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The Complex Causes of a Student ‘Riot’

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Posted on Dec 7, 2013
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Ohio State University’s armored police vehicle.

By Dick Conoboy

This October, alcohol and other influences led to what authorities called a student “riot” in the town of Bellingham, Wash. City officials and the local university administration denounced the participants’ behavior, praised law enforcement for forcibly dispersing the crowd, and promised to discipline those involved with expulsion and criminal charges. The following response to those actions was written by a Bellingham resident and published at Northwest Citizen. It appears here as an example of the kind of conversation Americans and their local leaders could have about the creeping militarization of their communities.

A recent report to the community following the 12 October “riot” entitled “Bellingham, WWU Working Together in Riot’s Aftermath,” written by Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, was an enormous disappointment. (You can read that piece on the city’s website here.) In the opening paragraph they asked: “How could something like this happen in Bellingham and what can we do to avert another similar incident?” They then proceeded in the next 1200 words to avoid the answer about “how could something like this happen,” except for these four sentences: “The causes of the riot were many. Drunkenness among college and high school students and non-students certainly was a contributing factor. Social media also played a part in the incident. The event fed upon itself via social media communications, pulling in more participants.” That’s it. In spite of stating that the causes were many, there is no enumeration of these “many” possible causes at all, except for booze and social media. The remainder of the editorial speaks to criminality, punishment, order, law, disappointment, civil disturbance training, party houses, etc., all of which are factors to be discussed but certainly neither all-encompassing rubrics nor edifying causes.

I believe this riot happened because the basic components that create these events are those we in the United States are teaching our youth. Confrontation. Belligerence. Hyper-masculinity. Misuse of alcohol. Wittingly or not, those are our messages. Stay with me while I explain.

Look at the photo above. This military vehicle is a recent acquisition by Ohio State University’s campus police force from the U.S. military. Read more about this acquisition here. The OSU campus police say it is for protection of their officers. A 19 ton armored personnel carrier. I had four similar vehicles under my command in the 1960s facing the Warsaw Pact, but I was an infantry platoon leader; a soldier in the 3rd Armored Division, not a police officer. Western Washington University has no such vehicle, yet. The city of Bellingham does have a similar one. So does the Whatcom County Sheriff. See the photos below. Bellingham police used their armored vehicle on the night of the “riot.” Like it or not, a message was sent to the crowd: this is a confrontation. Add to this the presence of police vehicles, flashing red and blue lights, spotlights, and bull horns. These visual and audio stimulants all added to the volatility of the situation. Is this a necessary response? Can we explore options?

At a meeting of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission several days after the “riot,” neighborhood representatives were able to discuss the incident of 12 October with Mayor Linville, Police Chief Cook and WWU’s VP for University Relations, Steve Swan. When my turn came to speak, I addressed the Police Chief. I reminded him that I spent over 6 years as a volunteer with the Bellingham Police Force. I wore their uniform. Ours is a police force I found to be well trained and one that worked well with the public. I told Chief Cook that I understood protection as I had been rescued by Bellingham officers on several occasions when threatened by irate members of the public whose vehicles I was about to tow and ticket. I also told him I had served in a combat zone and understood, more than most, the concept of protection, but that I had reservations about what our police departments were becoming. I said that when I see a photo of our police at that October incident and cannot distinguish that photo from one of an infantry squad in Kandahar, Afghanistan, there is a serious problem in our city. [See the photo of Bellingham police here.] Only one person at the mayor’s meeting contacted me after my remarks. She understood what I was saying.  Otherwise, my remarks were met with polite and mildly stunned silence. Are such topics to be off limits?

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What we are witnessing is a facet of a largely unacknowledged militarization of our police forces nationwide that began decades ago with the introduction of SWAT teams, the first of which appeared in Los Angeles. (You can read more about this by clicking here or merely by typing “police militarization” into your search engine.) Our young men and women see this transformation while also seeing first-hand the abuse, most recently with the treatment of Occupy Wall Street participants across the country, many of whom were on campuses. Even in Bellingham the former mayor forced a ham-handed response to clear the Occupy camp at Maritime Heritage Park. These were peaceful protesters. Annoying perhaps, but no cause was ever won by being docile and unobtrusive. Think of the civil rights protests of the 60s.

Let us consider the hyper-masculinity and belligerence that flourishes in the misnamed “sports” world. These characteristics unfortunately can be found at WWU and other universities that appear on the WWU sports schedule. I personally witnessed this phenomenon during my 7-8 years working crowd control at sporting events – primarily basketball and football (until the WWU football program was cancelled). Football is full of warrior talk: killing the opposition, crushing one’s opponents, smashing the other team. Team names and mascots across the U.S. promote notions of the same: Tigers, Lions, Cougars, Badgers, Huskies, Broncos, Eagles, Raiders, and WWU’s own Vikings (yes, we know what these ancient warriors did to the British Isles). There are even offensive team names such as the Redskins (Washington) or Rebels (Old Miss) that perpetuate insensitivity and cluelessness. In this atmosphere of rapaciousness and violence, even the uniforms imply a hyper-masculinity: shoulders exaggerated by padding, tight waists, celebratory head-butting, spiking the ball, undue displays of self-congratulation. Thus does poor sportsmanship proliferate. Females are not exempt from this distorted demonstration, for they provide support, often in the way of cheerleading where a hyper-feminization and sexualization plays a role in encouraging the crowds. A version of this was seen during the “riot” when young females “flashed” their chests or “twerked” against police cars.


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