Saturday, May 17, 2008

The riot and the reaction

It's been interesting to follow the reaction to the clash between police and students at the street party on Fountain Ave. In the end, I don't think there are an facile conclusions, but there's lots to think about, and I appreciate the comments appended to my thoughts on the issue.

The clash was unnecessary, but inevitable. Drunk students in number. Noise. Confusion. And lots of police. Would anyone have predicted a different outcome?

Who's to blame? There's plenty to spread around, and no one is guiltless. The students were drunk and inconsiderate. The police were forceful and overreacted. What really happened and why? Doubtful, even with photographs and video that it will ever be clear. It's a Roshomon tangle that will unlikely ever be sorted out to anyone's satisfaction.

So what are the issues that have risen?

Was the response by Wes Public Safety and MPD inappropriate? I don't think their initial attempts to shut the party down were unexpected or inappropriate. The escalation into use of pepper gas, tasers and dogs was definitely over-the-top, badly executed, and not well thought out. There are, on record, incidents where pepper ball guns have caused death and serious injury. Tasers have killed people too. Was this potential deadly force the right reaction? The disarray and confusion of the police approach also raises questions about whether the clash was anything more than a brutal Keystone Cops assault on easy targets. One commenter has said that the police reaction is an indication of a slow slip into a police state under Homeland Security incentives. I think it's something to consider carefully.

Did the students incite the melee? I think the answer has to be yes. Did the students who were hurt deserve to be? No, but there was ample opportunity to avoid the confrontation. Students ought to have the freedom to gather and enjoy themselves. But many students live in a bubble in which they have total disregard for the fact that they are part of a larger community. Where were the responsible students Friday night who might have negotiated a backdown by students and authorities? The fact is, there was drunkenness and a sense of entitlement to do as they pleased, which fueled the confrontation. I'm afraid that student indignation that someone would ask them to be quiet and to go away is an indication of how self-centered they can be, especially when intoxicated.

Is there hostility between Middletown and Wesleyan? Of course. It's classic town-gown. How could it be otherwise? On one hand you have 3,000 smart young people experiencing freedom and independence for the first time. On the other you have a community that's diverse, and largely divorced from the elite school on the hill. Some students have a huge disdain for the town and the townies "in the Middle." Some students find a way to interact with the city in a useful way. Most students avoid interaction except when it comes to having a meal at a local restaurant, or a drink at a local bar. Middletown residents alternately resent the "privileged" students on the hill, or embrace the rich cultural and intellectual offerings of Wesleyan.

Is there a problem between MPD and Wesleyan students. Undoubtedly. There are few angels when it comes to this problem. Neither side has much respect for the other. It needs to be addressed before someone really gets hurt.

Maybe the most disturbing thing for me is the chasm between students who feel they have an inalienable right to be drunk, rude and self-righteous on the one hand, and the hateful anti-intellectual troglodytes who feel that the response by the police was not forceful enough. This chasm is most evident in the comment section to the Hartford Courant story on the melee. It's a profound, and deeply-felt class and intellectual divide that scares me.

Maybe one of the topics for a forum for graduation/reunion weekend ought to be this timeless friction between Wesleyan and the city in which it is found.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To everyone that thinks that homeland security as increased incentives for police-protester violence...

The militarization of police forces started in the sixties, during the civil rights movement. The Birmingham Police, under Bull Connor, purchased military carbines and even had a tank--ostensibly to deal with Jim Crow protests.

Let's start educating ourselves about the history and dynamics of police-protester conflict before falling into the military-industrial complex argument so easily.

That said, I agree that there should have been an intermediary between students and authority figures, that is the only way conflict would have been avoided.

And YES, I was there.