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Pumpkin Riot, Ferguson & the White Privilege to Turn Down for Whatever

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Protesters approached the St. Louis County Justice Center while holding pumpkins marked “racism,” “police brutality” and “white privilege.” They planned to smash the pumpkins in front of the police station to make a point about the disparity in media coverage of primarily white college students rioting in Keene, New Hampshire, and media coverage of reaction in Ferguson, Missouri, to white police officer Darren Wilson who killed an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that protest organizer Derek Laney was arrested “after he held the pumpkin” over his head and “decried the shooting” of Brown before smashing the pumpkin “at the feet of officers stationed about 10 feet from the Justice Center door.” He protested the fact that Keene State College students were called “unruly” or “drunken revelers” and accused of merely “causing a ruckus” while community residents upset in Ferguson were labeled “rioters” or “thugs.”

Altogether, there were three people arrested. Police charged protesters with littering offenses and an assault offense. Even though the pumpkin never left one woman’s hands, it was taken away from her, and she was charged with conspiring to litter.

It did not take long for people to mock what happened on Saturday, October 18. When the images of violence and chaos perpetrated by both students and police at Keene State College and in the midst of the annual Pumpkin Festival were first shared, individuals who had followed what happened in Ferguson closely immediately made a connection. (I joked, “How many of the defiant white youth causing mayhem & destruction come from fatherless families?”)

Laughs were had, but people on the ground in Ferguson were generally outraged and stunned by the sickening display of white privilege.

As a local newspaper, The Keene Sentinel, reported:

“It’s (expletive) wicked,” said Steven French, an 18-year-old who was said he was visiting from Haverhill, Mass.

It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he said, sometime after 9 p.m. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

French stood on the sidelines of a group hundreds of people strong on Winchester Street. The young people shouted expletives — many of them directed at police — started fires on the roadway, and pulled down a street sign before slamming it on the pavement, to the roars of the crowd. [emphasis added]

Deray McKesson, who curates a Ferguson Protestor newsletter, reacted, “We protest to protect the right to be black and alive,” and what happened in Keene was as “offensive as Darren Wilson’s freedom.” [Wilson has yet to be arrested or indicted.]

“I don’t even need to tweet what would happen to black people if they dared to riot like #PumpkinFest folks,” activist Kim Moore tweeted. Joshua Bennett, an African-American writer based in New York, said, “I don’t know what to say to someone who thinks it’s ‘fun’ to fight cops. We don’t live in the same world.”

If you do not understand this reaction, take a moment to watch this video.

In particular, pay attention to how calm police are in the predominantly white town of Keene. A young white man (presumably hammered) approaches a state trooper. The state trooper casually informs him he needs to get out of the street. A protester in Ferguson would be gang tackled in minutes. That does not happen.

Instead, the young white man is permitted to chat with the trooper. He asks about the weapon an officer standing next to him is holding. “What are they? Are they just paintballs?” The trooper responds, “Pepper spray balls.” He says they have “OC pepper spray” and they pop and just get “powder all over you.”

Listening to the trooper, one would think being shot at by so-called “less-lethal” weapons was a mellow experience. The student gets to ask a follow-up about why officers were shooting at the windows of houses. The trooper’s answer is so the pepper spray balls break. It doesn’t really answer the question, but the young man, who still has not been arrested is too baked, too sloshed and/or too stupid to recognize this.

In another part of this clip, a young white man wearing a shirt from the clothing line created by blink-182 drummer Travis Barker approaches the camera to say, “Yeah, I got blasted like six times man. It was so wild, bro. Like so much alcohol in my system. And then they shot me with a rubber bullet.”

“Did you get shot?” the person making the video asks. “Nah,” he responds. He just thought it would be funny to make up some story about getting fired at by riot police.

There’s also this video of young white people throwing bottles at each other without police even stepping in to try and defuse the scene with tear gas, rubber bullets or pepper spray.

The police explain, as glass is breaking all over the street during a scene where someone could get seriously hurt, “We’re aware of what’s happening. We’re containing it.” However, they were not on the street where bottles were flying in the midst of hundreds of people.

Other videos show young white people taking over entire streets with no police vehicles sounding their sirens at them to get out of the street. There are no intercom announcements to disperse or you will be arrested. There are students tearing down street signs without any consequences whatsoever. They set fires and turn a car over. And, for the most part, it seems no businesses or locations in the community were warned to be on the lookout for students planning to storm the area.

A large group of youth who had probably (ab)used an array of drugs violently threw bottles, and police responded in the same manner that they did when protesters organized demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death. In fact, the police showed even more restraint. They did not even deploy the armored personnel carrier, a BearCat, which the city happens to have.

The difference in the responses is likely a result of dominant white culture, which is reinforced by the white power structure that remains largely in place.

White culture fears groups of people of color out on the streets protesting. Immediately, it is suggested that they may have guns or plans to loot. When police kill a young black man, everyone is told to fear riots with little attention to the fact that this happens because there is a prevalent understanding that the system does not work for young black men who are killed by white police officers.

This culture also inspires Americans to show disgust when faced with the sight of predominantly black protesters at sports events. It is why a number of fans of the St. Louis Cardinals treated protesters in a racist manner when they took their message to Busch Stadium.

It largely explains why a white St. Louis Rams fan felt the need to rip an American flag out of a young black woman’s hands because it was being displayed upside down as a symbol of distress.

What happened with the flag was actually more insulting than what happened in Keene. Local news media reported that there was a fight that broke out over this flag. A mother and her daughter were struggling with this white Rams fan as he attacked them. The police never arrested the fan, who reportedly said “America is mine, not yours.” The black mother and daughter were arrested.

As McKesson put it, “White privilege is the freedom to attack without consequence.” Indeed, on August 20, a Darren Wilson supporter entered the zone where protesters had been demonstrating for justice for Brown. She stood there and shouted, “Y’all need to get your facts straight, and was confronted by people. Someone tried to take her sign and police escorted her out of the area so she would not get hurt.

This is the opposite of what police have done near sports stadiums, where white fans have verbally and physically attacked protesters. The police keep a distance until something serious happens. They then arrest the people who were defending themselves from angry fans.

Young white people at colleges and universities can act out however they want—setting fires and rioting after they win a big football game, rioting and tipping over a news van after a coach who helped cover up child molestations was fired, rioting and throwing smoke bombs and beer cans at police after their school’s loss in a college basketball tournament, and flipping cars, pulling light poles down and knocking over stop signs for no clear reason at all.

No person in a position of authority will ever say they are afraid students will act out violently tonight if their team wins. But, if black groups organize a protest for justice and demand an end to police brutality, the victimhood complex of white people goes out of control, as they collectively panic about black people imposing their agenda on them by trying to force a system that doesn’t work for them to, for once, work for them.

And, it is not that white people should be tear gassed and maced with the same fury that police showed in Ferguson but rather that all Americans should be granted the same freedom to assemble without fear of a militarized police crackdown and without having to face the white fear that any black group of protesters will be up to no good.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."