What Happened In Beaver Canyon Saturday Night And What Do We Call It
Students at Penn State always seem to find a way to congregate when something significant happens. Typically, thousands assemble downtown in Beaver Canyon without any official organization.
It happened in 2008 when the football team beat Ohio State on the road and thought it had a shot at a national title. It happened in May 2011 when Osama bin Laden was shot and killed. It happened again in 2011 when the university fired Joe Paterno late one fateful November night. It happened in 2014 when the bowl ban was lifted. And it’s happened now three times this semester.
Students rushed to Beaver Avenue on Saturday to celebrate the Big Ten Championship victory. There were “We Are” chants, groups singing the alma mater, and kids mattress surfing.
But there were also students climbing on cars and light poles. There were torn down street signs and shattered street lights. There were riot cops with pepper spray and horses and rubber bullets. There was, again, damage.
It seems tradition at Penn State to come together, with increasing frequency, to celebrate or protest something after dark. Daily Collegian archives tell of a night during Arts Fest in 1998 when hundreds took to Beaver Canyon for the first time to riot for seemingly no reason, starting the trend of students congregating on Beaver Ave. between Pugh and Garner — and sometimes inexplicably destroying State College.
Daily Collegian reporter Bridgette Blair recalled the night 10 years later, telling of everything from kegs getting thrown off balconies into Beaver Canyon to students dancing around fires started in the middle of the street to small groups taking down light posts. Windows were shattered, cars were vandalized, and when it was all said and done, State College had more than $150,000 in damages to deal with. It’s lost to history what sparked the violent actions, but the destruction was worse than anything we’ve seen this year. It’s widely regarded as a riot.
Though there have since been peaceful gatherings to celebrate excellence on the football field, many older Penn Staters remember the Arts Fest Riot of 1998 (and then the smaller instances during Arts Fest 2000 and 2001) and don’t regard large gatherings in Beaver Canyon fondly. After the Ohio State celebration, I get why State College officials and university administrators were so concerned that the same or worse would happen again.
But there’s a crusade I’ve been fighting since the post-Ohio State game gathering: These post-football game and clown-hunting celebrations aren’t riots. I’ve been berated for insisting they be called rallies, and while that might not be the right word, “riot” certainly isn’t.
My point is, riots are spurred with protesters that are unhappy, disenfranchised, or have something to stand up for. They are violent from the get-go and the intent is to cause destruction.
The large majority of Penn State students didn’t run out of their apartments with the intent of destroying State College Saturday night. In a celebration like we’ve had twice now, people just want to be with one another and rejoice the victory and the fact that we are Penn State. Unfortunately, however, when you mix alcohol, groupthink, and peer pressure, you’re going to get the students who do tear down a light post or throw a rock through a window. I would argue they didn’t set out to commit crimes and damage the town, but just because a handful of students acted irresponsibly does not mean the overall theme of the gathering was violent or, more so, a riot.
The first thing I think of when someone says “riot” are the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles in 1992 when residents took over the city for six days, rioting, looting, setting things on fire, fighting, and killing. The people of Los Angeles were upset over the verdict and rioted to show disapproval of the court decision. Here’s a video clip of just how violent those riots got:
Last year in Baltimore, protesters sent the city into a state of emergency with widespread crime and destruction. Again, people were protesting something they thought was wrong, not celebrating the fact that their football team won — or even lost — a title game. These rioters were angry about something far more pressing to them than a football game.
Even a few weeks ago when Donald Trump won the presidential election, protesters took to the streets of major U.S. cities to show their disapproval and to fight a decision they couldn’t stand for. Historically, riots are violent and come from a group of people gathering to show dismay, displeasure, or complete disapproval of a decision or event. No one in Happy Valley was protesting the Big Ten Championship victory or the Ohio State victory. Students were celebrating, and the destructive actions of a few do not tip the gathering to a riot because nobody was there to protest.
Regardless of what you want to call it — and I don’t think there’s a single word that accurately describes the celebrations or gatherings at Penn State this year — we have to stop with the causeless destruction whenever something exciting happens. This year, so far, there have been three times where the student body got to come together and have an unscripted celebration, and each time that has been tarnished (not so much during the clown rallies, though). Somewhere over the years, State College Police have gone from “As long as no extensive damage is done we have no problem with it” to “Any person who fails to leave the area will be arrested immediately,” and it’s because we can’t just celebrate without inexplicably damaging our community.
State College is a special place, a town that exists solely around Penn State. There are people who fight for us to live downtown and have our parties and feel safe walking around at whatever time of day or night, and by disrupting the community like this we’re making their jobs a lot harder. We’re forcing them to question why they should continue to support us.
In my two-and-a-half years at Penn State I’ve had the opportunity to come together with thousands of others that I will probably never meet again in Beaver Canyon. We sing our alma mater, chant “We Are,” and celebrate being at our university and being college students in general. This is something I hope every Penn State student gets to experience during their time here.
Everyone should get the chance to be a Penn Stater rallying or rioting or celebrating or whatever-ing in Beaver Canyon. But if we can’t keep the light posts upright whenever something exciting or significant happens, future Penn Staters aren’t going to have the memorable experiences we have.