White menaces to society: Keene State and the danger of young drunk white men

As the Keene State protests showed, some people feel the freedom to piss on people. Guess who they are

Published October 22, 2014 8:45PM (EDT)


Fall is one of my favorite seasons of the year. Perhaps it’s the gorgeous leaves, the steaming mugs of apple cider, or the fact that my fall fashion game is significantly tighter than it is in the warm seasons of the year. It’s also the season of festivals, football and state fairs (my personal favorite). These are all-American forms of entertainment.  There is one consistent feature of these shared American amusements that we talk little about – the potential for and frequent enactment of white violence.

This past weekend, students at Keene State College in New Hampshire got, as one student put it, “way out of hand,” as they turned over a car and danced on top of it, threatened an elderly person, threw glass bottles, and popped fireworks. These violent white college kids were so unruly that the police had to come in riot gear and bring out tear gas, to quell the riots. One white female student reported feeling very unsafe. Why are these white kids so mad that they are terrorizing residents and destroying property?  Should we be concerned about the fact that they seemed to really enjoy it? Is that sociopathic?

It would be easy to talk about this Keene State College business as an isolated incident of drunken college students, getting “out of hand.” But that would be politically and culturally irresponsible, since this is after all #FergusonOctober. Several states over from New Hampshire, down in Missouri, citizens exercising First Amendment rights, citizens with righteous anger, who might get a “little out of hand” with an errant glass bottle or two, are met with a much larger show of force – tanks, tear gas, stun grenades. We’ve had no reports of Ferguson protesters threatening old people or threatening to kill the police. And thank God for that, because we would have witnessed a serious amount of bloodshed to go along with our protests if that had occurred.

But beyond #FergusonOctober, any person who has ever lived in a college football town knows exactly what Saturday nights after big games are like. My first academic job was in a college football town. When I arrived, my students instructed me of survival protocol for home games: “Get your food on Thursday night. When you go in the house on Friday evening, don’t come back out till Sunday.” Less a set of racial instructions, these were more pragmatic tips so that I didn’t find myself caught in the middle of town in a traffic jam caused by drunken revelers. Drunken white revelers.

On at least two occasions, one of my good friends, a fellow professor, called to say that she had come out to her car on a Saturday night in this college town to find a drunk college kid urinating beside her car. On both occasions, she weighed the benefits of confronting the drunk white guy blocking her access, or simply waiting till he had finished and moved on.

Implicit in her stories was a truth we refuse to tell: These young drunk white men were dangerous. Menacing. And they are made more dangerous precisely because their disrespect for public space and private citizens is seen as mere play, mere college kids having a good time, rather than as a threat.

But what the events in Keene suggest is that white folks often test the bounds and limits of public decency and order with little long-term reprisal. There were some arrests, and some tear gas. But no dead bodies. No stigma about white anger. No come to Jesus meetings about White America’s problem children. No public discourse about these “menaces to society.” As many commentators on Twitter pointed out, there’ll be no articles about the absence of white leadership, or about how white folks just need to learn respect for public property.

How does it feel to be white? Does it feel like freedom? Freedom to piss on people and property with impunity? Freedom to burn shit up and live to tell about it? Freedom to threaten old people and wake up the next morning and chalk it up to drunkenness? License to kill?

This isn’t just about civility. This is, as are most things in this country, about stark and disparate forms of racial treatment. This is about the ways that white threat is largely illegible as  “threat.” This is about the fact that a band of wild, drunken black college kids could not have turned over cars, threatened old people, and shouted about killing the cops and lived. 

For instance, this is also black college homecoming season, and my alma mater Howard University canceled the annual free concert at the legendary Yard Fest this year, because there were a few issues with crowd control last year. The Yard Fest is the stuff of hip-hop legend, and it is the annual event that most alumni look most forward to participating in. But as a federally funded entity, Howard is hypervigilant about making sure campus events are models of black respectability. It cannot afford the public scrutiny if the event were to devolve into a cabal like that which occurred at Keene. So it canceled a portion of the event beloved by all of us, because any appreciable amount of black unruliness could be met with an unfavorable and devastating federal response.

It is an institutional example of how powerful systems of white supremacy are, how much those systems hold everyone from the most venerable black institutions to the most vulnerable black youth in their death grips.

In the midst of this, the Keene students have released a video of the positive aspects of the Pumpkin Festival. It’s filled with a merry band of white students throwing back cans of beer, white girls twerking, one token black girl surrounded (a bit uncomfortably) by her white friends, at least one shot of a white girl’s bare behind, and various forms of good ole American college fun, set to a Kanye West soundtrack.

All it takes to redeem whiteness is a four-minute YouTube video. That there is an unself-conscious celebration of booze, sex, hip-hop and partying in this video attests to a particular kind of freedom that white folks have to conceptualize and think of youth  as a time of rebellion, lawlessness and testing the boundaries.

If you’re black that kind of thinking is dangerous. If you’re black that kind of thinking will get you killed. And if you’re white, and you do the killing, you will most probably go free.

If we showed black people doing each and every activity in this video, it would be a testament to our lack of civilization, our utter ratchetness, and wretchedness. Black folks know how to have a good time, for sure. But we would never use our good time as a fodder for a racial redemption marketing campaign. No sane black person would ever think that was a good idea.

Can you tell yet that I’m fed up? Fed up with white obliviousness. Fed up with “white” freedom, which seems very much to be euphemism for black terror. Fed up with American injustice. And yet wholly, visually convinced that racial injustice is as American as football, pumpkin patches, drunken white revelers and apple pie.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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