There was another large riot recently
, one that resulted in a large police presence. Maybe you heard something about it. Maybe you didn't. Maybe the media portrayed this riot as "rowdiness" fueled by alcohol that just "got out of hand." Maybe it didn't. The annual Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire, somehow devolved into overturned cars, smashed windows and lit fires, but there's been no extensive handwringing about the police response to that
situation -- one composed mostly of white, college-age males. [h/t to Techdirt reader WulfTheSaxon
for the NBC News link]
The media handled this riot differently. There will be no #Keene hashtag activism. No one will bury the local cops for their response. The media -- some of the media -- soft-sold the damage and whitewashed the damage. But... the media is not a single entity. Scott Shackford at Reason posted the following image macro that breaks down the perceived difference
in coverage. It's generally illustrative but of limited usefulness. As Shackford points out, this image vastly oversimplifies the media's reaction to both situations.
However, there was a major difference in the police response. In Ferguson, the response was full-force from day one. Decisions -- terrible decisions -- were made almost immediately. These decisions, like the one pictured below in another convenient image meme, inflamed the situation.
The last thing anyone wants to do is draw parallels to the racially-charged riots of the 1960's. And yet, talking heads couldn't seem to keep themselves from siding with The Man bringing Fergusonians down.
Yeah, because that doesn't have any negative connotations.
Here's where the actual disparity sets in. In Ferguson, the police rolled out in full military gear, using every piece of equipment at its disposal. Flak-jacketed SWAT members sat atop armored vehicles training weapons on protesters. Tear gas was heaved indiscriminately into crowds and onto people's front yards. Civil liberties were suspended without notice.
Moving on to Keene, New Hampshire. A full-blown riot breaks out because of widespread drunkenness and the police respond with massive numbers and teargas. So far, so equal. But then the narrative splits and shows that there's a latent strain of discrimination running through law enforcement.
To get to the root of this disparity, you have to step back to 2010, when Keene, NH, a town of 23,000, requested a DHS grant to obtain a BearCat, an armored SWAT vehicle made by Lenco. In both of its requests (2010-2011), it cited "domestic terrorism" as one of its major concerns, specifically noting the annual Pumpkin Festival's ability to draw "70,000 people" to the small Northeastern town.
"Keene currently hosts several large public functions to include: an annual Pumpkin Festival, which draws upwards of 70,000 patrons to the City."
The threat to the festival, the application noted, could "include the use of Radiological Dispersion Devices by terrorists," adding that such “dirty” bombs are "much more likely than the use of a nuclear device." The BearCat has radiation and chemical detection devices, and the application argued that no other vehicle in the county was capable of protecting, transporting and measuring such radiation.
This acquisition made Keene a laughingstock.
The mayor and city council tried twice to return the vehicle and grant money to the DHS without success
. A city council member tried twice to return the vehicle and grant money
, but was shot down both times by the mayor and the rest of the council. So, the BearCat has been in storage since 2011. And it's still there, despite an incident occuring that was exactly
like the one cited in the hilarious grant request form. A riot… at the Pumpkin Festival… requiring an all-hands-on-deck police response… featuring tear gas and pepper spray bullets…. and yet, the BearCat stayed safely housed in its garage.
The rioters knew Keene had a BearCat. For them, this drunken display of violence and vandalism was a game -- a way to safely dip a toe into the police state without worrying about being beaten severely or shot multiple times. Sure, there was a chance things could go horribly wrong, but the rioters knew
the local police weren't going to break out the military gear. They knew their white, drunken, frat boy destruction would never result in a full-fledged response. So, they taunted the Keene cops.
As black-clad police moved in on a group of students Saturday during beer-soaked riots that disrupted Keene, New Hampshire’s annual Pumpkin Festival, the students began to chant, “Bring out the BearCat! Bring out the BearCat!”
Taunting the police. Contrast that with "Hands up, don't shoot!" Look at a drunken frat boy daring the cops to take their militarized toy out of the shed. Compare that to Ferguson cops taking every militarized tool
out of the shed preemptively. Someone cries about a sniper or two on the rooftops in Keene
. In Ferguson, the guys with guns point weapons at protesters whle sitting atop a PD assault vehicle
. No one had to dare
the Ferguson cops to get their DHS-supplied toys. All they had to do was go outside.
Keene's police chief defends the BearCat in 2012:
“Do I think al Qaeda is going to target Pumpkin Fest? No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes, and we should prepare for that.”
No terrorism at Pumpkin Fest, but a riot broke out… and still, the BearCat continued to collect dust.
There are no threats in this town, none that demand the purchase of an armored vehicle. That much has been proven. There are no threats of that seriousness in Ferguson, Missouri, and yet every single piece of militarized gear
made an appearance.
There's a huge difference between how the police treat black men and white men. The media knows it, but will only rarely address it. Cops know it. Their actions betray their inner thoughts. But worst of all, the drunken assholes who turned Pumpkin Fest into G20-via-beer-bong know it
. This is why they can taunt the local cops. This is why they view this brush with riot gear-clad officers as a rush indistinguishable from taking the crotch rocket up to 180 mph on the nearest highway
. Just another empty experience for a bunch of privileged assholes. Not "privileged" as in "rich" or "upper class." "Privileged" in the sense that not one of these mooks ever felt their lives were in danger, even though they were surrounded by cops. "Privileged" as in not being greeted by a phalanx of men in military fatigues, guns at the ready
Is it just overt discrimination from all involved? Not quite. What's happening here has happened for years. A lot of it is latent. Even those supposedly colorblind and highly conscious of their own motives find themselves just as susceptible to the normal narrative: African-Americans, especially men, are inherently dangerous.
Lawrence Block, novelist and native New Yorker, has this to say in Eight Million Ways to Die
, and it tells a nuanced story in a couple of lean sentences.
I walked over to 125th Street. It was wide and busy and well-lit, but I was starting to feel the not entirely irrational paranoia of a white man on a black street.
So, it's pervasive, institutionalized and, sadly, sometimes not entirely without merit. More crime is committed by black men, the stats say, failing to note that a cycle of violence and criminal activity is rarely righted by depressed living conditions or repeat incarcertation. The prisons fill with black men. White flight subverts integration. Black men are inherently suspect, inherently frightening.
This view seeps into the system and sets up a neural network of involuntary responses. African-Americans in Ferguson walk with their hands up and are greeted with wooden bullets, tear gas and the assumption they're only outside to loot, fight or otherwise make things worse.
"Hands up. Don't shoot."
Caucasians in New Hampshire flip cars and smash windows. They too encounter a police response consisting of pepper spray bullets and tear gas canisters. But it's all just a game, both for the participants and the responding force.
"Bring out the BearCat!"
That's America: one nation, still heavily divided.