Various members of my family have roots at Ohio State University, from college degrees to employment, so my husband and I were plenty happy to watch the Buckeyes defeat the Oregon Ducks for the national championship.
Yes, we’re those people.
I state this upfront because I don’t want anyone misunderstanding my motives here. This column is driven by my disgust with out-of-control students and fellow journalists who cherry-pick vocabulary depending on what kind of people they see flooding into streets and setting fires.
Within an hour after Ohio State’s victory in Dallas on January 12, more than 5,000 people — most of them young white students, many wearing OSU garb — flooded into the street in Columbus. It is safe to say the majority of them started out in a partying mood.
Unfortunately, things turned ugly fairly quickly. Columbus police said the next day that emergency responders had to put out 89 fires. Many of the fires were in dumpsters; at least three couches were dragged outside and set on fire, too. One of these couch fires was caught on video, with someone yelling “Dude!” in the background. But of course.
Police say several thousand other students broke through a locked gate at the stadium and tore down a goal post. Police spokeswoman Denise Alex-Bouzounis told me students also were jumping on firetrucks — news videos confirm this — and blocking cruisers.
Soon hundreds of Columbus police dressed in riot gear and camouflage showed up. By the way, I don’t understand how anyone can think camouflage designed for jungles and deserts conceals police officers approaching a crowd dressed in scarlet and gray, but that’s the world we’re living in these days. Images of this night started with flashes of crazyhappy kids dancing in the streets and quickly grew dark with scenes from a war zone.
After students refused to disperse from North High Street, officers — 100 of whom will be billing the city for overtime, Alex- Bouzounis said — began shooting pepper spray and firing tear gas into the crowd. Alex-Bouzounis also said a mounted police sergeant reported people “throwing bottles, ice balls and gas canisters” at the dozen or so horses.
Liz Young, editor of OSU’s campus newspaper, The Lantern, told me she watched some of the mayhem from the roof of a campus parking garage. She described the campus area as swirling with SWAT officers in riot gear while couches and dumpsters burned and the sky clouded with tear gas.
From her vantage point, most of the students seemed to be trying to avoid trouble. “Some of our staff was working on the ground, and they got tear-gassed,” she said. “They weren’t doing anything but trying to cover it.”
When I asked Young to speculate on why some students got so out of control, she told me she couldn’t comment on motive. “Our newspaper is still covering this,” she said. “It would be inappropriate of me to offer my opinion on that.”
Let’s clone her. Please.
In a news conference early January 13, Columbus police Chief Kim Jacobs justified the use of pepper spray and tear gas as necessary to disperse the crowds. Within hours, though, after seeing Columbus Dispatch photos and video capturing officers spraying students standing on a sidewalk, she backpedaled a bit.
“Based on a few images, including this one, I want … to initiate an investigation into the use of (pepper) spray on civilians that were apparently lawfully standing on sidewalks and apparently not in violation of law,” Jacobs wrote in an email.
So here we are again, talking about police response. Fortunately, this time, no one died. It’s also apparently good the vandals and rioters were happy folk — and mostly white. Thus, news organizations described them as “rowdy,” “intense,” “screaming in delight,” “fans,” “revelers” and “partygoers.” And “students,” of course, to telegraph that this whole thing is so uncharacteristic of people with such bright futures.
Virtually no news report described them as rioters. Breaking the stadium lock, climbing over the fence, toppling the goal post — this was never vandalism. No one accused those setting fires of trying to destroy their community. Even on social media, the word “thug” barely surfaced, except to contrast the reporting in Columbus with how we journalists covered events in Ferguson, Missouri.
I’m not about to say these were two similar events, because I don’t want to trivialize the underlying reasons for the unrest in Ferguson. But if we rightfully continue to bring scrutiny to bear on police departments in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland — and now in Columbus — then we must also examine the prejudices we bring to our coverage.
Objectivity in journalism is a myth. We are all informed by our own histories. We must identify our biases and tag them as filters to be dismantled.
No one was killed in Columbus because of several hundred out-of-control students, but what they did in the streets was violent. Starting fires is not a rite of passage. Damaging school property is criminal. Interfering with police cruisers and firetrucks possibly endangers other people’s lives.
Let’s have that conversation — on campus and in our newsrooms.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.