The Invisible Whiteness of the Olympic Beer Riot

So what's the deal with white folks and beer? I mean, I love a good Nut Brown Ale, and have been known to sample at least a couple of the local brews in each town I visit. But really now, is maintaining a buzz so central to one's existence that being denied the opportunity should result in violence?

Case in point: Salt Lake City, where in the waning hours of the Winter Olympics, white folks who were turned away from a local "beer garden" decided to take out their frustrations on cars, cops and each other.

That the coverage of the Olympic "beer riot" was decidedly different than that for any riot ever led by people of color goes without saying. News reports of the events in the land of Mormon discussed the violence in a whimsical, bemused fashion, on a sort of "gee, don't they have anything better to do" kind of tip -- as opposed to the preachy and scared shitless tone reserved for black and brown folks who act up in such a fashion. And of course the mere labeling of the phenomenon as a "beer riot" in the first place is instructive. With apologies to the National Rifle Association, beer doesn't riot, people riot. Specifically, people who are desperate for beer riot -- white people, to be precise.

Naturally, the racial identity of the Salt Lake rioters passed without mention in the press, and probably without notice by most Americans, in a way it most assuredly would not have -- in fact never does -- when the shoe is on a darker foot. When "they" tear things up and attack police we call them thugs and animals. But when we do it, we're just "hooligans," or perhaps "out of control youth," caught up in the moment. But lest one think otherwise, it should be noted that this latest incident is but another in the never-ending string of riots by my pale-skinned brethren, upset by our inability to procure cheap highs when we want, where we want.

Since the mid-'90s, white riots have occurred on more than twenty college campuses, mostly as the result of crackdowns on underage drinking or earlier closing times for local bars. Whites also have taken to rioting as the result of college football or basketball games. Unlike people of color, who at least choose important issues to raise hell over -- like police brutality, poverty and racism -- we whites lose our minds over the twin oppressions of cover charges and midnight last-calls. And you think blacks have it rough?

Funny thing is, white folks have been rioting over beer for a long time; indeed, this is pathology with a pedigree.

In 1715, two warring political factions in England brawled in the streets, during what became known as the Mug-House Riots, named for the Taverns at which loyalists to the House of Hanover -- the opposition to King James II -- would gather to drink. When the King's minions made the mistake of congregating at the same pub, all hell broke loose.

In Germany, frequent riots occurred between 1844 and 1910, in response to attempts by the brewmeisters to fix prices for their potions. The worst of these occurred in Munich in 1848, and the Bavarian riots of 1844 were so renowned that Freidrich Engels -- Marx's esteemed colleague -- made them the subject of an article he penned as a correspondent for The Northern Star.

In Chicago, the election of reactionary Mayor Levi Boone in 1855 led to the biggest beer riots in the U.S. during that period. Boone was rabidly anti-German and anti-Irish, viewing both as foreign parasites, and drunken ones at that, in the body politic. His decision to raise liquor license fees by 600 percent and to ban drinking on Sundays touched off protests and then all out street-warfare. A similar "Lager Riot" that year took place in Indianapolis.

More recently, there were the Cleveland beer riots of 1974, as well as the multiple campus beer riots at places like Colorado, the University of Oregon, Washington State University, Southern Illinois University, and Penn State among others in the last few years. While people of color have been keeping things relatively calm, with flare-ups only in a few cities like Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, or Los Angeles, whites are rioting somewhere in America every three to four months. But of course no one notices, as we become conveniently color-blind in the face of dysfunctional behavior by members of the dominant group.

Or more to the point, we are quick to downplay its significance or even excuse it. In the wake of riots at Michigan State and Colorado University, neighbors in the riot zone and local police sought to "reach out," to attempt to "understand their frustrations," referring to the students who had just trashed their streets.

Students at the University of Oregon claim that the "iron fist" of campus police (presumably being applied to them in a fashion no different from that experienced by Blacks and Latinos in South Central L.A.) is the main cause of the riots. Sharing a level of frustration that must rival that experienced by Rodney King, one white male victim of police abuse exclaimed, "The police just roll around in their squad cars looking for parties to break up." One female student there recently called campus police "a box of shit," which one supposes is just the white middle class version of rap group NWA's "Fuck Tha' Police." Make way for KWA: Kappa Kappa Gammas With Attitude.

In 1999, one columnist for the University of Idaho student newspaper explained that beer riots were understandable. After all, "We look at the two parties running the country and see little difference. We don't feel like political involvement is worth the trouble. So when we have problems with the system, they fester until something snaps." In other words, unless Ralph Nader builds that mass movement pretty quick, thereby breaking the two-party duopoly as he calls it, look out America -- more beer riots are on the way!

The columnist then likens the crackdown on his campus peers to the criminalization of black and brown youth in inner city America, and concludes, "Sometimes we drink to excess, it's true ... (and) there are definitely better ways to handle our problems with the cops than rioting. But with politics inaccessible to most of us, we have few options ... As long as cops keep up their crackdown on youth, beer riots will continue."

By that logic, the public housing projects of this country -- which are home to many youth being cracked down upon by police (and sent to prison, as opposed to merely having their kegger disrupted) -- should be aflame with Colt 45 Malt Liquor mayhem. Were that logic expressed by a black man or Latino, it would be heard as a dangerous call for permanent insurrection, instead of a merely laughable rationalization for decidedly apolitical violence.

And taking the white-college-student-as-victim trip to truly dizzying, orgiastic heights of inanity, Julian Heicklen (a State College, Pennsylvania candidate for Jury Commissioner) explained in a campaign speech at Penn State last fall that because of campus police, "Centre County has become Mississippi of the 1950's. Penn State students are its niggers." From limited campus parking to efforts to curb drinking and drug use, the university had created a virtual police state, to hear Heicklen tell it. Imagine: they actually arrested him for smoking pot at a PSU football game, after he announced that he was doing it over a battery-powered bullhorn! Surely anyone can see the similarities between his treatment and that of Emmett Till. Mississippi indeed.

But at least help is on the way. To deal with the problem of binge drinking at colleges -- a behavior engaged in nearly three times as often by white students as others -- the Feds have been throwing around grant money for anti-binging education campaigns. At Michigan State, home to the largest and probably drunkest campus riot of recent memory, over $150,000 was distributed for such efforts. And who will be in charge of the money and the program? Why, the University's fraternities and sororities, of course! Which is sort of like giving the CIA millions of more dollars for the purpose of combating terrorism. Which we also just finished doing.

It's enough to drive you to drink, or perhaps to even drive drunk! Which is also mostly a white thing (over 80 percent of all drunk drivers are melanin deprived). By the logic of racial profiling, any day now we should see roadblocks leading into white suburbs and checkpoints for white college students returning to the school parking lot after a hard night of Fuzzy Navels at the "Drink or Drown" party.

Then again, don't count on it. For whites, drinking and rioting are merely two more things we can do without facing the risk or stigma encountered by people of color who might do the same things. Two more indicia of privileges in a sea of daily advantage to which we have grown accustomed and can now afford to take for granted. Yes, even our good time is an indication of the inequalities that beset our nation; even our partying is implicitly political, wrapped up in symbolic meaning, power differentials and blindness to both.

Cheers.

Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, educator and writer. He can be reached at tjwise@mindspring.com

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