The Bellingham “Riot” - Let’s Expand the Conversation

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Thu, Dec 05, 2013, 5:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

Ohio State University's Armored Police Vehicle - Photo: Reddit (imgur)

A recent report to the community following the 12 October “riot” entitled “Bellingham, WWU Working Together in Riot's Aftermath," written by Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, was an enormous disappointment. (You can read that piece on the city's website here.) In the opening paragraph they asked: “How could something like this happen in Bellingham and what can we do to avert another similar incident?”

They then proceeded in the next 1200 words to avoid the answer about “how could somethng like this happen,” except for these four sentences: “The causes of the riot were many. Drunkenness among college and high school students and non-students certainly was a contributing factor. Social media also played a part in the incident. The event fed upon itself via social media communications, pulling in more participants.” That’s it. In spite of stating that the causes were many, there is no enumeration of these "many" possible causes at all, except for booze and social media. The remainder of the editorial speaks to criminality, punishment, order, law, disappointment, civil disturbance training, party houses, etc., all of which are factors to be discussed but certainly neither all-encompassing rubrics nor edifying causes.
I believe this riot happened because the basic components that create these events are those we are teaching our youth. Confrontation. Belligerence. Hyper-masculinity. Misuse of alcohol. 

Wittingly or not, those are our messages.  Stay with me while I explain.

Look at the photo above. This military vehicle is a recent acquisition by Ohio State University’s campus police force from the U.S. military. Read more about this acquisition here. The OSU campus police says it is for protection of their officers. A 19 ton armored personnel carrier. I had four similar vehicles under my command in the 1960s facing the Warsaw Pact, but I was an infantry platoon leader…a soldier in the 3rd Armored Division, not a police officer. Western Washington University has no such vehicle…yet. The city of Bellingham does have a similar one. So does the Whatcom County Sheriff.  See the photos below. Bellingham police used their armored vehicle on the night of the “riot.” Like it or not, a message was sent to the crowd: this is a confrontation. Add to this the presence of police vehicles, flashing red and blue lights, spotlights, and bull horns. These visual and audio stimulants all added to the volatility of the situation. Is this a necessary response? Can we explore options?

At a meeting of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission several days after the “riot,” neighborhood representatives were able to discuss the incident of 12 October with Mayor Linville, Police Chief Cook and WWU’s VP for University Relations, Steve Swan. When my turn came to speak, I addressed the Police Chief. I reminded him that I spent over 6 years as a volunteer with the Bellingham Police Force. I wore their uniform. Ours is a police force I found to be well trained and one that worked well with the public. I told Chief Cook that I understood protection as I had been rescued by Bellingham officers on several occasions when threatened by irate members of the public whose vehicles I was about to tow and ticket. I also told him I had served in a combat zone and understood, more than most, the concept of protection, but that I had reservations about what our police departments were becoming. I said that when I see a photo of our police at that October incident (see below) and cannot distinguish that photo from one of an infantry squad in Kandahar, Afghanistan, there is a serious problem in our city.  Only one person at the mayor’s meeting contacted me after my remarks. She understood what I was saying.  Otherwise, my remarks were met with polite and mildly stunned silence. Are such topics to be off limits?

What we are witnessing is a facet of a largely unacknowledged militarization of our police forces nationwide that began decades ago with the introduction of SWAT teams, the first of which appeared in Los Angeles.  (You can read more about this by clicking here or merely by typing “police militarization” into your search engine.)  Our young men and women see this transformation while also seeing first-hand the abuse, most recently with the treatment of Occupy Wall Street participants across the country, many of whom were on campuses. Even in Bellingham the former mayor forced a ham-handed response to clear the Occupy camp at Maritime Heritage Park. These were peaceful protesters. Annoying perhaps, but no cause was ever won by being docile and unobtrusive. Think of the civil rights protests of the 60s. 

Let us consider the hyper-masculinity and belligerence that flourishes in the misnamed "sports" world.  These characteristics unfortunately can be found at WWU and other universities that appear on the WWU sports schedule. I personally witnessed this phenomenon during my 7-8 years working crowd control at sporting events – primarily basketball and football (until the WWU football program was cancelled). Football is full of warrior talk: killing the opposition, crushing one’s opponents, smashing the other team. Team names and mascots across the U.S. promote notions of the same: Tigers, Lions, Cougars, Badgers, Huskies, Broncos, Eagles, Raiders, Vikings (yes, we know what these ancient warriors did to the British Isles). There are even offensive team names such as the Redskins (Washington) or Rebels (Old Miss) that perpetuate insensitivity and cluelessness. In this atmosphere of rapaciousness and violence, even the uniforms imply a hyper-masculinity: shoulders exaggerated by padding, tight waists, celebratory head-butting, spiking the ball, undue displays of self-congratulation. Thus does poor sportsmanship proliferate. Females are not exempt from this distorted demonstration for they provide support, often in the way of cheerleading where a hyper-feminization and sexualization plays a role in encouraging the crowds. A version of this was seen during the “riot” when young females “flashed” their chests or “twerked” against police cars. 

In the so-called “sports" world, coaches yell and scream at players. I spent years behind the bench of the visiting teams playing WWU football and basketball and witnessed this appalling behavior. Coaches were abusive. They screamed. Their spittle fell at their feet. Veins bulged on their necks and foreheads. Referees were not spared their ire. This is the comportment of so-called sports role models, the coaches. The players and fans alike pick up on this behavior. Fans become apoplectic. Botched plays are met with curses, throwing of helmets, knocking over of ice chests. No one is reprimanded for this behavior. The crowd picks up on the mood and this crowd mentality prevails. This atmosphere also permeates the growing number of “sports bars” where alcohol is fed into the mix. Inhibitions are relaxed and associations made: sports…alcohol…belligerence…confrontation...hyper-masculinity.  Even women are now being pulled into this distorted dynamic.

There is also an inability of young minds to reason properly and modify risky behavior. We already know from scientific studies that the capacity for the young brain to make sound judgments (frontal lobe development) is not fully present until well after 20 years of age, even without adding alcohol. You will note this in a paper from the Juvenile Justice Center of the American Bar Association (click here - similar articles proliferate on the Internet). Yet in the aftermath of the “riot” here none of this is brought into the discussion. 

Similarly, we have not looked at the role of alcohol in this and similar incidents in a wider, cultural context.  Malcom Gladwell presented some fresh insight into the behavior of those who drink in an article entitled "Drinking Games."  You can read that piece in its entirety at his website by clicking here.  Gladwell posits:  "Myopia theory changes how we understand drunkenness. Disinhibition suggests that the drinker is increasingly insensitive to his environment—that he is in the grip of an autonomous physiological process. Myopia theory, on the contrary, says that the drinker is, in some respects, increasingly sensitive to his environment: he is at the mercy of whatever is in front of him."  Consider what was in front of this group of "rioters" on the 12th of October in relation to what Gladwell is saying. 

Gladwell continues, "In other words, the frat boys drinking in a bar on a Friday night don’t have to be loud and rowdy. They are responding to the signals sent by their immediate environment—by the pulsing music, by the crush of people, by the dimmed light, by the countless movies and television shows and general cultural expectations that say that young men in a bar with pulsing music on a Friday night have permission to be loud and rowdy. Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” MacAndrew and Edgerton [anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton] conclude, "Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get." The hidden expectation that night could very well have been that being drunk would bring on riotous and destructive behavior. The young crowd was behaving as a young drunk crowd is defined in our culture. So as I said above in the first few paragraphs, a message was being sent to the crowd from the current culture.

Gladwell concludes, "There is something about the cultural dimension of social problems that eludes us. When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law."  Might we then also conclude that we have until now only addressed the economics (damage to vehicles, property, etc.) and the law (find the perpetrators and punish them)?  

In order for citizens to have a well-balanced conversation on the incident of 12 October, we must consider the totality of the elements that feed into these kinds of behaviors on the side of the “rioters” AND the city officials, notably our police. Do not misunderstand. This is not an indictment of city hall, the police, the university or those who "rioted," be they students or other young residents. It is a call to action. It is a call to talk about uncomfortable topics by expanding the conversation.

I call on Mayor Linville, Police Chief Cook and WWU President Shepard to expand the discussion.  We can learn much from this incident. To do less will be to miss an opportunity to get to the heart of the matter.

Bellingham Police Armored Vehicle - Photo by Richard Conoboy

Whatcom County Sheriff Armored Vehicle - Photo by Richard Conoboy

Bellingham Police at 12 October 2013 "riot" with Armored Vehicle - Photo by Andy Bronson, Bellingham Herald

Dick Conoboy  //  Sat, Dec 07, 2013, 10:01 am

This article was picked up by Truthdig, an alternative news site, by Alexander Reed Kelly, a graduate of Western Washington University.  You can visit that site here:  + Link

Alex had written a piece on the “riot” for Truthdig a week after the incident which you can read here:  + Link

Here is an excerpt from his observations just after the incident.

“Over the course of two days I spoke with six sociology professors in their campus offices. I explained to each that I was a former WWU student and a working journalist researching the event for a story that would express concern for the students and the severe punishments the authorities seem prepared, even anxious, to exact against them. “The university administration, local editors and reporters, and other sources of information don’t seem to be trying to understand why Saturday night happened,” I told the first professor. “I’m looking for an expert who can place the students’ behavior and the police response in their proper social context and help everyone involved have an informed discussion, rather than the emotional one that’s currently prevailing.” The professor’s chair squeaked as a moment passed. “I’m reluctant to discuss it because I wasn’t there,” the professor said. “I only know what the papers reported, so I think it would be irresponsible of me to comment on something that directly involves our students.”

Tip Johnson  //  Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 8:49 pm


I am impressed you would write this. It is both illuminated and illuminating.  I have long engaged in public interest advocacy for social movement, promoting ideas usually marginally characterized as ‘protests’ by ‘activists’.  Careful, you may be crossing the Rubicon.

I would add another factor to your excellent analysis: Memes - those units of meaning that carry and replicate our cultural identity. 

We are the products of “American Exceptionalism” (mainly according to ourselves).  We are ‘Independent’ and ‘Equal’ ‘Individuals’ (that’s what the 4th of July is all about, right?). This is the “Land of the Free” and we are lucky to live here (just watch the opening of the Superbowl or World Series).

These memes are not designed for submission and compliance.  Blame our founding fathers.  Financial and commercial constraints may mostly undermine their realization, but that only fuels the appetite for them.  In much the same way, the arrival of a superior force engenders increased opposition.

Be careful.  Soon you may be preaching against the sneak-and-peek Big Brotherism of rental inspections!

Dick Conoboy  //  Sun, Dec 15, 2013, 7:59 am

Thanks Tip.  You are the first to comment on my post.  Even those to whom I sent copies of this article, and who are “proponents” of discussing this event so that it is not replicated, have not responded to me. That I find most disconcerting as it indicates that discussion is asked for as long as it does not include certain topics such as I have raised above.  These topical turds then lie about until they begin to stink but by that time the rot will have spread and demand much more in the way of remediation if at all possible.
I will not be reconsidering my support for rental inspections in light of my article.  There are legitimate government functions that concern health and safety, think the FDA and OSHA, and rental inspection is one of those functions.  It is not big brother to control commerce (renting homes and apartments).  It is common sense and serves the common weal.

The Bellingham “Riot” - Let’s Expand the Conversation

Thu, Dec 05, 2013, 5:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The post "riot" conversation is terribly lacking in several areas. We must expand the discussion or risk learning little from the experience.

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