Keene Residents Discuss Riots, Weigh Future Of Pumpkin Festival

Nov 14, 2014

Keene resident Jessica White, who started the Facebook Page "Keene Pumpkin Festival Move it or Lose it" and moderated Thursday night's forum
Credit Melanie Plenda for NHPR

For many Keene residents, the wounds are still fresh.

"This is an emotional issue," said Jessica White, who started the Facebook Page "Keene Pumpkin Festival Move it or Lose it" and moderated a forum Thursday night focused on the events of that weekend. "We were hurt. We were embarrassed. Embarrassed is a big one."

On Oct. 18 and 19, more than 2,000 college-aged adults overwhelmed police, started street fires, threw full liquor bottles at emergency officials tending to the injured, toppled light poles and tipped cars for more than eight hours.

Related: Click here to read our coverage of the riots.

White said she called the forum in order to give people a chance to air their feelings about what happened Pumpkin Festival weekend as well as to gather a list of expectations to relay to city officials and Keene State College.

A public forum is slated for Dec. 2 at Keene State College where the public will have a chance to discuss the riot with city and college officials and weigh in on whether the festival should continue.

'We didn't do anything wrong, but we were really victimized...I was in terror. I was being terrorized. So the people who were doing it to me, I consider terrorists.'

Thursday, several residents said it's time for the festival to come to an end.

"We all had damage to our houses, "said Lillian O'Reilly, who lives on Blake Street where some of the rioting occurred.

"We didn't do anything wrong, but we were really victimized. I call them terrorists. It doesn’t have to be political, I was in terror. I was being terrorized. So the people who were doing it to me, I consider terrorists."

"I'm thinking it’s maybe time for a hiatus," O'Reilly said.

Jeff Hokanson lives on Baker Street in Keene. He was standing with his wife and kids when he saw some of the rioters vandalizing the neighborhood.

"I approached one of them," Hokanson said. "(The rioter) threatened to carve me open with a knife. Then he comes back with a nightstick, threatening me with a nightstick. What am I supposed to think about that? Is that fair to me as a taxpayer?  That I have to put up with that?  And who am I going to call? The police are involved in a massive situation. It's just not fair to us."

Keene Resident Lillian O'Reilly said she was terrified the night of the riots and wants the Pumpkin Fest to take a hiatus
Credit Melanie Plenda for NHPR

Jim Gardner, who also lives in Keene, said there's no way the city can ensure this would be a safe event if it were held again given that this year police, even with reinforcements, were outnumbered.

Another issue raised was the amount of city dollars that go toward Pumpkin Festival every year. For the past two years, the city gave the festival $57,000 in funding and police support.

White said it’s been difficult to find out how much more the extra police coverage, cleanup, damage, investigation and prosecution of the rioters will end up costing the city. She said she hopes that's something officials come to the Dec. 2 meeting prepared to disclose.

Wheelock Park and the Cheshire Fairgrounds were two sites suggested for future Pumpkin Festivals by residents attending Thursday's meeting.

There were some residents who spoke in favor of keeping the festival as long as there were changes to its size and venue.

Some suggested turning it into a small community festival with no outside advertising and moving it out of downtown to someplace like  the Cheshire Fair Grounds, located on the border of Keene and Swanzey, or to Wheelock Park, a large park with open space tucked off Park Avenue in West Keene. 

"For me, moving it at least separates it from the nonsense of Keene State," said Darryl Masterson, who lives on Willow St. in Keene.

"So if there were continued nonsense at Keene State, well then Keene State could deal with that and we don't need to make it a Pumpkin Fest problem. Separate the tumor from the festival. "

However, several residents were concerned that even if the venue was changed, the event would continue to draw people looking to make trouble.

Keene City Councilman Carl Jacobs attended the forum because he said he wanted to hear how people felt the city should proceed and how they felt.
Credit Melanie Plenda for NHPR

Many of the attendees also said they want to see the students involved face real consequences and were angry that Keene State College President Anne Huot has not taken a stronger stance when it comes to the students involved in the riots.

Kemal Atkins, the Vice President for Student Affairs at Keene State was at the forum. He spoke briefly, reiterating the college's position that once the criminal investigation was concluded, then the school's judicial process would begin.

"Those students will be held accountable," he said adding that punishment would include, "probation all the way to the most severe: expulsion."

Residents said they wanted to see students slapped with large fines and said they want landlords who rent to students to also be held accountable for what goes on at their rental properties.

"I find it exceptionally hard to believe …that students didn't know this was going to happen," White said. "They didn't bother to raise the flag and tell someone beforehand. They are all together in this."

Police have made several arrests in the weeks since the riots. While some of those charged are Keene State students, others accused of rioting are attending other colleges in the state.