American Culture

What the hell were(n't) they thinking?


Penn State students at a candlelight vigil in support of the victims.
Credit: Lawrence Weathers

When I was in grad school at the University of Colorado, there was a riot in a part of Boulder known as The Hill. It’s just off campus and filled with houses that are rented to college students or have been converted to apartments. The riot was over the dumbest reason I could think of to riot over at the time – the supposed right of underage students to break the law and drink alcohol while underage. It was booze fueled, and before it was over the rioters got within a block of my apartment building, several miles from where they started. The result? No changes in police policy toward underage drinking (duh), but a ban on sofas on porches because sofas had been torched during the riots to make toxic bonfires. Brilliant, the rioters were not.

But compared to the Penn State rioters who went apeshit over Paterno’s firing, the CU rioters were brainiacs.

Seriously, how dumb do you have to be to not get that Paterno screwed up by not reporting child rape to the police? Sure, he’s not being charged (at the moment) because he met the minimum legal reporting requirement, but who seriously believes that ethics or morality should be defined by the legal minimum for something as appalling as child rape? At best the rioters were rioting in support of a man who failed to meet his moral obligations. At worst, the rioters were rioting to support a man who covered up the rape of a 10-year old boy in his facility’s shower.

I knew people in my time at Penn State who were like this – dumb assholes with no self-awareness. In fact there were a few on my floor in my freshman year, one of whom shouted out his window at women marching in the annual Take Back the Night march to “get off the streets and back in the kitchen.” At least one other, however, had matured dramatically by the time I ran into him my junior year.

I’m sure that a significant number of the rioters woke up the next day or in the days since and thought, “Oh my god, what the hell was I doing….” I wish them well, because that epiphany shows personal growth that is such an important part of attending college no matter where you go. I hope they were some of the thousands of students who participated in an student-organized candlelight vigil in support of the victims on Nov. 11th, or gave money to Proud PSU for RAINN, part of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), which has raised over $352,000 from Penn State alumni in the last week to support rape, abuse, and incest victims.

As for the ones who haven’t had that epiphany yet, I hope they have it soon – I wouldn’t wish the karmic backlash from such a misguided riot on anyone.

6 replies »

  1. My guess is that if you managed to poll riots with brutal honesty, you’d find that the majority of rioters were really just there for the riot. Laws are constraining, and a lot of people will go crazy if/when those laws are somehow suspended temporarily. It only proves that lots of people are willing to break the law and moral/ethical codes when they figure they won’t get caught.

    For example, the interviews of people participating in the English riots earlier this year. Some had toss-off lines that fit the script but were probably not actually understood by the people saying them. And there were plenty who just said that they were out to smash shit and loot.

    As to rioting for Paterno, i can only hope that the ability to break the law was the reason for most of the rioters.

  2. The “Riot” was 40-50 kids doing dumb drunk shit and a few thousand standing around with camera phones. In a University of 40,000+ a handful of Drunks being assholes is not a Riot.

  3. Actually it was more like 20-30 people who weren’t even students. The national media made this out to be much different than it actually was and were inciting people to do things so they would have a story. Shame on them. To blame these horrendous crimes on the many at Penn State is just wrong. The crime was committed by one individual. To blame others for things that they didn’t have the facts on is bad journalism. The national media has really made a circus of this, and has shown no ethics in their approach.

    • Why are so many always so quick to dismiss any wrongdoing as “the actions of a lone individual.” Sure, it was one guy and he was hardly heading up the PSU Boy Rape Division.

      But he didn’t exist in a vacuum. He leveraged the advantages provided by a big, successful football program. His position and the sanction of the institution afforded him opportunities that are simply not available to, oh I don’t know, pedophile accountants. How big a deal would that charity have been had it been started by me instead of an important coach at Penn State?

      Individuals exist and they act in accordance with their own motivations, but they exist in contexts and environments and systems and to pretend otherwise is to make it easier for the next abuser to leverage the same systems in the same way.

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