Rallies, not riots

Lexi Shimkonis writes that what happened in Beaver Canyon on Saturday night after Penn State’s Big Ten Championship win was a rally, not a riot:

Students at Penn State always seem to find a way to congregate when something significant happens. Typically, thousands assemble downtown in Beaver Canyon without any official organization.

It happened in 2008 when the football team beat Ohio State on the road and thought it had a shot at a national title. It happened in May 2011 when Osama bin Laden was shot and killed. It happened again in 2011 when the university fired Joe Paterno late one fateful November night. It happened in 2014 when the bowl ban was lifted. And it’s happened now three times this semester. …

These post-football game and clown-hunting celebrations aren’t riots. I’ve been berated for insisting they be called rallies, and while that might not be the right word, “riot” certainly isn’t.

My point is, riots are spurred with protesters that are unhappy, disenfranchised, or have something to stand up for. They are violent from the get-go and the intent is to cause destruction.

The large majority of Penn State students didn’t run out of their apartments with the intent of destroying State College Saturday night. In a celebration like we’ve had twice now, people just want to be with one another and rejoice the victory and the fact that we are Penn State.

First, what the students are doing is almost entirely normal and healthy. That is, just wanting “to be with one another and rejoice the victory and the fact that we are Penn State.” This is the entire purpose of a town, to have occasions for this sort of festival and merriment and togetherness—especially spontaneously.

Second, while most of the criticism I hear of what isn’t normal and healthy in Beaver Canyon deals with the students reckless/physically destructive behavior. I want to suggest a different basis for the unhealthy character these rallies often take on, and that is the physical character of Beaver Canyon itself. In other words, what’s not “normal” in the context of an otherwise walkable, humane, and lovely downtown State College is Beaver Canyon’s physical design, especially at the intersection of Beaver and Locust where Penn Tower and Cedarbrook meet.

What we need from the borough and developers is better physical design that does justice to the historic character of downtown and the considered architecture and larger campus environment. There’s an inescapable reason that these rallies occur in Beaver Canyon, and not in East Halls or another high-density student area.

What’s wrong with Beaver Canyon? It’s an environment that’s poorly designed, architecturally alienating, and too physically close-in while at the same time containing nothing of value within it. And when there’s nothing of value, it’s easier to wreak havoc. What do I mean by “value”?

No one damages nice things on campus, but they do damage Beaver Canyon because there is nothing “sacred” there. No murals. No places to sit. No place to linger even, on sidewalks so jammed between towers and the street. No statues, fountains, symbols, artwork. It’s a mass of plain concrete, ugly balconies and barely functional walking space. It’s the sort of place that invites the destruction it suffers.

The fastest way to raise the tone and character of Beaver Canyon (assuming the demolition of Penn Tower is off the table) would be for one of the developers there to erect a well-designed statue to someone like Wally Triplett in a well-designed space. Creating a place of honor in Beaver Canyon would give students something to rally around, rather than having their energy channeled into an us-versus-them street spat with police eager to disperse a crowd whose otherwise healthy energy is driven back into the caverns of a thousand atomized apartment blocks until the next time it bursts through the cracks of those concrete walls.

A separate, but related thing, that should be happening by the way? A post-victory rally in front of Old Main. These should include short, 15 minute standardized programs with permanent speakers ready to play the fight song, Alma Mater, etc. Creating an intentional time and space for victory rallies, with their own traditions, are another antidote to “riots” downtown that are little more than cries from the heart for Penn State to show some meaningful sign that there’s room for organic, healthy, spirited togetherness.