Unless you had your fingers in your ears all weekend, you probably heard about the riot at the Pumpkin Festival in Keene, N.H., at which police used tear gas and pepper spray against a crowd that set fires, fought in the streets, threw beer bottles, and jumped on cars.
If you’re on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen users point out the very real difference between the words used to describe the riot (“New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival crowd sets fires, throws bottles’’) and those used to describe the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (“Riots don’t stop home sales in Ferguson’’).
And today on Boston.com, Luke O’Neil warned against comparing the two events: “If anything, comparing Keene to Ferguson is a gross misrepresentation of what’s at the heart of the latter.’’ Luke raised some strong points, but I disagree with the heart of his piece: We could do ourselves a lot of good by talking about why we live in a society where some get teargassed for protesting violence, while others get teargassed for riots at festivals devoted to pumpkins.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots were the language of the unheard. And riots are great to study because they’re messy, they involve a ton of people from the same area (who, according to demographics, are likely to be of the same race), and they’re spurred on by one or a few related events.
So let’s study: In Ferguson, Oakland, and Los Angeles, black people have rioted, most recently, in response to violence at the hands of law enforcement. Meanwhile, three of the most recent riots carried out by predominantly white crowds were over pumpkins, the firing of Joe Paterno, and a frat party in Santa Barbara.
I’m not here to trivialize the importance of American institutions united by funny letters on hoodies and bronze statues erected to commemorate octogenarians. They trivialize themselves just fine.
But if Dr. King is right, we can see the reasons for which black folk feel their cries go unheard. But for what reasons do whites feel unheard? Whatever they are, they at least seem to be far more trivial than those of their black counterparts. This would be a good time to tell you that no one is even certain what set off the Pumpkin Festival.
It seems like white people are just rioting over any little thing. Don’t get me wrong. That’s great. You know what would be great, too? If we all had so few systemic problems that we could riot at any gathering named for our favorite autumnal gourds.
If riots are the language of the oppressed, then talking about our reaction to them, and the way our words color them, could be our best chance at making any headway in the larger conversation about oppression. Because, let’s be honest, we haven’t made much headway in that talk since the era of the eight-track.
We should continue to compare the two, because in seeing both the relative and objective silliness in one, we shine a greater light on the gravity and necessity of the other, while providing us an opportunity to ask society why two groups of people could be faced with problems so disparate; one so laughable, and one the difference between life and death.