Keene State senior Jesse Reynolds said that, when posts started popping up on social media about student riots occurring in Keene, he decided to steer clear of the town’s annual Pumpkin Festival altogether. Student celebrations associated with Pumpkin Fest, which was originally founded as a family celebration, devolved into an hours-long riot between students and police on Saturday afternoon.
Police in black riot gear attempted to disperse student parties with tear gas and pepper spray. In response, some 4,000 students—many fueled by alcohol—poured into the streets, lit bonfires, overturned cars, threw bottles, pulled up street signs, and vandalized property.
“I saw a little bit of the aftermath of it, and it was just atrocious,” Reynolds said of the damage that the riots caused the normally bucolic New Hampshire town.
Keene’s Pumpkin Festival is an annual celebration in which town residents and visitors decorate the town with lit pumpkins, lining Main Street and stacked in a large tower in the Central Square. The goal is to amass the greatest number of lit pumpkins in the world each year.
For Keene State students, Pumpkin Fest is a party weekend, separate from the town’s festivities. The student parties grew in size and notoriety until last year when festivities got out of hand as students started throwing liquor bottles at a large gathering.
“When bottles are being thrown up in the air in the yard at some of these large gatherings, a dangerous and risky environment (presents) itself,” said Kemal Atkins, vice president for student affairs at Keene State. “Crowds need to be dispersed when students are being injured and students are suffering head injuries because they got hit in the head with bottles. Our top concern is the safety of our students.”
In response to the out-of-control behavior in 2013, authorities say that the college attempted to prepare for this year’s Pumpkin Festival but were overwhelmed by the sheer number of students.
Atkins said that the university put together an internal team to tackle issues of student safety.
“We wanted to encourage students to enjoy this annual event but also be safe and responsible. The campaign message was ‘Pumpkin Responsibly,’” Atkins said, adding that students came up with the phrase.
The school sent out messages to students reminding them to be responsible, met with local landlords about risks associated with large gatherings in student rental houses, communicated with parents about the potential risks of the Pumpkin Festival weekend, and expanded their relationship with the city of Keene, the police department and the fire department.
But the Pumpkin Festival’s notoriety as a party weekend is such that students from all over New England were willing to make the trip to Keene for the celebrations. The sheer number of students contributed to the eventual pandemonium.
“They gave a maximum amount of passes out for the guest parking lot, and I guess those filled out real quick,” said Scott Dyer, a Keene State senior. “Oftentimes people hear about this crazy big party and everybody wants to go. So all these kids come up with nowhere to stay or anything. They don’t even have a plan; they just come on up, looking for a place to party.”
Reynolds said that, in years past, the police tended to let Pumpkin festival weekend parties “go” for a while before breaking them before they spiraled out of control. “But this year, it was more of, as soon as parties started growing a little bit, (the police) would just come up and start blasting the place,” he said. “It definitely incites a situation.”
Still, Reynolds characterized the students’ destructive rampage as “barbaric.”
“The fire was definitely fueled by the police, but I think it falls back on the students. Thinking they’re badass or something. You look back in history, whether it be the women’s suffrage protest or 1970s Kent State protest riots, it was for a reason and there was cause behind it,” he said. “This is just mindless, drunken stupidity. It just reflects so poorly on the college and our generation in general.”
College revelry is hardly a novel concept. But some Keene professors fear that students have come to see aggressive, violent partying and excessive alcohol consumption as the norm, rather than an aberration.
“There seems to be this idea that part of college is behaving in this way,” said Dr. Peter Stevenson, president of the faculty union and assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Keene. “There are some students who feel that this is part of the college experience. And if they don’t have this, then they feel they’ve been denied something.”
“I think generally faculty are saddened by the whole thing,” Stevenson said.
Dr. William Bendix, professor of political science at Keene, said that Keene is not any more prone to the riots than other colleges.
“I don’t think there’s anything specific about Keene that makes it especially vulnerable to these kinds of events. These kinds of events—campus riots, student riots, alcohol-driven student riots—have become increasingly common across campuses.”
Bendix attributed student behavior to cultural signals and the media, which faculty and administrators have little to no control over.
“If there’s a growing popularity nationwide with these student riots, and social media is being used to perpetuate the popularity, there’s not much that any one campus can do to combat that,” he said.
Hundreds of Keene state students volunteered to clean up the detritus of the chaos over the weekend.
“People are concerned about the reputation of their education because of what’s happened,” Dyer said. “But it’s not like that. We love our campus and our town. It’s an amazing town.”