"These are no angels," Twitter user Isaiah A. Taylor said of the photograph that showed six young white men on top of an overturned car, beer cans aloft, as the crowd on the ground seemed to cheer them on.
Over the weekend, crowds who attended the annual pumpkin festival in Keene, New Hampshire became violent as the event descended into a riot. Police responded to the scene armed with tear gas and pepper spray. Dozens were arrested and at least 26 were taken to the hospital with injuries as the chaotic night unfolded.
But as news of the fray spread on social media, observers took the occasion as an opportunity to highlight the vastly different media responses to those in Keene and Ferguson, Missouri, where black activists have recently organized nonviolent protests against institutionalized racism and police brutality.
Among them was Ebony Magazine’s Jamilah Lemieux, who noted that despite the satirical response to media portrayals of white rioters, there is a serious message to be taken from the disparate coverage. "For all the hashtags and the jokes, we won't see a media assault on the youth who ruined the festival for acting in ways that were not merely inappropriate, illegal and potentially deadly, but bizarre and wrought with the stench of unchecked privilege," Lemieux writes. "Unlike the young people who have mobilized in Ferguson for an actual cause, there will likely be few serious ramifications for those who participated in making Keene, New Hampshire the laughingstock of the country, while putting themselves and others at serious risk for injury or death AT A PUMPKIN FESTIVAL."
Following the riots in Keene, college president Anne Huot said in a statement that the Pumpkin Festival had been promoted by others "as a destination for destructive and raucous behavior.”
The Associated Press reported:
WMUR-TV in Manchester showed video of a crowd overturning a car, people running from tear gas clouds, street signs being torn down and fires burning in the streets. Police also investigated reports of people throwing glass bottles and fireworks, jumping off a roof and banging on cars.
One group of young people threatened to beat up an elderly man, and another resident heard someone "threatening to kill officers," according to the police log.
"White people riot for this—" Puts a pumpkin on the stage. "Black people riot for *this*—" Simulates being shot by a cop.— Jamelle Ghoulie (@jbouie) October 19, 2014
black people are protesting for their lives while white people are rioting at a pumpkin fest? #WhiteOnPumpkinCrime— Ashley D (@ghesquieremuse) October 19, 2014
The phrase "no angel" has become a familiar one to those activists in the months since Michael Brown’s death on August 9. Brown, a black teenager, was unarmed when he was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson and his body left on the ground for more than four hours. As the protests in Ferguson grew and started to take on the form of an organized movement, the media focused its attention on the small city. Photographs were released that seemed to portray Brown as thuggish and intimidating. In one, he held his hand out in a peace sign; commentators called it a gang symbol. The New York Times published side-by-side retrospectives of Brown and his killer. Wilson was referred to as "low-profile," with "unsettled early days."
Brown, the Times said, was "no angel."
Twitter users also satirized the response of conservative pundits, who painted Ferguson protesters as jobless and the products of fatherless homes and questioned the whereabouts of community leaders.
White people in New Hampshire really need to do some self-reflection and regulate their animal impulses in the wake of #keenepumpkinfest.— Sara Benincasa (@SaraJBenincasa) October 19, 2014
Where are the leaders in the white community? They need to speak out #pumpkinfest— Brian Fleurantin (@BrFleurantin) October 19, 2014
Don't these people have jobs? Where are the white fathers? What will end this corrosive culture of violence?! http://t.co/1uqu4DAYnn— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) October 19, 2014
Keene’s recent legacy and the significance of the Pumpkin Festival surpasses the events of the weekend. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union noted in its report, War Comes Home (pdf), that the small New Hampshire town was one of many in the U.S. to take advantage of the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows local police forces to repurpose military equipment.
Keene purchased a mine-resistant tank, known as a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or BearCat, in 2012, citing the Pumpkin Fest as a potential terrorism target.
To explain why the police included the word “terrorism” on their application for federal funding for this purchase, a city councilmember said, “Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to.”
The police response to white rioters in Keene was yet another difference between that town and Ferguson, particularly in the early days of the protests. Officers in Keene, while dressed in riot gear, never rolled out their armored tanks. Police in Ferguson did.