Pumpkin Madness

10.19.14 12:56 PM ET

Frat Culture Clashes With Riot Police at Keene, N.H., Pumpkin Festival

Tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and SWAT teams were hard pressed to contain the rioters who seemed to delight in destruction at the Keene, N.H., Pumpkin Festival.

The city of Keene, New Hampshire, faced a massive cleanup Sunday following a spate of riots that raged throughout much of the day Saturday and into the early morning hours of Sunday, as parties celebrating the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival turned into violent chaos.

Exact numbers on the injured weren’t available Sunday morning and weren’t expected until late Sunday or Monday, said Keene Police Sgt. Michael Kopcha. But Keene Fire Chief Mark Howard told a local cable news station at about 9 p.m. Saturday that at least 30 people were injured and 25 taken to the hospital with injuries including lacerations and broken bones received from flying beer bottles, fistfights, jumps from rooftops, and other blunt traumas. Kopcha reported that none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, a helicopter, and riot gear to try to disperse the crowds, which some estimates put in the thousands, from the neighborhoods surrounding the festival, which takes place primarily on the main drag of the city.

For their part, the revelers were quite pleased with themselves.

“It’s (expletive) wicked,” said Steven French, an 18-year-old who told the local newspaper, The Keene Sentinel, he was said he was visiting from Haverhill, Massachusetts. “It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops…It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

The parties started Friday, with several arrests and injuries reported. One police report indicated that residents of a student housing unit in a neighborhood near Keene State College attacked firefighters called to the building.

Things wound down a bit in the early hours of Saturday but then started escalating shortly after 1 p.m., when a report came in that a large party was forming in one of the neighborhoods near Keene State. That party was moved out of the street and into a backyard. Roughly 30 minutes later, a complaint came in about a house party with several hundred people where people were jumping off the roof of the building. Police called the owner of the house, who according to police reports declined to come to the scene and didn’t want to send someone else to break up the party because of the size of the group.

But those were just a few of the parties happening. Several more were going on a few streets over and were somewhat mobile in that one party sort of bled into the others, witnesses said. Those parties in turn fed into one big party being hosted at about the same time in about the same place by a company called Finna Rage. The Massachusetts-based entertainment group is known for throwing pop-up parties on college campuses. It then films the bacchanalia that ensues and posts the videos online.

Dana Colson, of Swanzey, New Hampshire, who manages three of the properties adjacent to the field where much of the trouble started, said he was called at about 2 p.m. to go out and check on the properties after his boss heard police had been called. One of the first things he saw, other than a giant mud wallow in a field behind the houses where several people had been wrestling, were partygoers throwing a tire up into the air and letting it land on people in the crowd, he said.

“The field was just full of people, had to have been at least 1,500,” Colson said. “They were throwing bottles up in the air, not caring where they landed. It was just a mess…I saw bottles being thrown into people’s faces…I saw one kid with a compound fracture to his leg. I saw the bone sticking out of his leg. And he refused medical treatment.”

Colson said EMTs carried the young man out of the crowd anyway to an ambulance waiting up the street. In this case, the crowd let them go. In other instances, he said, while EMTs were trying to treat the injured they had to do so while dodging bottles lobbed at them from the crowd.

“They were out of hand,” Colson said. “They just went nuts.”

The students who live at the properties he manages. Colson said, “were desperately trying to stop this…I don’t know much about this [Finna Rage], but they were the guys that are responsible for this.”

Trevor Austin, CEO of Finna Rage, denied responsibility for the mayhem in Keene. “It’s ridiculous, we’ve been out of Keene since 4 this afternoon,” he said in an email written at 1 a.m. Sunday.

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Ali Taylor, who owns the Alpha Dogs restaurant on Winchester Street, where some of the riots broke out, said that early Saturday afternoon, she started noticing huge crowds of college-age kids running from one side of the street—a heavily trafficked artery leading to Main Street—to the other, “almost like they were crisscrossing,” she said.

"They started standing on top of cars and tipping cars," she said. "They were climbing on streetlight posts and pushing them over. They had these big bars they were using to hit the street signs and light posts. Half the lights on campus are out. It's bad. It's really bad. I'm just so glad that none of the people on Main Street at the Pumpkin Festival knew what was happening."

SWAT teams from larger cities like Manchester and Nashua showed up early, Taylor said. Linked arm in arm, they formed a human barricade in an attempt to contain the rioters to the three affected streets and away from Main Street where tens of thousands of families were meandering through patches of pumpkins and vendor stands.

"They shot rubber bullets to try to deter the students from coming onto Main Street," Taylor said of the police, as she described the scene that played out in front of her business on Winchester Street. "There were SWAT teams here all day and into the night. … They did a really good job. I could see what they were trying to do. They were trying to keep them contained. But a lot of times (police) just watched the riots go on because there were thousands of rioters and not a lot of police officers."

Kopcha said there were officers from their department, state police and several other area departments which gave them roughly 100 to 200 police on the ground against thousands of rioters.

Throughout the events, multiple witnesses said, police remained calm. They never saw an officer use force other than pepper spray, tear gas or rubber bullets against the advancing hostile and destructive crowds.

"I saw kids throwing bottles right at the officers and they smashed at their feet," Taylor said. "And (the officers) just stood their ground. It could have been so much worse if they hadn't done that. They really were doing the best they could."

Former N.H. State Rep. Steve Lindsey was working on Keene State's campus when the riots broke out. He took to his Facebook page to describe what happened to him at work Saturday:

"Security asked me to lock the double steel doors of the student center. (Rioters) were building a barricade across Winchester Street and looking for material. Our… mail carts and mobile trash barrels would have suited them fine. Hands shaking… I found the right keys and locked the door bars. I went into the center to warn the cooks. The crowd was getting out of hand."

When it was finally time to leave work, Lindsey offered to go with his boss to get his car, which was parked in the middle of the melee. Once they got to the car, Lindsey was going to try to clear a path for his boss to back out.

"But he yelled 'Get in!' I did but as I did, a big lamp post with a large lantern came crashing down behind us, six feet, and shattered," Lindsey wrote. "He drove ahead and crack, a beer bottle smashed against the side of his car. He kept his cool as we weaved in and out of the crowd, We did not want to hit anyone as that would have been the end of us... A second bottle hit our car. Then what I took to be a rock. But we moved ahead away from the maelstrom."

With directions from police, Lindsey and his boss were able to make it to safety.

Police continued to keep crowds contained throughout Saturday afternoon and into the night although rioters started fires in the street, tipped cars and ran amok where they could. By about 10 p.m. Police had the three affected streets cordoned off. At about 11 p.m. State Police started flying a helicopter over the scene, ordering the crowds to disperse. Colson, who was still guarding one of the houses he manages said that broke up the majority of the groups tearing through the area. Although some groups, through the thick fog of tear gas, pepper spray and smoke that hung over the city, still lingered.

Rioting is not new on Keene State's campus. Riots broke out both after last year's pumpkin festival and after the Red Sox World Series win last year.

Early in the evening Saturday, Keene State officials released a statement that seemed to place the blame for the riots on out of towners. However, by the end of the night, Keene State President Anne Huot released a statement acknowledging her students were taking part in the destruction.

"Despite the concerted efforts of organizers, city officials, police, and Keene State College, there continued to be disruptive behavior at parties in multiple locations around the city, injuries, and property damage," Huot's statement read. "We are mindful that Keene State students played a part in this behavior and we intend to hold those individuals accountable for their actions. We deplore the actions of those whose only purpose was to cause mayhem. "

Keene caught the attention recently of the Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver. The town was teased about accepting a hand me down $286,000 Bear Cat from the Pentagon, and the police department became the butt of the joke after saying it needed the Bear Cat for Pumpkin Festival. There is no immediate indication the Bear Cat was brought out during the riots.