There was no pumpkin riot in Keene

Recently, in a store in Santa Rosa, my wife Luann was waiting behind another customer whose surname, the clerk was thrilled to learn, is Parrish. “That’s the name of the guy in Jumanji,” the clerk said. “I’ve seen that movie fifty times!”

“I’m from Keene, New Hampshire,” Luann said, “the town where that movie was filmed.”

It was a big deal when Robin Williams came to town. You can still see the sign for Parrish Shoes painted on a brick wall downtown. Recently it became the local Robin Williams memorial:

Then the penny dropped. The customer turned to Luann and said: “Keene? Really? Isn’t that where the pumpkin riot happened?”

The Pumpkin Festival began in 1991. In 2005 I made a short documentary film about the event.

It’s a montage of marching bands, face painting, music, kettle corn, folk dancing, juggling, and of course endless ranks of jack-o-lanterns by day and especially by night. We weren’t around this year to see it, but our friends in Keene assure us that if we had been, we’d have seen a Pumpkin Festival just like the one I filmed in 2005. The 2014 Pumpkin Festival was the same family event it’s always been. Many attendees had no idea that, at the other end of Main Street, in the neighborhood around Keene State College, the now-infamous riot was in progress.

No pumpkins were harmed in the riot. Bottles, cans, and rocks were thrown, a car was flipped, fires were set, but — strange as it sounds — none of these activities intersected with the normal course of the festival. Two very different and quite unrelated events occurred in the same town on the same day.

The riot had precursors. Things had been getting out of control in the college’s neighborhood for the past few years. College and town officials were expecting trouble again, and thought they were prepared to contain it. But things got so crazy this year that SWAT teams from around the state were called in to help.

In the aftermath there was an important discussion of white privilege, and of the double standard applied to media coverage of the Keene riot versus the Ferguson protests. Here’s The Daily Kos:

Black folks who are protesting with righteous rage and anger in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson have been called “thugs”, “animals”, and cited by the Right-wing media as examples of the “bad culture” and “cultural pathologies” supposedly common to the African-American community.

Privileged white college students who riot at a pumpkin festival are “spirited partiers”, “unruly”, or “rowdy”.

Unfortunately the title of that article, White Privilege and the ‘Pumpkin Fest’ Riot of 2014, helped perpetuate the false notion that the Pumpkin Festival turned into a riot. When I mentioned that to a friend he said: “Of course, the media always get things wrong.”

It would be easy to blame the media. In fact, the misconception about what happened in Keene is a collective error. On Twitter, for example, #pumpkinfest became the hashtag that gathered riot-related messages, photos, and videos, and that focused the comparison to Ferguson. Who made that choice? Not the media. Not anyone in particular. It was the network’s choice. And the network got it wrong. Our friends in Keene saw it happening and tried to flood the social media with messages and photos documenting a 2014 Pumpkin Festival that was as happy and peaceful as every other Pumpkin Festival. But once the world had decided there’d been a pumpkin riot it was impossible to reverse that decision.

Is Keene’s signature event now ruined? We’ll see. I don’t think anybody yet knows whether it will continue. Meanwhile it’s worth reflecting on how conventional and social media converged on the same error. There’s nothing magical about the network. It’s just us, and sometimes we get things wrong.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you Jon. I have tried to make this same point, with limited success, in FB posts. Even “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” got the story wrong (because “Pumpkin Riots” is a funny thing to say).

  2. Similar “riots” happen all the time at colleges across the country. But the imagined scene of a quaint and boring pumpkin festival erupting in anarchy and violence for no reason was too amusing to resist viral spread across national and internet news. Nobody except local people care that it was an invented scene.

  3. Everybody’s local to someplace. Everybody can empathize with their own local place being misrepresented. And everybody should care about the degree to which what we know (or think we know) is determined by what goes viral.

  4. It’s not just the media that conflates “Pumpkin Festival” with “those parties that happen at KSC in October, and that turned riotous this year.” My college students here in Massachusetts know “Pumpkin Fest” as a party destination, as it has become in recent years. They aren’t thinking about the family-friendly festivities that happen in Central Square; they’re thinking about the parties that happen around campus. So when my students say, “we’re going to Keene for Pumpkin Fest,” they mean something very different from what I mean when I say “I used to live in Keene and loved going to Pumpkin Fest.”

    Pumpkin Fest could be saved if it were held in the summer, when students aren’t around. But then it wouldn’t be Pumpkin Fest.

  5. Keene is unfortunately closer to the media centers of Boston and NYC so gets more play than others like the University of West Virginia Football Riot that happened at the same time.

  6. If the two events are “quite unrelated” then why are there no riots in the neighborhood around KSC on any other weekend of the year? Just because the riots don’t take place at the pumpkin festival proper, does not mean they are not related. They are two different events, taking place in different areas, that are very much related.

    1. James, you’re missing the point. The media has depicted it that the riots happened at the festival, In the streets, where everyone was. That wasn’t the case. Students use any excuse to have a party. Halloween. New Years. St. Patrick’s Day. Pumpkinfest. The festival happens every year in down town Keene. The riots happened just off campus. What the writer is trying to portray is that the media is combining the two events that are separate events as one event, which it wasn’t.

  7. Scott: And not only “the media” construed as newspapers and TV, but more broadly everyone who heard about and amplified the misconception using social media. We are all “the media” and it’s on all of us, all the time, to be not only critical consumers of information but also careful, accurate, thoughtful producers.

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