The Riotous Absurdity of '97
Bryan can remember more of that fateful Halloween of 1997 than the rest of the staff, and now he tries to make sense of it.BY BRYAN ROBERTS
With the excitement of the fresh school year fading and the numb chill of winter threatening to become our total reality, we'll hear a lot of people talking about Riot Season. It's as if this is a time of year designated by some external force for folks to rage against order. It hasn't always been like that, to hear the historians tell it. This used to be a time for Druid priests to go into the hills and light bonfires in an attempt to keep the evil spirits at bay. Perhaps October hasn't changed all that much in a couple or so millennia, however-perhaps we're a bit confused about who or what the evil spirits are.
If you don't have the privilege of remembering the University community's Halloween of 1997, you have at least heard about it. Many traumatized individuals suspended their disbelief in evil spirits that night. What began as a spontaneous street party composed of random revelers in mid-spill from one party to another quickly took the shape of something sinister. The degree to which alcohol was present on the street itself-in its unconsumed state, that is-was minimal and normal. Acts of violence and vandalism were, at this early point in the evening, not even looming. Near the corner of Sixteenth and Alder streets-a block north of the location where things were to become much uglier-a growing group of cigarette-break-taking partygoers met an arriving horde of wandering funseekers. A convergence which seemed to spill, in the eyes of that entity which exists to contain human spills, from the mouth of one house swelled to dimensions which promised to swallow the sidewalk.
With duty or some such drivel on their minds, the Eugene Police Department arrived with squad cars, fire-red flashing lights, and a bullhorn or two. They informed the community at large-I was a few blocks down the street when I heard their noise pollution-that the party had exceeded legal limits, and that all who remained would subsequently be arrested. A good portion of the crowd actually hoofed it away from the area, while others indignantly beckoned the officers to exit their vehicles, while still others-such as me-arrived on the scene to investigate. In the face of this mixed reaction, bravely ran Sir Copper; Sir Copper ran away.
As Eugene's Finest convened in a nearby parking lot to await the rest of the Force and to don riot gear, the gay party of mostly new attendants swirled freely along Alder Street. Libertines romped through houses that were only too happy to host them, chiefly the Co-ops and the large white house on the corner of 17th and Alder [now overtaken by AE -Ed.]. Among the minority of those now on Alder Street who had been there when the police had been, there was a vague sense of violation-as though a dumb, brute force had infringed upon their right to party. Perhaps in compensation for this there was an almost defiant joviality, as the occasional survivor would quip: How about those pigs, huh? The buzz of chaos was barely a whisper. I remember taking this mental note: Kurt Vonnegut has suggested that humans possess only two responses to stimuli that are absurd or incomprehensible to their basic logic. Based upon the situation and the predisposition of the individual, one will be amused toward laughter or distressed toward tears.
In good humor, the traveling party of which I was a part looked for other promising locations. Not unlike a lot of college students, my friends and I tend to become convinced after only a few drinks that we must appease our personal gods by consuming alcohol in the homes of as many strangers as possible, whenever the situation allows. A bittersweet reality is that we are growing out of it-perhaps losing our religion.
Devotees of the juice that night, we circled back to the scene in question within an hour. It was like a bee's nest that had been given a liberal squirt of firestarting fluid. Someone said to another as they ran past me, "This is anarchy at its best, isn't it?" I had to agree, but I would change my mind. People began to chant, "Fuck the po-leece!" as I guess they had been intermittently during my absence. Again, I had to agree, but as I asked one of my walking buddies, "Isn't it usually the po-leece that get to do the fucking?" There were a few ruffians attempting to upend a van belonging to the band that was performing inside the Campbell Club. For a while, the crowd stood around and gaped. We looked toward the lot in which the cops were hanging out, then back to the van. Very few people engaging in criminal activity, very few indeed-unless one counts it a criminal activity to be witness to a van-tipping, as did the Register-Guard and others. Then, as if the souls of the damned were just beginning to stir among us, the bottle throwing which had been sporadic began to assume a rhythm. People took turns lobbing empty Blitzes across the street to shatter in syncopation, faster and more frequently until the thing acquired a frenzy impossible to observe. As if members of one team, no more than five people sprinted, at once, into the parking lot behind the music school, opening car doors and scrambling quickly inside and out and on to the next one, collecting untold booty. As the cranium of a lone male was accosted by an airborne bottle and his bellow outsounded the party's now frenetic buzz, my friend let fly with a tension-releasing guffaw. Huh! he sputtered, revealing his intoxication. Mob rules.
The phrase "mob rules" has taken its place in the lexicon of my dreams. The other night, in fact, after seeing one more television drama about some young police officer and his own private heroics, I fell asleep on the couch and was subjected to an REM episode involving a blue-suited trooper in conversation with his preschool-aged son. "Daddy, do you fight people?" the boy asked, fingering his fathers holster. The officer responded that he fought criminals. The boy was not satisfied; he wondered, what's a criminal? After some thought the officer responded: A criminal is someone who is so selfish that he is willing to harm others for his own interests. The boy was still not satisfied; he wanted to know whether people sometimes harm other people just because they don't have time to think, when everyone else is acting the same way. Yeah, said the officer. That's what we call mob rules. I woke up, my bloody mary having fallen from my grip and spilled all over a magazine advertisement for NYPD Blue. I was moved to neither laughter nor tears; I comprehended.
Shortly after my friend's anecdotal utterance, the glass-slingers having been a-tossing full-tilt for several minutes and the van-tippers having joined them, another van sped up Alder Street and burned rubber turning the corner onto 17th: Newssource 13. On cue, the Blue-Suited Avengers arrived in unison, each soldier brandishing tear-gas. Many of us didn't have the foresight to run all the way home. Some of us assumed it would be safe a half-block away in the Campbell Club. The Keepers of the Peace thoughtfully placed canisters of their riot-quenching substance in front of every door of the house, just to make sure nobody inside would be harmed by any further rioting. They ran around like commandos at war out there, straightening every bit of those empty streets, barking helpful orders at citizens who looked pleadingly out of their homes. "Don't hinder our work here! Ma'am! Sir! Goddamnit, I'm stopping a riot here!" We stumbled around that dingy, over-sized living room with our shirts over our eyes, coughing and...laughing. Somehow we'd already sensed the hilarity in a fact none of us knew: the one house that paid the handsome ticket to EPD for its dubious role in the riot was the selfsame house from which EPD had initially been phoned.
Gary Larson has expressed, in his own words, Kurt Vonnegut's assertion about laughter and the absurd. Defending himself against some moralists who had taken issue with his cartoons, Mr. Larson said that something has to offend a person's sensibilities if it is to make sense in a comical, as opposed to a mundane, way. I don't quote him because I like his cartoons, mind you. I quote him because he is the namesake of strigiphilis garylarsoni, a recently discovered tick. Come on, people. You have to learn a little more about who your parasites are.
Bryan Roberts, a senior majoring in English, is a featured columnist for the Oregon Commentator