Pumpkin riots in the place where all good souls go to die

An exclusive glimpse into New England’s weirdest little city, why pumpkins cause riots, and why cops should have fewer war toys

Where have you gone, Keene, New Hampshire? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo – reluctantly and with a collective shake of the head. This year, Keene’s pride and joy, its annual Pumpkin Festival, at which pilgrims travel from far and wide to pack the city’s (“city”‘s) Main Street to the brim in order to pay homage to the tens of thousands of lit jack-o-lanterns on display, went national. It wasn’t, however, because the event holds the official world record for most pumpkins ever – though this fact has undeniably been tragically unreported in the mainstream media.

Instead, everybody now knows about Pumpkinfest – a happening I’ve carefully avoided since at least 2008, years before I managed to mostly extricate myself from Keene itself – because the drunken youth partying nearby to celebrate the occasion caught a fragrant wave of tense and violent energy. It was the sort of wave we old and wizened veterans have come to see as it approaches, the sort we’ve learned to neatly step aside and thus avoid being carried away. Not in our youth, and not so for the youths in question today, who started a riot involving thrown bottles, fires in the streets, and overturned cars, giving the police permission to come out in full riot and SWAT gear, backed up by reinforcements from towns all throughout a 100-mile radius, and employ pepper spray, pepper bullets, tear gas, and, best of all, their own special tank.

A succinct piece on RawStory has been making the rounds, providing a quick summary of the Twitter response to the Pumpkin Riots, an astute and on-point analytical response drawing immediate comparisons between the media coverage and police response toward the lily-white nihilists in Keene and the majority-black protesters demanding justice in Ferguson, Missouri. When college kids in rural New England cause significant damage for no reason, there’s a perception – an entirely accurate perception – that they’re treated more gently than those expressing legitimate, righteous anger, with almost zero damage to property or even provocative behavior, in urban Missouri. In the wake of a riot, lessons tend to fall from the sky, but this must be paramount among them – we must grapple with it before, during, and after we grapple with the others.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

But since I’ve got your attention, since I’m a guy who’s spent way too much of his past life in Keene, and since I’ve been in a hilariously Vox-ic mood lately, especially if we’re all going to do some grappling, let’s really crack open this “city” of around 25,000.

Liberal mafia gestapo, Robin Hood, freedom, a cat, and a bear

“The pumpkin-spice-addled kids who went wild in Keene are the Bizarro World of their youthful peers in Hong Kong.”
-Will Bunch, Philly.com

Writing for Philly.com, Will Bunch’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin Riot of 2014, Charlie Brown” displays a remarkable grasp of the subject matter (especially for a random Pennsylvanian) and expresses it with precisely the right tone for the occasion. Bunch’s point above isn’t much different from that displayed in the RawStory piece, and even if he’s referring to discipline and purpose, his colorful prose is at least subconsciously prescient: Keene is the Bizarro World.

When I say this is a place where Weird is Normal, I don’t mean Old New England Eccentric Weird. I don’t mean Rural Hippie Yoga Granola Weird, either. It’s much worse. Ever hear a familiar song played on some faulty piece of equipment that causes it to be just a tiny bit too fast or too slow? Better yet – ever have those dreams in which everything looks mostly normal, but you pick up on something in the air and little tangible clues and you know it’s just a little off? It’s like that – it’s subtle and insidious, and the net effect is like a little Ashuelot Valley anxiety factory frantically regurgitating bad vibes like volcano smokestacks all across the land.

A prime example is found when examining hysterically flagrant violations of press freedoms. In Ferguson, reporters for the Huffington Post and the Washington Post were unapologetically harassed, shaken down, and arrested by unmarked and unidentified men dressed in military camo and holding military assault-style weapons (to describe them as police officers doesn’t come close to capturing the magnitude of the scene). The video of that brazen law enforcement thuggery is somewhat terrifying and incomprehensible – but not nearly as incomprehensible as the video of the Keene version, which truly has to be seen to be believed:

The poor victim in this absurd tragicomic performance is Jared Goodell, dutifully putting his time in on behalf of local public access channel Cheshire TV, destined to spend the day providing man-on-the-street coverage of such curios as tens of thousands of pumpkins, the pilgrims who came to pay homage to them, and all the cute kids in their cute costumes being wholesome and American. This is not a man who went looking for a riot; no, as fate had it, the riots came looking for Goodell.

Right behind the riots, seemingly out of nowhere, came festival organizer Ruth Sterling, and she was gunning for him. Not wanting the accurate description of unfortunate reality to sully a family-friendly day of cuteness so near to her heart, she knew this was a problem that could only be solved by force. With unexpected skill (?), she accosted the local reporter, getting in his face, threatening to cut his power and have him removed, and even apparently trying (unsuccessfully, it turned out), to unleash the fury of the part of the crowd not then rioting on his head. I’ve watched the video several times now, and I’m not sure if Sterling is acting as agent of a Pumpkin Mafia comprised of soccer moms, school board members, and cohorts of the Chamber of Commerce with their matching Coexist and NHPR bumper stickers, or if she alone is Queen of the Pumpkins, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

But this is Keene. I probably shouldn’t be caught off guard by any of this, and neither should you. Keene is only ever in the news for strange reasons – tiny morsels of Bizarre that grant the outside world but the barest hint of what pervasive oddity lies within. Dedicated observers will remember that 2012 was the year the local police department became the latest recipient of the Lenco BearCat™ mini-tanks the federal government is still giving out like military-industrial cash candy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The town also boasts arguably the weirdest libertarian problems in the country. The Free State Project is a years-old conspiracy to deliberately migrate hoards of crypto-anarcho-capitalists to a small rural state and use their numbers to form a voting block to infiltrate and control local politics and turn the state into a liberty-utopia. Naturally or not, New Hampshire was the lucky winner of future freedom. But though the project’s site boasts that their goal of 20,000 is 80% complete, the only place they seem to have an organized (or even noticeable) presence is Keene. The fact that Keene is actually one of the most reliably liberal areas of the state hasn’t stopped the movement (or whatever) from grabbing headlines for smoking weed publicly, taking over city council meetings with strange half-baked rants about property rights given by people without anything resembling the means to own property, and, more recently, the “Robin Hood” movement. It’s not exactly taking from the rich to give to the poor so much as an admittedly creative and amusing operation to fill expired parking meters with change before parking enforcement can write tickets. Hilariously, this has deprived the city of so much budgeted revenue in ticket fines that they’ve attempted all manner of legal action against the Robin Hooders – accusing them (perhaps not entirely falsely, either) of “harassing” the meter enforcement officers.

Most recently, HBO comedian John Oliver made wonderful fun of Keene’s militarized police force on his show, specifically lampooning the fact that the city police chief had justified his new tank by declaring the Pumpkin Festival a potential terrorist target.

I really hope this is enough to give you a decent idea of the extent of the absurdity just gushing through the entire sordid tale.

Anthropology of a spiritual dead zone

The denizens of this place are far from unified in their feelings and/or loyalty toward their home. You’ll find plenty who love it, plenty who hate it, a few who alternate back and forth, and almost none who remain ambivalent. Those still populating the city’s many bars at the latest hours will often be heard calling it “The K-Hole” because it sounds subversive and unpleasant, but also because the place is known as a difficult one to leave once you’re there. That’s an assertion I wouldn’t dispute for a hot second, but I had my own moniker for the valley: The Place Where All Good Souls Come to Die. Many find that characterization unfair, but it’s never been either my style of my job to pull punches on such matters of utmost severity. I started a rumor once that the entire place is run by either one powerful demon or a council of fairly powerful ones.

I can’t prove that’s true, but I won’t denounce it as false, either.

It’s a place that’s only an hour and a half from Boston and around four hours from NYC that yet manages to seem at times as much an isolated frontier-territory as 1860s Deadwood. Its people fastidiously refuse to travel more than ten to twenty minutes away; those who move out of town are often considered deceased or at the very least lost. The culture is vaguely East Coast, but the lack of identification with any major city coupled with a sort of forced folksiness lends an almost midwestern flair to the scene.

I feel like I read somewhere once that the best possible gene pools for primates occur when they are organized, and breed, in relatively small tribal units, with some necessary but limited intermixing with nearby, similarly-sized tribal units. My entirely unqualified analysis – which has nonetheless been challenged by virtually no one – holds that this is precisely how Keene’s society is organized. There are three distinct and self-segregated groups – the Natives, the College Kids, and Those Who Ended Up There By Accident. (I, and most of my cohorts, fell into the third category.) There’s very little interaction between these groups as a matter of course, though there is inevitably some overlap – a Native who becomes a College Kid, a College Kid who graduates and fails to escape and becomes an Accidental, and, least common of all, the Accidental who becomes a Native. Outside the overlap, the interbreeding exists only at a bare minimum.

An important consequence of this, as I noted on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the shenanigans, is that one should be clear that this was no libertarian crusade against authority. Free Staters are Accidentals and they do not ever mix with College Kids. The libertarians might hold to an incredibly and frustratingly half-baked “ideology,” and they might do things I’d occasionally describe as “stupid,” but they’ve got a few redeeming qualities I’ll begrudgingly admit. They host an online stream of the city’s police scanner. They challenge authority in calm and creative ways that, at the very least, may cause some to question the current order, even if their conclusions are quite incorrect. They’re rabble-rousers, but they don’t riot.

The people who riot

The people who do riot, it turns out, lack even a half-baked pseudo-ideology. They lack politics, they lack belief, they lack coherence. They lack everything but their own privilege and nihilism, an explosive combination when booze and frenzy are subsequently mixed on in.

It should come as no surprise that I do not oppose riots in and of themselves. Not even close. In fact, I believe there are countless reasons right out in the open every single day that are completely fair justifications for a good riot – any day, any time. Even the privileged white kids at the state school could conceivably have plenty of reasons to revolt. Their privilege provides them a boost over people of color and the poor, an inherent ability to surmount certain systemic socioeconomic hurdles that others don’t have, but they’re still destined to a life of exploitation at the hands of capitalist overlords and their little honchos. I’ve got nothing against KSC – my wife is an alumnus – but it’s not known for churning out the world’s puppetmasters.

It’s when people who can be said to have good reason to rebel, even disruptively so, take a pass on that and instead set the town ablaze For Beer and Future Stories (no doubt to be shared with great pride with their bro-buddies in whatever third-tier MBA program will take them), that’s when I definitively stand in opposition.

The Christian Science Monitor gets it right: “Long past are the days when they were mostly protests or expressions of student discontent. In recent years, it seems, many students just see them as a fun part of the college experience.” I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway – that’s bullshit. This isn’t a rite of passage. It’s indiscriminate, random violence conducted by middle class kids bored and lacking in imagination. As so many others have pointed out, there are lots of hard-working, conscientious people out there fighting in the streets for the real cause of justice, and these entitled pricks are just causing problems out of some twisted and desperate sense of fun. Even a weird and borderline-terrible town like Keene doesn’t deserve that.

(I should note here that I also tend to believe that, on a deeper level, when people view aimless rioting as a fun and necessary experience, that’s the result of an inherently troubled and self-contradictory society. I can’t prove that, of course, but I’ll believe it until I see evidence to the contrary.

The people who make riots worse

In the wake of the immediately heavy-handed Ferguson PD response to those protesting the Mike Brown murder at the hands of police, many pointed out that this was a police department that had been outfitted with military-grade equipment and was taking this opportunity to finally try it out. The same dynamic was very much at play in Keene, and not least because they took the opportunity to roll out the BearCat itself.

One can’t say for certain whether the decision to deploy the tank, the shields, the projectiles, etc. was influenced in any way by a desire to prove something to the John Olivers of the world. See? We DID need this stuff, so stop laughing at us! Whether or not that’s the case, and despite the size and wildness of the riotous crowd, I strenuously maintain that the willingness to so quickly resort to these adversarial tactics both escalated and prolonged the mayhem.

No, this was not a police riot. The idiot kids did start the thing, not the cops. But responsible citizens, who ought to expect the very best from those charged with maintaining order in their communities, must look closely at how this was handled. We know the kids were 100% wrong, but that doesn’t preclude an examination as to the effectiveness and wisdom of the police response. They chose to break out the shields and helmets and start shooting both pepper spray and pepper spray bullets, eventually deploying tear gas. This decision was made over, say, a more conventional response involving making examples of a large number of crowd members by arresting them and packing the paddywagons. I’m not filled with enough blind faith in the benevolent institutions of law enforcement to take seriously the idea that shooting shit at people is a better way to calm them down than calm and authoritative imposition of order and restraint. The kids were going to riot no matter what, but the cops, standing in formation with their ridiculous shields, are the ones who created the war zone.

As Bunch wrote in his Charlie Brown piece, “Of course, in reality, the real-life response this weekend of the Keene police — in riot gear, lobbing tear gas — is every bit as questionable and should get the same level of scrutiny as it did in Ferguson. It probably won’t, though.” He’s right.

Nothing good will come out of this, and it’s unlikely that many will even take away any lasting lessons, but, if nothing else, I hope this has provided America-at-large with a disturbing glimpse into one of its weirdest, most ignored and forgotten corners.

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