SPRING, 2002: Volume 7, Issue 1
Community Peace Team Faces Rioters by David Miller
Concerned about the riots that had occurred twice after State College (PA) Arts Fests, I made contact with State College Police Chief Tom King to discuss the concept of a peace team. The idea had begun with a conversation I had with Thom Saffold, a peace team trainer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thom shared with me the experience of a peace team that had formed in East Lansing to respond to riots following Michigan State football games. Chief King is an advocate of community policing and was supportive of the idea. He also spoke of contacts he had with other clergy who were also asking if the area churches might have a role in curbing future riots.
In early January 2001, a group of area church leaders gathered to discuss plans for alternate activities for late night following this year’s Arts Fest. This event/planning group took on the name, “Bless the Fest”. My specific interest was to work toward the development of a team of persons trained in nonviolent methods of intervention that could prevent a riot and ease tensions.
Our community was then shaken by two events. First, following Penn State’s loss to Temple in the NCAA basketball playoffs, another riot occurred. Rumors had circulated in town and on campus during the prior week that there would be a riot, win or lose. Persons came to the scene with “riot” painted on their faces in grease paint, and there were reports of persons saving human excrement to throw off the balconies in “Beaver Canyon”. The Canyon is a two block stretch of Beaver Avenue lined with 5-6 story apartment buildings with balconies. This creates a situation of significant danger as people throw bottles and other objects down stories to the street and sidewalks below.
The second event was the eruption of racial tensions particularly (though not solely) at the University. African American students had been targeted through the year with hateful e-mail. Finally a death threat was directed at the president of the Black Caucus. Caucus members and supporters staged a public demonstration at the annual Blue-White inter-squad football scrimmage, briefly occupying the center of the football field. Later in the week the university called for a “No Hate at Penn State” rally and march. This was perceived by the Black caucus as an insincere act and an attempt to gain some positive publicity. So, caucus members took over the rally, demanded a meeting with PSU President Graham Spanier, and occupied the Hetzel Union Building for 10 days while negotiating with the administration.
When I delivered food to the occupying students, I was impressed with their discipline, their commitment to nonviolence, and the community they were able to create. This focused demonstration stood in stark contrast to the three preceding riots that on the surface had little purpose and no discipline.
In June, Thom Saffold agreed to return to State College to do an initial training in nonviolent intervention. With short notice and weak publicity, we were able to gather around 20 people for a discussion of how peace teams work.
A subsequent meeting/training was held in which the group was brought together with Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) strategies to build community, to talk about real fears of facing violence and to rehearse role plays in the event that violence did occur on the streets during our peace actions.
Arts Fest Strategy
We recognized that we were not prepared nor would we be welcome (by the police) to attempt intervention with a crowd that had become riotous. Instead, we focused on prevention of violence/ rioting by setting a positive tone on the streets among an anticipated crowd numbering in the thousands—a good percentage of whom would be intoxicated. The group coordinated and communicated openly with the Bless the Fest planners and the police of State College. The group was aided in public visibility by a strongly supportive editorial in the local paper.
Our group of 33 volunteers donned their Peace Team T-shirts and took to the streets in pairs. These pairs were coupled into affinity groups of four. Each pair had a cell phone to communicate with our office or to call for emergency assistance if we came across someone injured or dangerously drunk. Stick-on Badge (There have been several near deaths from alcohol poisoning, so this was a real possibility.) We were on the streets from around 10:30 PM Saturday night until 3:30 AM Sunday morning. We made an effort to establish a tone of hospitality and welcome. Two local flower shops supported our efforts by donating over 2500 daisies. These were distributed through the evening. They were a welcome gift, a good ice-breaker, and an item for which Peace Team members were occasionally sought out.
We also enlisted support for our effort and established a visible consensus against rioting. Peace Team members deputized over 1,500 people, mostly student age. Peace Team deputies were “sworn in” with the following commitment statement : “For this night, I commit myself to seek the peace of the city; look out for the welfare of others; and to refrain from any behavior that could injure another or destroy property.” After being “sworn in” persons received a stick-on badge (see page 4.) We began the deputizing with the bartenders and tavern staff. Tavern owners were strong supporters of our efforts, creating a most unusual but essential alliance. As the night progressed Peace Team badges became a familiar sight on the streets. A few people kept coming back for new badges saying they had deputized someone else. There were periodic cheers “We love the peace team!” from supportive albeit often drunken well wishers. There were frequent expressions of “We’re really glad you’re here—what you are doing is important.”
Charles Dumas recounts his experience: “We (Jo and Charles Dumas) were walking our “beat” when I noticed that two young men were in each other’s face. Several of their friends had already backed up and were ready for the action to start. Jo and I walked up to one and handed him a flower. He looked at me as if I had just handed him a pile of manure. Jo said, ‘Let’s keep the peace, brother.’ I handed a flower to the other one and smiled. He stared back. One of the bystanders started to laugh which caused the young men to start laughing and the crisis was lost in laughter.”
In summary, that evening (and the remaining Saturdays through fall) ended without major incident. Some members of the community believe the large police presence prevented problems. Others felt that so many police stirred up tempers and that without the presence of Bless the Fest and the Peace Team, there would likely have been violent confrontation.
We cannot argue from the negative. But we are fairly sure that a different tone was set and that a move was taken toward changing the lens by which the community views university students. On the Monday evening following the Peace Team’s action, State College Mayor Bud Welch appeared at the Borough Council Meeting wearing a Peace Team Deputy Badge!
Ann Ward, an AVP facilitator who worked with the Peace Team, recalls the events following the week of September 11 in State College. “The football game was cancelled immediately after September 11, out of respect and mourning for our nation. The following week, though, we were out on the streets after the game and the difference in the crowd was palpable. State Police were absent because they were called to Somerset county to assist the FBI with the scene of the downed plane from 9-11. Regardless of the absence of law enforcement, students were quiet, had less party energy and the sense of community that seemed to result from 9-11 extended to their subdued revelry. The remaining weeks after September 11 continued without incident on the streets of our town following the games. Unfortunately, fears for our Muslim brothers and sisters and for a local Mosque took the place of our fears of riots. David Miller and many members of the Peace Teams turned their attention to building community among those of many faith entities, Christian and Islamic families and the University. For a time, in those days, it felt as if the Peace Team was just moving from crisis to crisis.”
The Peace Team members continue to meet every month, or so to, maintain community and preparedness.
Principles of the State College, PA Peace Team