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Political Mercury

I’ve seen white kids riot, too — and for what?


The owner of a small restaurant just off Interstate 80 in central Iowa made a provocative observation.

“It’s amazing what the white man thinks he’s worth,” said this business owner, who happens to be white. He’s growing frustrated with an entitled mentality he sees in the millennial workforce.

As riots and street violence erupted with protests last week in Baltimore, many people paint the episodes as a product of the urban black experience —

behavior they believe won’t touch the shores of the Island of White America.

Well, I’ve seen white kids riot. I’ve watched them destroy property, terrorize elderly neighbors

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Twenty-one years ago, as a reporter for The Daily Tribune in Ames, I covered the Franklin Avenue Riot in which about 2,000 drunken revelers went wilding on the west side of Ames, several blocks from campus in a residential neighborhood.

They showered police with rocks and bottles, harassed area residents, damaged local businesses and ripped down the former Ames Middle School track’s chain-link fence on Lincoln Way with ferocity one would expect from aggrieved parties in the Third World, not a bunch of generally middle-class kids from Iowa. They ransacked the Wendy’s.

In the early-morning hours of that riot, I quickly interviewed then-Ames police chief Dennis Ballantine at the corner of Lincoln Way and Franklin. There were bottles and rocks being tossed at our feet. He offered me a helmet. I still recall the sound of brown glass shattering near my feet.

Police in riot gear pushed the crowd north from that street, breaking up what had turned into a dangerous mob.

Most of the drunken reveler-rioters I saw that night were white kids. That bore out the next day as I joined another reporter at the police station in compiling information on arrests. White kids, by and large.

Thousands of students and their friends rioted during the university’s Veishea celebrations in 1988, 1992, 1994, 2004 and 2014.

After spending a week or more reporting about the Veishea riot and its fallout, I argued that the event should be cancelled, that nothing justifies the risk. Some in the newsroom agreed, others didn’t. Eventually, the university cancelled Veishea as we knew it.

As a 24-year-old, I learned a lot that 1994 night. I thought such rioting could only happen in places like Detroit or Newark or overseas.

One of my great career regrets — and it gnaws at me 21 years later — is that we couldn’t get a photographer to the scene in time. The 1994 riot occurred off campus. We stationed our news team in Campustown because that’s where the action had taken place in earlier years. I learned of the Franklin Avenue riot not on the scanner, but from a friend in the police department. In the era before cell phones, I couldn’t reach a staff photographer — meaning my words alone had to convey the scene. I had trouble believing my own eyes.

So why did these white college kids riot that spring night? Was there some grave injustice wrought on one of their own? Perhaps a keg ran dry?

These kids rioted for the experience, as if they were bungee jumping or skydiving.

The most penetrating assessment I’ve read on the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray came from Abdullah Moaney, 53, an information technology worker from East Baltimore, who told The New York Times that “peace has lost its credibility.” Seeking to justify the violence, he told the Times that “if it wasn’t for the riot,” charges would not have been filed against six officers connected to the suspicious death of a young African-American in police custody.

That’s debatable.

But it’s a better attempt at explaining a riot than anything I heard from the kids in Ames in 1994.

Smug white Iowans should think about that as they carelessly comment on the scenes from Baltimore.

It is indeed amazing how special the white man thinks he is. CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

One Comment

  1. Wayne Serbin says:

    residents in the White suburban middle-class in the Baltimore shoulr read this column.

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