Experts weigh in on Homecoming

As the dust settles after Homecoming, faculty members at Queen’s are offering a variety of explanations for why celebrations on Aberdeen Street Oct. 24 got out of control.

Vincent Sacco, a professor in the sociology department, said the street party is an example of a “celebratory riot,” which are occuring with increasing frequency at American colleges.

“Celebratory riots are an increasingly common phenomenon,” he said, explaining they are often associated with sporting events. “What happened on Aberdeen is a textbook case of these kinds of incidents.”

Sacco said celebratory riots are distinguishable because they generally occur late at night and involve large numbers of people aged 18 to about 25 who are consuming alcohol and have a collective expectation that something will happen.

“This expectation [on Aberdeen] has been fueled by all communication channels, such as through rumors, the media, the police and the University,” he said. “Everybody knew about it. It was the worst kept secret.”

Professor James Scott Johnston of the Faculty of Education said a buildup of press and media attention can send intended and unintended messages.

“The intended message is to alert students to party responsibly,” he said. “Unintended messages alerted students and community members to the significance of the event.”

Johnston said another unintended message is that the Aberdeen event is a really big celebration and if students wanted a really good party experience, it was the place to be.

Sacco said individuals lose some of their normal inhibitions in a crowd.

“You [feel] a bit freer to do things in a crowd, especially with alcohol involved,” he said.

As for the idea that police presence caused the crowd’s behaviour, Vernon Quinsey, head of the psychology department, said the police were not completely to blame.

“Historically, there are many instances where police have provoked violence, but usually in those instances [the police] are cracking open heads,” he said. “There was none of that in this instance. I think the police were very concerned that if they did anything [aggressive it would provoke the crowd]—they didn’t want to provoke the crowd anymore.”

Sacco said two types of violence often occur in celebratory riots. The first type occurs when individuals use the crowd as cover and are motivated to commit violent acts.

“The second, other violence is referred to as ‘outcome violence.’ It is produced by policing activity,” he said.

For instance, if a police officer were to stop a student and tell the student to simply come with them, the student probably wouldn’t agree and would want to know why they are being targeted, Sacco said.

“If this were to happen more than once, then students would say police are harassing them. Although the police aren’t doing something wrong, [that reaction] is a logical outcome,” Sacco said. “Police will see it one way, students will see it another way [and] a real miscommunication [ensues].”

Sacco said he thinks there has been a gross oversimplification of the events since they happened.

“There wasn’t a mob mentality in the crowd,” he said. “In American research, most people in a crowd at a celebratory riot stand around.”

Sacco added it would be inaccurate to say that everyone in the Aberdeen crowd was equally responsible for the violence that occurred.

“All [of the estimated 5,000 to] 7,000 people were not tipping the car or throwing beer bottles or harassing the cops,” he said. “Everyone seemed to be [acting] okay, except for the few people behaving criminally, but you end up with a situation that gets out of hand.”

As for next year, Sacco said the rhetoric that has been escalating since the incident has not made him optimistic.

“Clearly there were lots of people [at Aberdeen] who were not malicious or violent, but I am not sure how you sort those people out with tasers and water cannons,” he said, referring to a statement made by Kingston Mayor Harvey Rosen in the Kingston Whig-Standard last week.

He said American schools have used other options to help diminish celebratory riots.

“[They] have been down this road and have other solutions,” he said. “For example, parents of students attending are notified about upcoming events and this introduces another form of social control.”

Samantha King, an assistant professor in the School of Physical and Health Education, is organizing a symposium to discuss the last weekend’s events. She said the Aberdeen issue is not a simple one.

“It is really complicated, and there is a wide constellation of social forces that produce events like this,” she said. “I thought it would be helpful to have an academic discussion.”

King said the symposium will allow faculty, undergraduate and graduate students to speak their minds.

Johnston said he didn’t want a conclusion to be drawn about the event’s causes without further deliberation and investigation.

“I don’t see the conclusion as [an individual’s] decision to make, but the community’s and all the people who were involved,” he said.

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