Penn State Students Clash With Police in Unrest After Announcement

Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 8:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 8:03 p.m.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After top Penn State officials announced that they had fired Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, thousands of students stormed the downtown area to display their anger and frustration, chanting the former coach’s name, tearing down light poles and overturning a television news van parked along College Avenue.


Students protested after Penn State officials announced that they had fired Joe Paterno.

Richard Perry/The New York Times

The demonstrators congregated outside Penn State’s administration building before stampeding into the tight grid of downtown streets. They turned their ire on a news van, a symbolic gesture that expressed a view held by many: that the news media had exaggerated Mr. Paterno’s role in the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys.

“I think the point people are trying to make is the media is responsible for JoePa going down,” said a freshman, Mike Clark, 18, adding that he believed that Mr. Paterno had met his legal and moral responsibilities by telling university authorities about an accusation that Mr. Sandusky assaulted a boy in a university shower in 2002.

Demonstrators tore down two lampposts, one falling into a crowd. They also threw rocks and fireworks at the police, who responded with pepper spray. The crowd undulated like an accordion, with the students crowding the police and the officers pushing them back.

“We got rowdy, and we got Maced,” said Jeff Heim, 19, rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”

An orderly crowd first filled the lawn in front of Old Main when news of Mr. Paterno’s firing came via students’ cellphones. When the crowd took to the downtown streets, its anger and intensity swelled. Students shouted, “We are Penn State.”

Some blew vuvuzelas, others air horns. One young man sounded reveille on a trumpet. Four girls in heels danced on the roof of a parked sport utility vehicle and dented it when they fell after a group of men shook the vehicle. A few, like Justin Muir, 20, a junior studying hotel and restaurant management, threw rolls of toilet paper into the trees.

“It’s not fair,” said Mr. Muir, hurling a white ribbon. “The board is an embarrassment to our school and a disservice to the student population.”

Just before midnight, the police lost control of the crowd. Chanting, “Tip the van,” the students toppled the news vehicle and then brought down a nearby lamppost. When the police opened up with pepper spray, some in the crowd responded by hurling rocks, cans of soda and flares. They also tore down street signs, tipped over trash cans and newspaper vending boxes and shattered car windows.

Some students noted the irony of their coming out to oppose what they saw as a disgraceful end to Mr. Paterno’s distinguished career and then adding to the ignobility of the episode by starting an unruly protest.

Greg Becker, 19, a freshman studying computer science, said he felt as if he had to vent his feelings anyway.

“This definitely looks bad for our school,” he said, sprinting away from a cloud of pepper spray. “I’m sure JoePa wouldn’t want this, but this is just an uproar now.  We’re finding a way to express our anger.”

As the crowd got more aggressive, so did police officers. Some protesters fought back. One man in a gas mask rushed half a dozen police officers in protective gear, blasted one officer with pepper spray underneath his safety mask, and then sprinted away. The officer lay on the ground, rubbing his eyes.

Paul Howard, 24, an aerospace engineering student, jeered the police.

“Of course we’re going to riot,” he said. “What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?”

Other students expressed sadness instead of anger. Kathryn Simpson walked arm-in-arm with a friend, crying.

“I’m here because I just need to be with the rest of my school right now,” she said. “This is devastating for us.”

When the unrest began, a merchant, Douglas Albert, stood outside his downtown shop, Douglas Albert Gallery, to keep it safe.

“I’ve been in State College for 42 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, looking at the overturned news van, on which one young man was dancing. “This is uncharted waters.”

Students pounded on the sides of upright news vans, and as officers herded them down the street they shouted, “Flip it over!” Some took off their shirts and tied them around their mouths for protection from the fog of pepper spray, which left countless students hacking. A few wore ski goggles. Many climbed on the tops of parked cars, denting and sinking the roofs, to get a better view of the spectacle.

The police finally dispersed the crowd by around 1:30 a.m. by marching, a dozen abreast, down College Avenue shouting and spraying any students who did not hustle away. Soon State Police cruisers could speed down the street toward a backhoe that had been procured to flip the news van back upright.

Mixed in the crowd were a few dissenting opinions. Dan Smith, 21, a junior studying secondary education, said he thought the board was correct.

“The hardest part, because he was a hero to me, is coming to grips with what he did, or actually what he didn’t do,” Mr. Smith said.

Like Mr. Smith, Kevin Goff, 19, a freshman studying film, did not protest Mr. Paterno’s firing. He came out just to see the show.

“My friends were like, ‘I don’t want to get Maced,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to miss seeing this, so I guess that means I do kind of want to get Maced.’ ”

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