“Burn everything!” he yelled as he barreled past me as I stood on the sidewalk of College Avenue. He emerged a moment later from a house with a wooden door lifted over his head. I imagined him in the house, sunk far underneath the table of reason, wrestling the piece of wood away from its hinges. He did not run. He marched. His wide eyes never turned from the street-wide inferno he was approaching. He barked it again like a drunken call to arms, a Natty Light-induced sense of dedication. He didn’t have to look very far to find a sense of camaraderie as he repeated his battle cry.
It started with a few pieces of wood, maybe a few cardboard beer cases, and tree limbs that had been torn or broken by curious onlookers climbing upward for a better view. It soon consumed couches, doors, street signs, and eventually, the last signs of civility.
Shortly before, a girl on the sidewalk received the now-infamous “push” from an officer, leading to a barrage of beer bottles and rocks. Officers tried to break up the crowd by returning fire with “non-lethal ammunition.” Some partiers fled. Others saw the time for the counter-offensive. This move, as drawn up by the beer-bloated generals who took command that night, came to fruition in the form of fire.
There is symbolism in fire. It is the most primal means of enacting change – to burn something down. The British burned the White House in 1814. Watts burned twice. In the days leading up to the shootings at Kent State, students and protesters to the United States’ incursion into Cambodia set fire to the campus Army ROTC building.
As I approached the College Avenue inferno I couldn’t help but wonder silently, “Why burn everything?” A protester at Kent State in 1970 would likely have had an answer. A black man in Watts in 1965 or 1992 definitely would’ve had an answer. As I watched the man throw the door on top the burning pile, I imagined his answer would be less enlightening.
A counter-attack can come as a defensive measure or a counter-offensive, and whether it was one or the other is subject to interpretation. I can’t say what was clear to the police. What is clear, however, is that lines were drawn, and on one side was the man, the authority, the oppressor. On the other was the student, the self-proclaimed victim, the “Don’t taze me, bro” partygoer.
Earlier in the evening, sometime during the first police sweep, several students chanted “four dead in Ohio” as arrests were made of those who refused to disperse. Hearing the Neil Young-composed song about four people gunned down by the government in the midst of a period in American history wracked with turmoil and ideological divisions made me wonder what these people thought of what they were seeing.
Did this event, in their eyes, compare to what happened almost 40 years ago in front of Taylor Hall? Did they want to see four more dead? Would it justify the chaos? Or would it simply satiate some internal human bloodlust?
Never had I seen mob mentality realized in such a pure way. I was not afraid for myself, but afraid for the entire crowd. I was afraid for the firefighters ducking whizzing beer bottles, trying to put out the roaring fire. I was afraid that the police would act on the knowledge that the mentality of the crowd was “us against them.”
There was no social movement here, no political statements or calls to action for anything other than senseless destruction that would inevitably be blamed on police intrusion.
A week after the “riot,” police were casually strolling up the sidewalks on North Lincoln and Sherman, the respective sites of block parties, with riot helmets either in hand or on the head with the face shield up, reminding partygoers of their presence, while at the same time patronizing them.
As I walked up the sidewalk on Sherman Street with a group of friends, we found ourselves awkwardly walking slowly behind four police officers who took up the sidewalk and then some. They parted in the middle to let us pass, and one of them said casually, “Go ahead, guys. We know you have beer to drink.”
No more than 20 minutes later, the same officers were in the front yard of a house we had stopped at, warning one wobbly resident that, “If you can’t handle the beer, don’t drink.” I laughed as this individual nodded his head and thanked “them” for the advice. You could practically smell the smoke already.
Nick Baker is a junior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]