This weekend, Keene’s annual Pumpkin Festival ended in chaos.
The main part of the festival downtown was mostly untouched. But just down the road, in a neighborhood abutting Keene State College, young people charged through the streets, hurling beer bottles at police in riot gear.
And city and state officials are laying at least some of the blame on social media, and they've named one small party-hosting company.
So, how in the world did Keene’s annual Pumpkin Festival - a subdued, family event - turn into this…
For the last few years, Pumpkin Fest has been drawing bigger and bigger crowds of drunken 20-somethings. But this weekend was over the top. A few square blocks near the college were filled with thousands of people chanting obscenities, tearing down street signs, lighting fires. SWAT Teams marched through the streets in Kevlar, shooting pepper balls, tear gas and foam rubber bullets.
This morning Governor Maggie Hassan called the riots an “outrage.”
"Obviously we want to hold the parties who were behaving as they did accountable," said Governor Hassan. "We also want to investigate ways to hold accountable any social media organizations that fueled this."
The governor didn’t specify any particular social media organizations, but city officials point to an outfit called FinnaRage TV. Head to their website and you’ll see a video of maybe a thousand people in a backyard in Keene.
In the weeks leading up to Pumpkin Fest, FinnaRage promoted a party with a poster showing a scantily clad woman standing in a field of pumpkins. FinnaRage TV traffics in plenty of suggestive content. Their website is full of videos of people chugging beer, grinding on the dance floor, and in one instance, smoking a bong through a gas mask.
"They did go on social [media] and bring in a lot of out of town students for just the purpose of coming up and raising mayhem," says Randy Filiaut, a Keene city councilor.
Filiaut says the city knew FinnaRage was coming to town because of the buzz on social media. He says landlords told off-campus student tenants if they hosted a FinnaRage party, they’d be evicted.
"We were put in the middle," says Trevor Finney, the 20-year-old owner of FinnaRage TV. "I got shot by a rubber bullet. Like…I…this is the last thing that I wanted."
Finney’s company has been around for less than a year. He brings DJs and sound equipment to college campuses, hosts a party, and films it. They’ve done this at Franklin Pierce and UMass Amherst, among others. Finney says it’s all for free, but in the hope of making money someday.
Here’s a clip from a party FinnaRage hosted in Keene earlier this year.
"The cops are gonna be back," says one young man to the crowd. "They’re gone for now. But they know there’s a f*** rager here."
Councilman Filiaut – who knows a thing or two about rowdy behavior, as the former owner of a bar in Keene known for excessive drinking – says young people from around New England heard about PumpkinFest through FinnaRage. He says you could see the aftermath in the Walmart parking lot on Sunday morning.
"Probably hundreds and hundreds of cars - there might have been...maybe ten cars with New Hampshire plates on it – with students basically passed out, fronts seats, back seats, you know, everywhere. But how many of these were actually affiliated to that particular website? I mean, we’ll never really have an accurate count but we know it was substantial.
Trevor Finney at FinnaRage is defensive about these accusations.
"FinnaRage is about having a good time. It’s about the unique experience that we bring," says Finney.
When asked if his company's videos - people clearly depicted intoxicated college students getting rowdy - could lead to some really out of control behavior, Finney acknowledged that can happen.
"But we have never gotten ourselves in a position where we’ve had an uncontrollable environment," says Finney. "We had nothing to do with this."
And you can find some young people who were in Keene who agree with that. Jordan Blake is 19 and lives in Troy. She’s been going to Pumpkin Fest since she was a little kid and she says the scene Saturday night was terrifying. But she says it’s a mistake to lay the blame solely on FinnaRage.
"A lot of people had no idea who FinnaRage was in Keene," says Blake. "Some girl was like, 'Oh my god, it’s FinnaRage,' and she ran over to the camera. And there’s people [who said], 'Who’s Finnarage? I’ve never heard of them before.' And I guess the camera had influence on people’s actions."
Jordan Blake also points out the rioting happened along the edge of the Keene State College campus, in a neighborhood that has become increasingly known for crazy parties.
In a press conference Monday afternoon, city officials said 84 people have been arrested, but they expect that number to climb. And Chief of Police Kenneth Meola said social media and FinnaRage brought out-of-towners to Keene.
"That’s really where social played a big role with FinnaRage and how they market themselves to come and throw parties," said Cief Meola. "So I think that initially played a part in bringing elements to Keene."
Whether that means FinnaRage is on the hook for their behavior isn’t clear. Officials say they’ll be investigating what happened at PumkinFest for months.