Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

STUDENT "RIOTS" PUT OFFICIALS IN A TOUGH SPOT

As CU and Boulder city officials deal with the most recent student "riot," they must be well aware that they play two conflicting roles. On the one hand, they are earnestly trying to protect life and property. On the other hand, they are the major actors in a media spectacle. Their words and actions are gathered in by journalists and fed to news editors. The editors weave them together into a narrative that they hope will entertain the public and keep it consuming the news product. The demands of the media spectacle may be interfering with the earnest efforts to protect the community.

Why do student "riots" inevitably become the stuff of public entertainment? Why the publicís fascination? It is certainly not because the "riots" tell us something meaningful about students these days. Based on Boulder police estimates, it appears that only about .3% (3 out of every 1000) CU students were directly involved in the destructive actions on Halloween eve. Perhaps another 3% were onlookers. That means 99.7% were not directly involved, and about 96% were nowhere in sight. Yet ask any average Coloradan about CU-Boulder students, and the first word that comes to mind is "riot."

Why should that be? Part of the answer is obvious. Violence makes news in the US of A; always has, probably always will. The more violent and anti-social you are, the more likely the public will know about you. Were the violent .3% simply trying to make a mark on their world? Were they trying to say "Hey, Iím here, please notice me," to a society that generally cares little about average human beings until they do something considered newsworthy? Iíll leave that question to the experts. It is merely a passing speculation. If there is some truth in it, it might make sense to lower the media spotlight and take away that avenue to recognition.

That will be difficult, though. There seems to be a special public fascination with college students, especially when they do something outrageous. There is a widespread feeling that college students are uniquely free; that they have the privileges of adulthood without the responsibilities. Like most stereotypes, it is a large falsehood wrapped in a small amount of truth. Like most stereotypes, it persists regardless of the facts.

For those of us who went to college, todayís college student is a symbol of the freedom we imagine we had, nor regret we never had, in late adolescence. For those who never went to college, or have no hope of going, the college student is a symbol of the freedom that they image comes with socio-economic privilege.

This symbolism helps to explain why the media story of the "student riot" is so irresistible. Our national culture has always made violence a symbol of freedom, ever since the first gun-toting English immigrant shot the first native American. Our first step towared national independence was (according to our treasured myth) a "shot heard Ďround the world."

For too many of us, the image of a violent, irresponsible college student represents the epitome of that freedom we yearn for, but have no hope of ever finding. At least, thatís my guess. Someone else may have a better theory to explain the public hunger for images of "student riots." Whatever the reason, news editors find that hunger irresistible, and they are ever willing to feed it.

The media story is about more than just freedom, though. The link between freedom and violence means that freedom is as threatening as it is alluring. The distinctively American idea of freedom as "doing whatever I damn please" does pose a real danger to social cohesion. Since we are so uncertain about what holds us together, we are understandably afraid that our society might fall apart. Maybe that is why the villain is so often a symbol of freedom as well as evil. (You canít understand the US of A until you have seen "Bonnie and Clyde.") College students, as unique symbols of irresponsible freedom, are easily cast as villains in the media script. Of course

That puts CU and city officials in a tough spot. They have serious work to do, trying to protect the public. But they must do that work in the public spotlight. They can not write the script, but they have to keep one eye firmly fixed on the script. That script has to be a story of good versus evil. The media allow no middle ground. At every step, these officials risk being cast as villains. Then all their hard work could be instantly undone. So they must play the opposite number to the students, pit themselves against the evildoers.

Yet some of those officials, at least, realize that they are not playing cops against robbers. They see themselves dealing with problems in our social system, not problems in a few deviant psyches. They donít want to demonize anyone. Yet sometimes they feel compelled to, as long as they are in the media spotlight. In that simplistic story, if you donít stand forthrightly for the good guys, you must be an ally of the bad guys.

"Student riots" are probably entertaining enough that they will always get some media coverage. But if we could turn down the volume and turn our attention to other matters, everyone would benefit. If people are genuinely interested in what is going on at CU, there are many important issues worth covering that affect all 100% of the students, or at least some substantial portion of them.


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