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Home / Articles / Editorial / Wearing Thin /  More ruminations on the city and OU's festering problem
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Wednesday, May 2,2012

More ruminations on the city and OU's festering problem

By Terry Smith

The raw video footage that we posted on our website Saturday night, showing masses of drunken Palmer Fest celebrants shouting and chanting at police and firefighters responding to a house fire, rubbed a raw nerve among many alumni. I've seen numerous comments on Facebook and in my own email from former OU students disgusted by the drunkenly antagonistic behavior of the Palmer Fest crowd.

And these comments aren't coming from aging fuddy-duddies who can't remember what attending OU was like. It's from people who enjoyed OU's party school reputation as much as anybody but who don't understand students getting so messed up that they lose control of their judgment and publicly embarrass themselves.

If you had to sum up this type of alumni reaction into one sentence, it would probably be something like, "You stupid, embarrassing dumbasses need to learn how to hold your liquor."

However, it should be pointed out that many current OU students have the same view of the trashed miscreants acting up at Palmer Fest last Saturday. The disgust expressed by alums doesn't reflect the distance between different eras of OU students so much as the gulf between certain types of students in any era.

I've been editing this paper since 1986, and am pretty sure I've written this same column a dozen times. OU students and their out-of-town guests have been getting blitzed and losing control in a myriad of embarrassing ways since at least 40 years ago and probably going back a lot further.

If you're an OU alum, the idea that the Palmer Fest debacle is something substantially new or different only has currency if your memory has been vacuumed clean since your time here.

For instance during my time as an OU student, the mid-'70s spring riots were much more violent and destructive than anything that's happened since. Yet those post-Vietnam era riots had little or no political context. Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is that the local police back then didn't hold back when countering group misbehavior by students.

Reliable witnesses told me a day after the May 1974 Athens riots that police officers had been guzzling from whisky bottles as they took dead aim at students' heads and bodies with their wooden-pellet-firing, knee-knocker rifles. Police in riot gear, their numbers swelled by dozens of auxiliary cops from the region, countered student rioters with maximum force.

These days, my impression is that the Athens Police operate with admirable restraint, and try to avoid situations where hostile interactions can snowball into much bigger disturbances.

THE HOUSE FIRE ON PALMER STREET Saturday night, along with the fact that it’s been declared an arson, should signal a more determined effort by campus and city to put an end to the spring block parties, or at least control them in a much tighter fashion. At least one would think.

Fallout from the events of last weekend, coupled with the early end of the school year in 2013 (and thereafter) due to the semester switch, if I’m guessing correctly, will limit block parties in the student neighborhoods beginning next spring. The ones still left on this year’s calendars, if past history is any indication, probably will be constrained as well. Local students are aware of the bad press they’ve been getting, and most of them do have memories that stretch back a week or two.

With thousands of inebriated and in some cases antagonistic students and other partiers concentrated in those few blocks, that house fire could have gotten out of hand, spreading to other houses, and injuring or even killing people. Yet, the crowd of revelers, rather than cooperating, shouted insipid "USA" chants at firefighters and police, with some individuals reportedly throwing bottles.

The fact that someone actually set the fire really isn't that surprising, considering the all-day unrestrained substance abuse that's a hallmark of these parties. All it takes is one troublemaker with a match.

When stupid meets dangerous, you've got a problem, and my bet is that if the city and university can find a way to stop the annual spring block parties, they'll do it in a heartbeat. But then again, maybe not. (After writing this, I edited our story in which city officials talked about improving “community dialogue” and adjusting the way police handle the spring fests. I have heard precisely the same BS a dozen times here in Athens, and it’s never worked. Maybe nothing will work, but it would be nice to hear some creative solutions instead of the same old baloney.)

NOW THAT I'VE GOT YOU here, a quick comment about the "USA, USA" chant. I know that when college-aged crowd members chant the name of our country during an incongruous time – such as when they're witnessing firefighters putting out a blaze or police arresting drunks – they're doing it ironically, sort of along the lines of a "Saturday Night Live" skit. But it's the ultimate inside joke, and the great majority of the people viewing that behavior will simply think it's idiotic. If your audience doesn't get the parody, the joke's on you.


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Your editorial is excellent and offers a refreshingly serious description of the situation. I hope city leaders read it and act accordingly. But, alas, it would appear all we're going to get from them is "the same old baloney.



What it appears that Terry is thinly suggesting is a stronger crack down by city officials on the fests. I suggest that this may make the problem much worse before it gets better.  The creative solutions need to come from the University. Under a lot of legal channels they are considered a private entitiy and have more sway in self policing. They also have more to gain from an improvement of the situation. If this keeps up, "OU" on a resume will mean unhireable. This combined with the continual tuition increases will likely lead to downward social mobility for most graduates. For me, I prefer the students keep it up. It makes it easier for me to get one of those fancy book leanin jobs.



I actually modified the column after reading that the city and university weren't going to do much of anything, at least nothing different from what's been tried and failed in the past. The result of customizing it to fit the new fact situation was some incoherency, I'll confess.

But bottom line, I don't think these block parties are the same as Halloween, which is virtually unstoppable. The block parties have identifiable hosts, and occur in residential areas that aren't meant to accommodate thousands of people. If the city and university join forces to put a stop to them, they can do that, specifically by exerting pressure on students who live in those houses.

But Dave, you're right; the university has a lot more leeway in exerting pressure on these students. Hell, they can just insert something into their code of conduct pertaining to students behaving irreponsibly as tenants in off-campus housing (I'm spit-balling here). OU  doesn't have to uphold constitutional rights when it prosecutes and disciplines students in their kangaroo courts; I'm sure they could figure out a way to stop students from hosting huge parties where emergency personnel get bottles thrown at them and houses get set on fire.



Also, a student commented on our Facebook page that OU wouldn't be the same fun place without the big fests. I thought that was ludicrous. I guess I don't see how a crazy party with 30 people is somehow less fun than a crazy party with 3,000.



Hey mayor W., try this. Instead of a big police presence on Palmer Street, publically announce that there will be big police presence/sobriety checkpoint at every entrance to the city. Word will soon get out that it's no fun to go to Palmerfest (or Halloween for that matter), you can't get in (to Athens). Then any person with problematic behavior (while expressing their constitutional rights......mayor, give me a break) will more than likely be an OU student and subject to OU Judiciary.

If OU and Athens are really serious about this try it, it's worked in other communities.