox article on how cops get military equipment for a deeper explanation.
The incidents in Ferguson and Keene put a spotlight on the fact that when police across the US are given a whole lot of hammers and a mandate to use them, every potentially threatening situation can begin to look like a nail.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify that the BearCat procured by the Keene police in preparation for the Pumpkin Festival was not deployed, per New Hampshire Public Radio's Sam Evans-Brown.