35 years ago I stood at the top of a set of stairs, watching with anxious fascination the chaos below. Western Washington Security and Bellingham Police Department undercover officers observed drug deals going down at a large dorm room party, and kicked everyone out. As the bust was going down, friends of the arrested drug dealer descended, punches were thrown, and a full on Donnybrook began between students and police. At the time, I was a young Western Washington University newspaper cub reporter, watching as dozens of Bellingham, Whatcom County and Washington State Patrol officers descended into the middle of the large dormitory complex, waging battle with students railing against “The Man”. K-9’s chomped, batons whacked, punches were thrown, and busts were made. At the end of the night, the drug dealer was busted, along with a few other losers, and things eventually returned to normal. I drafted an article for the Western Front, soon hijacked by more senior reporters, and the incident quickly faded into local obscurity.
Last weekend, history repeated itself. Early Saturday night an off campus party was shut down by police, kids were displaced into the street, and the drunk crowd mentality escalated. Bottles were thrown, street signs uprooted, and general mayhem ensued. Over the next couple of hours, Bellingham and other local law enforcement officers used great restraint and professionalism in deploying riot control tactics to disperse the crowd, using up all their non-lethal dispersion devices and ammunition in the process. It appears the incident was over in short order. But, was it?
By early Sunday morning, social media channels and international news feeds were full of pictures, stories and videos of the rioting, quickly confirming the stupidity of the young crowd who apparently were oblivious to the fact that every aspect of their stupidity was captured for posterity and evidence (click here to see an epic example).
While the skirmish resulted in no injuries and a relatively small amount of damage to city property (given how bad it could have been), news of the incident quickly spread around the world. Kids posting pictures, comments and video on social media channels immediately alerted international news services that something was going down on Indian Street in little ‘ol Bellingham. I even received a Facebook message from an old fire service mentor living in Colorado who was the Resident Director of the dorm at the time of the 1978 riot!
Western’s president, Bruce Shepard acted quickly the next morning in partnership with the Associated Students President Carly Roberts in releasing a joint statement condemning the incident, promising swift and decisive action if any Western students were found to have participated, and praised the actions of the local law enforcement agencies. Bruce is an avid Tweeter (@PresBruce), who understands the power, speed and ability of social media in engaging with the international community during crisis. He gets it. This was a great move, showing strong leadership in protecting the institution’s and student reputation.
Unfortunately, our local government didn’t act as quickly and decisively in communicating. In the 24 hours after the incident, only one city media release was issued, a simple sterile police department facts release posted early evening on Sunday. This was soon replaced by another release which included statements by the mayor and police chief acknowledging impacts to the community, praising the professionalism and restraint of the responding officers, and support of Western’s president.
I want to give the police and mayor’s office the benefit of the doubt for their lack of messaging speed and engagement. The timing of the riot certainly had something to do with it. But, I also know there are institutional, budgetary and cultural barriers in play as well. Breaking through these constraints is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier. It takes miles.
I’m a strong supporter (and alumnus) of our university and my previous employer. But, in this particular case, the university’s fast, open and decisive messaging effectively isolated them from the incident, and placed the white hot glare of accountability where it belonged – on the Indian Street Morons.