New Hampshire

“Keene Pumpkin Festival Riots” | The Other Side of the Story

On October 18, 2014, the day of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, riots broke out in the city of Keene, New Hampshire. Although the destruction did not reach the festival, the two were inextricably linked when the media dubbed the incident “The Keene Pumpkin Festival Riots.” Yankee goes behind the scenes with a Keene State College […]

By Taylor Thomas

Oct 30 2014

pumpkinfest-jim-salge

Keene Pumpkin Festival

Photo Credit : Jim Salge
On October 18, 2014, the day of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, riots broke out in the city of Keene, New Hampshire. Although the destruction did not reach the festival, the two were inextricably linked when the media dubbed the incident “The Keene Pumpkin Festival Riots.” Yankee goes behind the scenes with a Keene State College student to look at the other side of the story.
Keene Pumpkin Festival
Keene Pumpkin Festival
Photo Credit : Jim Salge
Sunday, October 19th, the morning after the annual Pumpkin Festival, I did what I do every morning and checked the news applications on my phone. I knew the day before was different than any “Pumpkin Fest” I had ever experienced, so I thought WMUR, the nearest TV station, might have something about it up on their website. They did, of course, and so did everyone else. Our town and Keene State College – my school – was one of the “breaking news” stories on every news site. Like pretty much every student at KSC and everyone else in the area, I was at Pumpkin Fest. I heard the actual festival on Main Street went great. But only a few blocks away I had heard there were parties broken up by pepper spray and tear gas, and I saw a fire burning in the street adjacent to mine. Nothing, however, had made me think that I was in the middle of a major national, even international, news story. I always looked at Keene as a small town in New Hampshire, somewhere safe and quiet, not somewhere that would draw the attention of the nation and the world. Front-page stories on CNN and BBC that Sunday morning showed me otherwise. The Keene Pumpkin Festival was now recognized worldwide with headlines that included “mayhem,” “riots,” and “chaos.”

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Since I’m a senior at Keene State College and my parents had never been to Pumpkin Fest, I practically forced them to come this year. They set out early to avoid traffic and got to Keene by 9:00 a.m. After a bit of complaining about having to get out of bed on my “only day to sleep in” I walked downtown with them. When we got to Main Street they were shocked. Although they had seen pictures, it is hard to imagine what an entire downtown filled with more than 22,000 carved pumpkins actually looks like. It is something so cool that you have to see it to believe it. We walked around looking at the pumpkins and stopped in some restaurants, coffee shops, and bars for snacks and drinks. We always chose the window seats, optimal for people watching. As morning turned into afternoon, more and more people filled Main Street and the better people watching became. It made me so happy to be able to bring my parents to my “territory” and see them love it. At around 2:00 p.m. my dad started calling hotels because they didn’t want to end their day early for the drive home, but every room was booked. I left my parents and drifted back towards campus around 3:00 to find a friend that was visiting. My parents continued to walk around and my mom commented on the number of really nice people they met from all over New England. She said that the only regret she had all day was to not have brought my brother and I when we were younger. Since Main Street was closed to cars and police were blocking off many of the side streets, my friend had to park a few blocks away. As I walked to meet her, I walked further from Main Street and began seeing police cars. Then more police cars. And then ambulances. Kids who seemed to be about my age were filling the street. I was surprised, I wasn’t expecting to see such a change in scenery only blocks from Main Street. I remembered, though, that there had been a huge party with over 4,000 people during Pumpkin Fest the previous year. It still didn’t occur to me that there was anything wrong or out of the ordinary, I just thought they prepared better this year. I met my friend and we walked back past the cops, as it seemed like more and more of them were getting there and preparing for battle with full protective gear, shields, and guns in hand. This isn’t something I hadn’t seen any of the previous years and it was very intimidating. I wasn’t opposed to bringing my friend from home to parties with my friends from Keene, but I knew that was a not situation we wanted to get into. We walked back to my apartment so she could leave her things, and then walked back towards Main Street, away from the cops, ambulances, and guns. A few minutes later I got a text message that cops using pepper spray and tear gas had just broken up a party in our friend’s back yard, where we just passed. My friend and I met back up with my parents and stayed at places along Main Street with them. Before long, we found a group of my friends and went to a different bar with them. My parents stayed downtown until about 8:30 p.m. when they decided to head home. The chaos just a few blocks away never spilled over onto Main Street, so they left with no idea that they had been so close to the weekend’s biggest news story. Walking back to my apartment from Main Street around 9:30 p.m., my friend and I passed Blake Street and saw smoke. I had no idea what was going on at first. There were people crowded around something in the middle of the road, chanting. There were bottles being thrown and there was a weird, dark vibe. It wasn’t like anything I had experienced in Keene before. It felt as if I turned down the wrong dark alley in a dangerous part of a city, it did not feel like the same place I have felt safe in for 4 years. As I watched from afar, I saw faces illuminated by the orange glow of a fire, burning in the middle of the street. I didn’t recognize any of the faces illuminated by the fire. I was sure I wasn’t in Keene anymore, not the Keene I know, and not with the people I know. We made it back to my apartment and didn’t leave the building for the rest of the night. As a journalist for The Equinox, the KSC school newspaper, I have spent all week, in the aftermath of the Pumpkin Fest riots, interviewing people for a story. I talked to the Student Body President and about 10 other KSC students. Although everyone had a different experience at Pumpkin Fest, they were all unanimous in feeling ashamed, shocked, embarrassed, and angry about what happened this year on a day that is usually spent enjoying the festival and outdoors with friends and family. Last week, more than 900 students and 100 faculty and staff overfilled a room in the KSC Student Center for an all-campus forum to discuss and share these feelings as well as talk about where to go from here. The mood was mournful and everyone was still confused, but it was also comforting to see that so many people cared. National and international media put much of the blame for the riots on Keene State College, but there is more to the story than that. Yes, some KSC students did take part in the riots and cause some of the damage. To deny that would be naïve. But out of 84 arrests on that weekend, only four have been confirmed as Keene State students. As has been made obvious by the on-campus reaction to the event, the small number of KSC students aren’t representative of the larger population. In my interview with Keene State President Anne Huot, her first official interview after the events, and said that she doesn’t think these events accurately portray KSC. “I was out there early Saturday morning, I was out there all day Saturday, and Saturday evening….and, I recognize a lot of you, and I didn’t see a lot of you and I’m heartened by that reality.” I agree with that statement. I didn’t see anyone I knew at that fire. I’ve seen pictures and videos of what truly was the “chaos,” and I haven’t recognized anyone in them. Keene State is a pretty small school, with about 5,000 undergraduate students. We recognize each other. We don’t all know each other by name, but we can pick each other out of a crowd. Every year students flock in from schools all over New England and beyond to “celebrate” Pumpkin Fest with us. Of those charged this year, the most serious accusations have been directed at a University of Connecticut student. More than 10 University of New Hampshire students have also been arrested. More students, including some from KSC, will probably be arrested as police go over footage and talk to witnesses. Keene State College students have been cooperating with Campus Safety by sending in pictures and videos they took during the events. Regardless of whether the people involved were students or not, and regardless of whether they are from Keene or elsewhere, they disrespected and destroyed our city, our home, and our reputation, and they should be held responsible. During the chaos a car was flipped over and destroyed, there were several fires in the streets, light posts on campus were torn down and used to cause further destruction, street signs were uprooted, fences were torn down, a student’s door was ripped off to fuel the fire, and people were injured by full bottles thrown into crowds. This is not who we are in Keene, and it is not who we are at KSC. And we will make sure that nothing like this happens again. Hundreds of KSC students worked to clean up the campus and community Sunday morning. Others were on Main Street apologizing to businesses and police. Now, KSC students are the ones developing ideas on how to reestablish a relationship with the community and regain the positive image that we’ve worked so long and hard for. Amidst the wave of awful stories from Saturday, other stories, much quieter and less headline-grabbing, have also emerged.  Stories of students helping people who were hurt, of acts of bravery and community service. This is what I focused my article for the school newspaper on, both because these stories deserve to be heard and because they more accurately represent who we are. I’m in disbelief that any of this happened in Keene, N.H., a place where I have lived and felt safe for four years. Although a lot of cleanup and repair has already been done, the after-effects of the destruction are still all around us. How could anyone cause so much damage, which can still be seen on and off campus, and hurt others by being so reckless, negligent, and inconsiderate? The Keene I’ve seen reflected in the media since the Pumpkin Festival has been nothing like the Keene I’ve loved for four years. Keene State College has become closer and stronger because of this horrific event. We are using it as a catalyst to move forward and prove who we really are. We are not rioters or violent people.  We will do better.