Radical students, changing times part 2

By Max Calloway

During the 2007 Whitmore sit-in, organizers decided it was better to comply with the police and bring the protest to a peaceful conclusion. But students are not always so quick to uphold non-violent attitudes and, unlike in previous decades where student violence was aimed at furthering socio-political goals, students today are more apt to indulge their primal urges for trivial matters.

Most notable of said instances were the former annual riots that accompanied the raucous Hobart Hoedown. UMass is also known nationwide for the string of sports-related riots in the Southwest residential area between 2001 and 2007. During all of those incidents students threw caution to the wind and wound up bloodied and bruised. All of this occurred because they couldn’t keep binge drinking into the wee hours of the morning, or because some team or another won or lost – these rioters never needed a particularly strong push factor, both were cause for some good old property damage and mischievous behavior. Now, I don’t intend to disassemble the physiological motivation that inspires drunks and sports fans – the latter often being a subcategory of the former – to display such a wanton disregard for well… for anyone.

But I do find it to be more than a coincidence that the same year of the student protest, the riot sparked by the Sox snatching of the Pennant was brought to a quick and painless end by a horde of riot police.

That evening, walking to my dorm room in Kennedy, I passed a cadre of brutish types clad in what looked suspiciously like a TIE fighter pilot’s uniform. Their radios crackled intermittently with jargon and static and I was given the impression that they were in no way okay with my general presence. Don’t ask me how I knew; maybe it was the scowls, maybe just the fact that they had a lot of menacing gear. Anyway, it took me a few minutes, but then I remembered: win or lose, tonight’s a riot.

Well the Sox won, and so did the police.

Even before the last pitch was thrown, students flooded the main quad in front of Berkshire and the Police followed suit, taking up various defensive positions in preparation for an exercise of state authority. When the time was right they assembled and began marching in formation, banging batons against breastplates, pushing all students into whatever dormitory was closest. For hours, after all the excitement was over, a group of mounted police stood guard at the entrance to Southwest.

Similarly, this past year Hobart Hoedown was nipped in the bud before it even began as the town of Amherst shut down bus service to and from the apartment complex, and packs of police swarmed the area and surrounding streets. Then came a surprise.

On May 1 around 11 p.m. Osama Bin Laden’s death became public knowledge. Several minutes later students began a red, white, and blue procession to the Southwest quad.

Unlike previous riots, the overall climate seemed to be one of respectful celebration. There wasn’t the sense that students were waiting for some violent spectacle to unfold as in the 2007 Sox riots. Instead of Yankees Suck cheers, the crowed joined in on choruses of “The Star Spangled Banner” and chanted “U – S – A!”  The sheer amount of American flags draped over shoulders, worn as dresses, waved out of windows and emblazoned on t-shirts, hats, and spandex body suits was overwhelming. Where did it all come from? I don’t know.

But when I talked to students about what all the excitement was about many replied with, “Heard there was a riot in Southwest, figured I’d come check it out.” Others felt as though the riot was a show of force, an end of the semester hurrah that had been suppressed the night before.  And while many were there to genuinely celebrate the death of Public Enemy No. 1; the two most patriotic looking people I talked to – meaning the two people dressed in the most American flags – didn’t seem to understand why they were there; the first of whom informed me his name was Seymour Butts.

Despite what this year’s Southwest demonstration had to offer, a well-organized police presence was suspiciously lacking.

There were rumors from the fringes of the crowd of police brigades, replete with riot helmets, canine units, and tear gas, but they remained just out of sight during the whole spectacle. When asked about the police several students optimistically proclaimed, “They can’t do s—. There are too many of us!” And it turned out they were somewhat right.

After turning a blind eye to small bon-fires, students climbing atop Berkshire – mostly to retrieve basketballs long stranded in the void of the cafeteria rooftop – and a couple of firework rounds, the police finally started their push.

With an automated order to disperse blaring from unseen patrol cars, students started fleeing in panic. But soon some turned and stood ground. Slowly a U.S.A. chant rose amid the retreating students and drowned out the dispersal order. Students pushed back into the quad. This dance reoccurred several more times. The police would try to kick the celebration out of Southwest only to have students resist with more patriotic chants: A victory, maybe.

It seemed to me that the police were simply in a double bind. They wanted to maintain order, but violently cracking down on American citizens celebrating the death of America’s biggest enemy since Hitler would only garner negative attention. That and I suspect many of the police would have rather joined in than cracked down on the revelry. And it was understandable.

Sept. 11, 2001 was a grotesque disregard for the dignity of human life and the man who orchestrated it was dead by our hand. But instead of students rallying against police in the name of progressive action, in the name of a more universal realization of global cooperation, the police allowed students to believe they were engaged in some sort of “radical action.” And this was all in the name of a war driving the nation to financial insolvency and, more importantly, generations of further violence.

With such a rich history of and bountiful resources for student activism, I shudder to think that UMass is now known more for pointless riots that do nothing more than inspire a cash-strapped administration to spend millions on a new police station. Ultimately it is the student body that pays for broken windows and torched dumpsters.

Max Calloway is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]