Jeremy Fox / The Boston Globe / AP

The political potential of party riots

Can frat bros help oppose arbitrary police violence?

October 28, 2014 10:15AM ET

It was inevitable: After news spread of anti-police riots in the small college town of Keene, New Hampshire, on Oct. 18, people on Twitter started comparing media coverage of the incident with that of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. However, the difference in coverage between the first weeks of protest in Ferguson and the night of drunken rioting that emerged from the Keene Pumpkin Festival was telling. As white college kids in Keene flipped cars and threw bottles at cops for the fun of it, the media called them rowdy booze-filled revelers and all sorts of other euphemisms. By contrast, when Ferguson protesters aggressively confronted the police, the media framed the actions in terms of rioting, thuggery, destruction of their own community and other harsh verdicts. The two incidents offered an object lesson in the media’s racial bias.

But when protesters in Clayton (about 10 miles south of Ferguson) smashed pumpkins at the feet of city police the Monday after Pumpkin Fest, they were building a definite, if tenuous, link between otherwise divergent moments of resistance: From Ferguson to Keene, police violence is a force that should be challenged and defied.

Whether such linking is possible beyond symbolic acts — whether the predominantly white college rioters will identify with or oppose black freedom movements like that in Ferguson — could be a crucial question for the future of American social movements. 

Middle-class rage

To be properly understood, the riots at Pumpkin Fest must be seen in the broader context of party riots. A relatively new but increasingly common phenomenon on campuses across the country, party riots are exactly what they sound like. Whether it’s in Santa Barbara, California, at an annual beach party; Galveston, Texas, for Mardi Gras; or Dayton, Ohio, after a surprise basketball win, the riots usually follow the same script. Cops typically show up to shut down a massive party, but rather than disperse, the students fight back, attacking the police, blockading streets, destroying property and lighting fires, often leading to full-scale confrontations between crowds of drunk college kids and militarized riot-ready police forces. These rioters structure their rage around opposition to the police, attacking them with bottles, bricks and whatever is at hand and chanting anti-police slogans.

Though never discussed as a pattern in the mass media, radical activists and intellectuals have been tracking and paying attention to party riots with some curiosity. Mask magazine, a radical online style and culture publication, has perhaps most thoroughly analyzed the trend, arguing persuasively that these acts are the product of spontaneous nihilistic crowds, inspired by some combination of booze-and-pop-music-driven refusal to stop partying (as Miley Cyrus put it, “And we can’t stop/And we won’t stop/Can’t you see it’s we who own the night?”), the exuberant togetherness of crowds and a sense of impending postgraduation precariousness. Crucially, Mask has recognized that these riots haven’t happened at private universities or schools on US News & World Report’s best-colleges list. These students do not come from the upper crust but are predominantly middle- and working-class students who expect to have significantly less wealth and opportunity than their parents.

So who, ultimately, is the party rioter — a drunken reveler, racist fraternity bro or a potential counterforce to the police state?

Emerging from a fallen middle class or not, party riots are on the rise. Last year saw 13 party riots across the United States, while 2014 has totaled more than 20 so far. Another riot broke out at West Virginia University the night after Pumpkin Fest. 

Party rioter politics

So who, ultimately, is the party rioter — a drunken reveler, racist fraternity bro or a potential counterforce to the police state?

Journalist Natasha Lennard argues that “party riots open up a space in which white kids, not usually the targets of police violence, can learn what it’s like to be in opposition to aggressive policing.” In this country, where police forces have their historical roots in fugitive slave patrols, few institutions represent and maintain white supremacy more than the police. In order to support black freedom struggles, white people will have to learn to oppose the police on an institutional level. Party riots may push white college students in that direction.

Writer Drew Franklin took this argument a bit further in an opinion piece for Orchestrated Pulse. He wrote, “If whiteness is defined, in part, by a special relationship with the police, then ‘fuck the police’ is an implicit repudiation of that.” I don’t fully agree, as that special relationship can influence a white person’s ability to participate in anti-police actions without fear. Still, his point that whiteness is fundamentally structured around and through the police is crucial.

Both Lennard and Franklin tentatively put forward party rioters, in their opposition to the police and property, as potential allies for other social movements fighting for liberation from authoritarianism and inequality.

But their conclusions are tentative precisely because they both know that what party rioters are opposed to isn’t the only thing that matters. Many of these riots emerge out of fraternity parties, and frats can be a major part of on-campus rape culture, white supremacy, elitism and homophobia. Party riots just as frequently occur after sports games, which themselves suffer the same problems. As we have seen in Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement, fascists can riot against the police too.

These contradictions can’t be brushed aside: They are at the heart of the party-rioter phenomenon. On the one hand, students at public universities in 2014 are facing tens of thousands of dollars of debt for pieces of paper that will not guarantee them jobs to pay back that debt, let alone careers. Facing a jobless recovery, not to mention the beginnings of worldwide ecological collapse, they have little to lose and a world to gain from overturning the status quo. On the other hand, some of these white college-educated kids will snag jobs in finance, real estate or tech and wind up having a personal interest in maintaining their privilege and the social structure that upholds it. Individual students can vacillate between these two positions, not knowing what their future holds. As a result, their actions could evolve in a number of different ways.

Party riots will likely fade away and disappear, like any other college fad, nothing but a strange historical footnote in an era of increasing dissatisfaction and unrest. But if they don’t, party rioters on particular campuses could become capable of gathering purposely and with regularity, throwing riot parties with relative ease. Such organized parties could mobilize energy to fight state oppression, coming out in force to respond to local instances of police violence or in solidarity with national movements. On the other hand, without such organization and direction, they could become a revanchist and reactionary phenomenon: affluent, drunk white kids engaging in white-supremacist, patriarchal or homophobic violence as a cathartic way of consummating their power.

If the incidence of party riots continues to increase at the rate it has, semester on semester, by 2016 they will be a common and important feature of life in U.S. universities. But their meaning, their composition and their political orientation is being shaped now. It may be possible for radicals to intervene or for these inchoate events to organize into something powerful and liberatory. But if the media and police succeed in isolating these riots from broader insurgent currents, they will become what almost every angry mob of white Americans has been: a nightmare. 

Willie Osterweil is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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