Keene Pumpkin Festival Ends in Riots

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The Keene Pumpkin Festival holds the record for the most pumpkins lit at once (photo: Carolynn Johnson)

By Isabelle Dietz

Last year, the Keene Pumpkin Festival set the world record for the most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. This year, student riots and police involvement brought Keene under a  national spotlight.

The pumpkin festival is a tradition that locals in Keene, N.H. have looked forward to every year for the last 24 years. Thousands of people come to Keene every year to celebrate fall and participate in the world record for the number of lit jack-o’-lanterns.

This year, over 60,000 people came to the pumpkin festival. Many were college students who had heard about the event through social media, and perhaps expected it to be more of a student party scene than it typically is.

Early Saturday afternoon, the police in Keene broke up two separate parties because of injuries caused by cans and bottles that college students were throwing. Once the parties were broken up and party-goers were dispersed onto the streets, tensions escalated. Police responded to rioting and aggression with nonlethal measures that included pepper spray, Tasers, tear gas and sponge rounds. 84 arrests were made and more than 30 people were injured over the 12 hours of rioting. Luckily, there were no major injuries. The student crowd was confined so that the actual Pumpkin Festival in downtown Keene was relatively undisturbed.

“Like most New Hampshire citizens, I am outraged by the irresponsible, terrible actions that marred a New Hampshire tradition,” said Governor Maggie Hassan in a statement about the Keene riots. “I am confident that law enforcement will continue to investigate and prosecute individuals who are responsible, and I am calling on New Hampshire colleges and universities to take swift action to hold students involved accountable.”

“I am very grateful that there weren’t more injuries,” Hassan said. “We must be vigilant as a state to review and learn from the sad destruction that escalated in Keene.”

Since social media caused some of the rioting by attracting larger crowds to this year’s Pumpkin Festival, it is also aiding in assigning responsibility for it. Keene Police released 24 photos of rioters, asking the public to identify them. One arrest has already been made as a result.

“To be clear, Keene State College does not tolerate the outrageous behavior that occurred over the weekend,” said Keene State President Anne Huot in a statement. “Also, understand that it does not represent a great many of the students who attend this college.”

Many of the students causing destruction were only  visiting Keene for the Pumpkin Festival and had no association with the college. In fact, many Keene State students turned out on Sunday morning to help clean up the town.

Student Body President Bobby Graham also released a statement, asking Keene students not to point fingers and blame each other: “While very many of us were not the perpetrators of destruction and did not take part [in] abhorrent activities that occurred it is an inevitable fact that we each share the burden of these events equally regardless of if some of us feel it differently than others.”

The media coverage of the Keene riots sparked debate over Twitter. Why were white college students often described in less violent terms when they rioted, seen as drunk college students causing mischief, rather than criminals? Others pointed out that even comparing Keene to Ferguson was insulting, when Keene students were rioting for, at most, their right to party and those at Ferguson were protesting excessive violence against the black community.

“The Pumpkin Festival has always been about the pumpkins themselves,” said Carolynn Johnson ’15, a Middlebury student from Keene, “and more importantly it’s about the community that comes together to create it. Despite what you might gather by reading coverage of the event, walking around downtown Keene this year was no exception. I heard about the disturbances from the news rather than from my own experience, despite living less than a mile away.”

Johnson has been to every pumpkin festival in Keene since she was born – 22 festivals in all.

“I sincerely hope that the town and the college – which is an integral part of the community – will be able to reach an understanding that allows the festival to continue in the future,” said Johnson.