Palmerfest — Why burn couches?

10May10

Last Saturday Ohio University’s notorious Palmerfest took place once again. After the Palmerfest 2009 debacle — wherein party goers started fires and riots on the street, which ultimately forced local law enforcement to shut down the festival early — the city of Athens, OH and the majority of the Ohio University community hoped that this year things would be better.

Unfortunately, those hoping were wrong. This year’s Palmerfest ended the same as last year’s, with fires in the street, riots, beer bottles thrown at police horses and local law enforcement dowsing the crowds with mace and tear gas.

Photo credit: Alicia Fidler of The Post at Ohio University

What is most interesting about the result of this year’s Palmerfest is the fact that the city of Athens has been dangling over the heads of Ohio University students a proposed noise ordinance, which would give law enforcement more lenience and discretion in shutting down parties with outrageous amounts of noise or

loud outdoor music. Students have cried out against this ordinance, claiming that it gives too much power to local law enforcement and that it would ruin the party atmosphere so beloved at Ohio University.

As fest season approached, community members waited with tension to see if OU students would modify their party habits into more peaceable practices in order to prove that they did not, in fact, deserve to be slapped with so strict a city ordinance.

Much to the students’ chagrin, the decisions made — even in light of a strict city ordinance! — were decision of violence.
The question is… why?

While I do not study psychology and thus cannot answer this question with authority, I can base this situation around specific situations faced by that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

When Martin Luther King Jr. went to Birmingham, AL to start Project C (or Project Confrontation), one of his biggest rivals and threats in the city was Birmingham police official Eugene “Bull” Connor. In the nonviolent peace demonstrations practiced by MLK and his followers, Bull Connor ordered his firefighters to react violently by dowsing the protesters with hoses, sending attack dogs into the crowds of people, ordering tanks into the crowds and clubbing activists — even frail, old women. The firefighters complied with Connors’… to an extent. There came a point when even the firefighters realized that there actions were inhumane.

While the situation in Birmingham differs greatly from the one in Athens — mainly in that the actions of the firefighters were reactive to other humans — there are still a few similarities I would like to point out that may help demonstrate why Palmerfest party goers participated in actions that they knew to be destructive and violent.

  • Violence in contagious. As evidenced by the fact that the Birmingham firefighters eventually denied the requests of Bull Connor and simply refused to treat the activists inhumanely, the firefighters knew from the start that their violent reactionary treatment to the protesters was wrong. So why did they do it? Because violence is contagious; violence action and its byproduct is typically tangible, visible and very obvious (for example, large displays of hosed human beings, or fire erupting in the streets). These results — no matter how inhumane — seem effective, and therefore a small group of people feel incentive to produce them. Once that small group has convinced itself that their actions are legitimate, it is easy for others to also be convinced, as their peers feel empowered, they too feel their actions are okay.
  • Violence done in groups seems more legitimate. Bouncing off of the above idea that violence in contagious, this contagiousness often leads to group violence, which essentially leads those to induce violence to believe that their actions are okay. At Palmerfest 2010, there are videos of students chanting “OU” and “USA” in the moments before the fire is lit, showing that the surrounding students feel a sense of community with those around them. This community craves a stronger and stronger bond, and the more dramatic the events, the more strong the alleged bond. Even philosopher Reinhold Niebhur says that people are more easily capable of creating mass amounts of evil when acting in groups. Niebhur may even have a philosophy as to why the behavior of OU students did not change from Palmerfest 2009, wherein student’s previously set fire to couches in the streets; according to Niebhur, even in the face of all the ridicule that OU students received after their actions from last spring, humans are ultimately incapable of change.
  • Both the Birmingham firefighters and the Palmerfest party goers acted under the pretense of a leader. For the firefighters it was Bull Connor, and for the party goers it was likely some overly-intoxicated group of charming and convincing students. In either scenario, someone has the initial brilliant idea of inciting violence, and once that idea has been put into the discussion by someone respected in the community (or at the party), it is easy for others to help carry out that action in order to earn respect or fulfill a responsibility. Given the alleged intimidating nature of Bull Connor, the firefighters may have felt bullied into action, only later feeling confident enough to defy their leader. At Palmerfest, students were likely too intoxicated or chalk-full of adrenaline to feel any necessity to quiesce.
  • Party goers and firefighters alike have a role to play. To an extent, I am sure the Birmingham firefighters felt that, as the law enforcement of Birmingham, it was their responsibility, role and duty to carry out the violent actions that they did. Even though Bull Connor asked them to go above and beyond the role of typical firefighters by carrying out actions inhumane and unnecessary, those firefighters were still under the pretense that their actions were a part of their job description. Likewise, Palmerfest party goers mostly consisted of students, who often feel that they have a reputation to live up to that includes recklessness, irresponsibility, partying and anarchy. While outside the context of Palmerfest they may not have behaved similarly, being a part of a quintessential college party, many felt that had to act as quintessential college party animals.

As both Gandhi and MLK recognize, violence is easier to fall into than nonviolence, as violent tendencies are often and counter-intuitively more culturally acceptable than nonviolence tendencies. While both Palmerfest 2010 and the actions of the Birmingham law enforcement have been frowned upon in society, these are extreme examples that prove violence is oftentimes only condemned in extreme and highly unfortunate circumstances.

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