Jason Rowland: A celebration or a riot?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 6:19pm

Last Saturday, Penn State University shocked the college football world with an improbable upset over Ohio State University in State College, Pa., the town popularly known as Happy Valley. Despite being 20-point underdogs, the Nittany Lions defeated the Buckeyes by a score of 24-21. To celebrate the unexpected — and, as many pundits are describing it, program-defining — win, students and fans took to the streets of State College to celebrate. However, it didn’t take long for celebrations to spiral out of hand.

According to the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, up to 10,000 people joined the riots, causing thousands of dollars in damage by night’s end. During the demonstrations, “street signs were ripped out of the ground and tossed in the air by the crowd, small fires in the street were started, several street lights were damaged and one vehicle was vandalized.” To disperse the crowd, police unleashed pepper spray and smoke in a method they described as “30 to 45 minutes of pain,” as opposed to getting “hands-on with the individuals.”

When the dust settled after hours of rioting, no one was detained overnight. Police did, however, visit a fraternity house after following a particularly raucous rioter, but they left without making any arrests, deciding to call it “even.” 

One commenter, remarking on the demonstrations, said, “As long as no kids got raped, I'd say it was a good day.” While his comment was particularly insensitive, the general gist of most responses seemed to be that Saturday was a night of youthful fun, not a night of violence.

Similar scenes over the past few years — from Baltimore to Ferguson, Oakland to Raleigh — have not been met with such a warm reception. Instead of characterizing rioters as excited youngsters simply expressing their elation in an interesting way, these protesters were often called “thugs” and “animals.” Consequently, the same crimes (disturbing the peace, larceny, etc.) were met with much harsher punishments. In my opinion, this dichotomy between reactions is overwhelmingly due to the different demographics between State College and the cities where many similar demonstrations have occurred.

According to city-data.com, State College is almost 80-percent white and less than 5-percent Black. On the other hand, Ferguson, Mo. — perhaps the most famous case of the recent unrests — is over 63-percent Black. Yet, only about 5 percent of Ferguson's police force is Black. This suggests some obvious problems, stemming from the fact that the police force does not represent the community it serves. Additionally, this suggests that the different reactions from the police could have had been rooted in the racial makeup of the force and its constituents.

Studies have shown that Americans harbor inherent racial biases toward certain demographic groups (in this case, Black people). Among these, white people have the highest bias scores against Black people, while Black people were the only group that held a favorable view toward Black people. Obviously, I’m not calling all white people racist. In fact, I know next to no overtly racist people of any race. However, inherent biases come out in times of high stress. When groups of African Americans congregate and it's the task of an almost entirely white police force to quell the unrest, slight prejudices among individual police officers add up to make a big difference. Officers saw African Americans protesting in Ferguson as hostile actors, while white students in State College weren’t seen as “thugs.” Most likely, the officers in State College could more easily see themselves in the protesters, prompting much nicer reactions.

Finally, a comparison wouldn’t be complete without evaluating the different motives for the protests. In cities like Ferguson, people protested because of what they — and I — felt were the unjust killings of defenseless Black people: a protest that had the sole mission of granting equality to millions of discriminated Americans. The riots at Penn State, however, had no end goal. Students and fans simply took out their emotions on the town around them. The outcomes were the same (destroyed property and people hurt), yet only one group was labeled as “thugs.” Ironically, that group was the one that was protesting for legitimate reasons, not the one that protested for no real reason. Perhaps, sadly, the irony dissipates when we realize the “thugs” were primarily Black, who were characterized that way not because of their actions (if that were case, more people would be calling the Penn State protesters thugs) but because of the color of their skin.

While you can be for or against any form of rioting, it doesn’t seem right to give certain groups a pass while others are condemned for the same action. When different groups are guilty of the same crime, they should all be handed the same punishment. And any deviation from this standard is a recipe for, or more likely a revelation of, discrimination.

Jason Rowland can be reached at jerow@umich.edu.