The Declining Quality of Protest – posted 11/16/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014
This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014 under the title “The Decline of Protest.”
The 2014 Pumpkin Festival held in Keene New Hampshire did get me thinking. What was that about? Why did a pumpkin festival become a riot scene? Was it really a riot to fight for the right to party, that most fundamental of all American rights?
I was not in Keene to witness the mayhem but from most accounts it did seem to be a protest about the right to party and drink. Possibly it dignifies the riot too much to consider it “a protest”.
Thousands of college students descended upon Keene looking for beer. The students came from UNH, University of Rhode Island, U. Mass – not just Keene State. It was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Social media helped to build the event encouraging kids to rage.
The Daily Beast reported that Finnarage, a company which hosts pop-up parties on or near college campuses, advertised for a month and a half before the Pumpkin Festival that it was coming to Keene. On September 10, Finnarage tweeted, “# KSC Spring weekend!! Pumpkin Fest 2014 will be 10x crazier..YOU READY KEENE #Finnarage.”
It does not seem surprising that if you add together young people drinking excessively, setting fires, tipping cars, smashing windows, throwing rocks and bottles and police in swat gear with tear gas, tasers, pepper spray and canine units, you have a recipe for insanity.
I do not see the Pumpkin Festival riot as nihilistic. I think it is more an example of mindlessness.
At the age of 63, I feel like I have earned the right to indulge in being a curmudgeon. May I say that the behavior of the student/rioters was incredibly dumb if not moronic. Congratulations! If I was asked to give a leading example of the dumbing-down of America, I would point to the 2014 Pumpkin Festival riot, a riot about nothing.
I remember when people connected protest with a cause. Now there is a novel concept! When I was in college, I do not recall anyone feeling the need to riot for the right to get blitzed. That right was always taken for granted.
I suppose I cannot help but think back to my own college experience. Along with many others, I spent a considerable amount of time during college protesting the war in Vietnam. Demonstrating against that war may have been the archetypal experience of my whole generation. To this day, I feel proud of that dissent and protest. We college students of that era educated the nation and turned the tide of public opinion against that monstrous war.
Thinking about the Pumpkin Festival, it is hard not to see it as reflecting some debasement of the honorable act of protest. Protest at its best is about speaking up for what is right and putting human values above material values. It is about creating a more democratic and humane society. I think of values like caring, compassion and empathy.
I certainly do not see the Pumpkin Festival as the only recent example of debased protest. Before leaving Keene, a city I genuinely like, I would also mention the so-called Keene Robin Hooders. These individuals closely follow city parking enforcement officers around as the officers check on whether parking meters have expired. The Robin Hooders have put change into expired parking meters before the city’s parking enforcement officers can write tickets. They have been accused of harassing and intimidating parking meter officers by taunting, crowding, making video recordings and accusing officers of stealing people’s money. The harassment has caused one officer to quit his job.
We all pick and choose our battles in life but parking meter enforcement officers? C’mon man. That is sad. I mean in an era when we have extreme income inequality, they focus on poor beleaguered parking meter officers. Hey what about the 1% if you need a focus? I would classify this protest as stupid too.
I think the use of Robin Hood’s name is misplaced. In English folklore, Robin Hood was portrayed as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The Keene Robin Hooders are most certainly not doing that. No one loves paying for parking but no doubt city government needs that money to pay for essential services. The lack of revenue is a perennial problem that probably hurts the poor the most. I also think that if parking was not paid some folks would hog spaces and less people would have access to shop or do the things they need to do downtown. Paid parking allows for more turnover of the limited space available.
The dumbing down of protest is certainly not just an American phenomenon. In the international realm, I do want to give honorable mention to the Islamic State. Here we are not talking mindless drinkers on a rampage. We are talking an extremely dangerous political movement with a medieval, viciously misogynist bent.
I have read that young people from various countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join that fight on behalf of the Islamic State like it is some kind of idealistic mission. In between video beheadings of innocent hostages, blowing up religious holy sites, selling women into slavery , suicide and car bombings, you have to wonder about the reasons for the appeal of this movement.
Amnesty International has found the Islamic State guilty of ethnic cleansing of ethnic and religious minority groups in Northern Iraq. It is hard to keep up with the Islamic State’s track record of kidnapping, torture, executions and rape. And this from a group that publicly describes itself as acting in the name of a religion.
On the scale of mindlessness to nihilism, I think we can safely place the Islamic State as tipping the extreme nihilism end of the spectrum. As has been said about them, they are not about violence as a means to an end. They are about violence as an end in itself.
While protest may be as American as apple pie, even in the area of protest, quality matters. I have to believe we can do much better than the mindlessness-nihilism spectrum.