Responsibility falls not just on rioters

Matthew Brophy

The rioters are idiots; everyone acknowledges that. Criminally, they vandalized, stole and committed arson. They should be held liable and charged to the fullest extent of the law. On top of this, their actions embarrassed the University and eclipsed the proud spotlight illuminating the Gophers hockey team’s national championship repeat. For all of these actions, they should be expelled.

With that out of the way, I believe the discussion should change focus. After all, there will always be drunken imbeciles. Unfortunately, I don’t imagine any columns or letters to the editor will make them suffer pangs of guilt or shame them into turning themselves in. Two live issues I think need exploring are determining who else might be responsible for Saturday’s riot and what can be done next year to curb a three-peat of destructive idiocy.

Blame might not only fall on the shoulders of the rioters. Three factions that might share some responsibility for the riots are the University, the police and the student body.

It doesn’t seem the University is really blameworthy, however, as it seems to have provided reasonable alternatives to getting drunk and stumbling through the streets after the game. Perhaps it might be culpable for lack of imagination – an alcohol-free event at Mariucci Arena doesn’t sound too tempting; it seems reminiscent of lame high school grad nights where “Casino Night” in the high school gymnasium is supposed to supplant wild house parties. Incidentally, there were also events and activities hosted in Coffman Union and the recreation center – however, playing kickball or Chutes and Ladders just doesn’t excite my fun meter – maybe it’s just me.

Perhaps the police should shoulder part of the blame – it’s their job to protect the community they serve. However, the police this year appeared reasonably prepared for the riots – with their G.I. Joe riot gear, rubber bullets and assorted noxious sprays and gases. The police department had about twice as many officers out on the streets as last year, trying to inhibit rioting and control the crowd.

Some might say the police were at least to blame for an abuse of force Saturday night. That remains to be determined; though seeing as they were being pelted by rocks and bottles, it seems they were relatively restrained. Still, some of the video footage necessitates review to judge whether officers were behaving in a gratuitously aggressive manner (for example, bystanders getting pepper-sprayed for no apparent reason).

We do, however, need to be realistic: There will be unfortunate instances of innocent people pepper-sprayed or shot with rubber bullets. In a riot situation, we cannot reasonably expect there not to be honest mistakes in judgment and trajectory. There will be some innocent casualties due to the confusion and the simple misfortune of being in the way.

In assessing blame, I believe those individuals frequently overlooked are the “voyeurs” of the riot – the people who venture out to watch the spectacle. For one, these students clog the streets, thereby inhibiting effective police and firefighter responses. Their very presence also encourages the rioters to perform their destructive, anarchistic deeds. Lastly, and most importantly, those watching these destructive deeds have some moral responsibility to try to prevent criminal misconduct by their peers (as long as it doesn’t compromise their safety).

“Acting” might be as little as yelling at a rioter to stop, asking the guy with the burning branch approaching the car what the hell he’s doing, or simply registering disapproval. While these acts might not always be effective, it might help curb the actions of these idiots to hear the disapprobation of their peers. If one is unwilling to do this, then he or she should just go home.

People seem to believe that merely standing around and watching people commit mindless, immoral acts does not make the bystander morally responsible – after all, they’re not the ones committing the crime. Yet do we feel this way when we see a mother publicly abusing her baby? When a person is shouting racial slurs at minorities? When a burglar is robbing a neighbor’s house? To stand around watching the riotous spectacle as a form of entertainment is to personally condone it. Watching is participation, and voyeurs thereby need to accept some responsibility – either that or just go home.

So what is the solution to prevent next year’s annual riot? I think one solution would be to utilize what has been effective this past year – video recording of the riots and its offenders. The University, student organizations and the police could work together to institute a program through which student volunteers can monitor the streets with issued camcorders, conducting surveillance for criminal activity. The footage submitted to the police department this year was clearly effective in catching some of the criminals involved.

In addition to catching culprits for punishment, video footage would deter potential rioters by introducing some accountability for their offenses. The mob mentality breaks down when the individuals comprising that mob no longer feel anonymous, but feel apprehensive they might just be on candid camera. Lastly, video records will monitor police activity, ensuring that it remains reasonable and non-excessive.

If we are to have a University community we can be proud of, we must be willing to take measures to protect it. And if we are truly supportive fans of our Gophers hockey team, we must prevent wanton morons from detracting from the resonance of the team’s triumph.

Matt Brophy’s biweekly column usually appears Wednesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]