The Tale of UMass, Day Drinking, and the Echo Chamber

I’ve delivered this rant, in some form, every time someone has asked me about what happened at UMass two weekends ago, on the day of the Blarney Blowout.

Usually, when someone makes this inquiry, they use the word “riot”. I want to make it unequivocally clear, I think the use of the word “riot” to describe the events that took place on Saturday March 8th are not only incorrect, but contribute to the continued misunderstanding of what took place, and the discrediting of the reputation of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The word “riot” has been used a lot lately. It has been used to describe the gatherings of some hundreds of students in the Southwest residential area that have taken place during major national events, such as the death of Osama Bin Laden, the re-election of Obama, the Superbowl, and the World Series. While the intent to cause damage is greater in these events, the number of students engaged in them is negligible, considering the campus houses some 20,000+ students.

It was also used repeatedly to describe the events of the Blarney Blowout. It was used by local news agencies, such as, it was used by the Providence Journal, and, somehow, the LA Times avoided the word, while nonetheless covering the events, which remains inexplicable to me.

This is the point where I throw in the disclaimer: I didn’t participate in the Blarney Blowout. My interest in getting out of bed at 8 AM on Saturday is minimal, and a day of drinking doesn’t act as any incentive to get me going any earlier than usual.

The facts as I see them are as follows:

The Blarney Blowout got much more attention in the lead up to the weekend than ever before. The Chancellor sent out an email telling students not to participate in the event, which acted as a reminder to those who forgot the annual event, and as an indoctrinating message for those who might otherwise have remained unawares.

The local media covered the event before it happened, with quoting liberally from student media in the days leading up to the weekend.

Then all the buses were shut down, all of Saturday, leaving huge crushes of people to make their way between student residences in the residential areas around campus, as well as seriously inconveniencing anyone who might have wanted to go to the mall to catch a film, or otherwise entertain themselves on Saturday.

Then the riot police show up, still early in the day, around 11.

That’s when things really seem to get out of hand. There are reports of people throwing things at the police, there are reports of the police behaving in an extreme manner towards the students.

In the end, some 55 people were arrested, the majority of whom, it is later revealed, do not even attend UMass.

Meanwhile, the student body is treated to another disapproving email from the Chancellor that disparages the entire campus community, despite the fact that it was some 3,000 people who were involved, again, a minimal portion of the some 20,000 people who make up the student body.

Ultimately, most people entered the beginning of the week feeling unfairly criticized and attacked.

Student and local media were out in full force to cover the student protest against the use of force by police during the Blarney Blwoout.

Then on Tuesday, the Student Government Association, in conjunction with Divest UMass, and CEPA (the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy), banded together to host a rally against the usage of police violence against the students. Including SGA President Zack Broughton demanding an apology from the Amherst Police Chief, and a march from the Student Union to the Whitmore administrative building where they delivered a demand for a meeting with the Chancellor. One reporter from the Daily Collegian suggested the hashtag “#more press than people” for the event, due to the nearly overwhelming number of media outlets, both local and student media.

So, the coverage by student media makes sense. The coverage by local media, within reason, still makes sense, but the kind of coverage we’ve been getting is beyond the pale.

The fact that the LA Times picked up the story is still baffling.

But it’s more than that. Lots of people have expressed frustration at the responses they’ve gotten out in the world since this story blew up. Now, if you say you go to UMass, the automatic word association takes people to “riot”. “Riot” is not the word association you want for your higher education. “Prestige” or “world class” is better.

Some people have claimed that it’s the fact that we’re a public university. Harvard throws ragers that would put UMass to shame, one kid in my Ethics class pointed out. I don’t even want to get into the details of the MIT drug culture that I’ve heard. Others have pointed to the fact that other public universities, often further west, have events with a similar execution to Blarney, where crowds of college students head out and get wildly intoxicated. What makes UMass different?

Well, the first thing has probably something to do with the exceptionally combative relationship the town and the students have developed, a relationship the media has done very few favors for. Maybe it is because UMass is the largest of the “Five Colleges” in the area, making it easy for unfavorable direct comparisons between the schools. Maybe it is because UMass has run out of housing, meaning that a good number of students live off campus, mixing with the residential areas, and often creating greater strife with the locals, because of behavior that would be considered acceptable on a college campus, which becomes unreasonable in a neighbor.

While the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and Masslive, and The Republican are nowhere near as vicious as Larry Kelly, the local gadfly (read all about what he thinks on his blog, Only in the Republic of Amherst), they definitely know their audience, and that audience doesn’t have many people between the ages of 18-22, who are part of a large transient population, and working towards a degree in whatever. And it shows in their coverage.

The thing is, a riot usually implies a destructive will. I think that certain UMass events can result in drunken mobs. But I think the number of riots we’ve had is far fewer than the media would like you to believe. But I think the number will increase if we keep advertising our propensity for them, and then throw riot police into the mix.

I spoke with then-Select Board candidate John Boothroyd before we went on spring break, and he used the term “riot police entertainment,” and I think if UMass wants to avoid this kind of media circus in the future, they should launch a PR campaign and work on avoiding providing the entertainment… And inciting a riot.

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