Don’t Feel Sorry for the Penn State Students Who Rioted

Justin Strine should have backed away from the van.

Your campus is going to burn. So warned a cameraman inside the Penn Stater Hotel as the Penn State Board of Trustees announced on November 9, 2011 that they had decided to fire Joe Paterno.

The campus didn’t literally burn, but, as Graham Spanier claims to have predicted, students rioted. Some 4,000 students descended upon downtown State College in what started as a “peaceful protest.” Justin Strine was one of those students.

Strine—a cadet in the ROTC program at Penn State—was among the students on College Avenue that night. He was also one of the 32 students sanctioned by the university for participating in the ordeal. He pleaded guilty and even served a stint in jail for his participation in the riots. On Monday, the Associated Press ran a piece that read largely sympathetic to Strine’s position. I’m wondering why we’re supposed to give a shit.

Listen, I get that he wasn’t looting liquor stores and lighting police cruisers on fire. But, as students hurled rocks and bottles at a news van on College Avenue, he was one of the young men who moved toward it. Strine claims that he put his hands on the van only after it lay on its side in the middle of the street, but that’s hardly the point.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not proud of everything I did while I was in college. I stayed out too late, drank too much, got wrapped up in a few brouhahas, and had a thing for girls with boyfriends. But in October 2008, my junior year—the night that Penn State beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe—the rowdiest my roommates and I got was when we high-fived after Ryan Howard homered against the Rays in Game 3 of the World Series. While our constituents were at the now-famed Beaver Canyon being Maced and night-sticked for lighting foliage on fire and throwing couches from balconies, we cracked open another round of beers and put the Phillies on the big TV.

Moreover, I was at that intersection on November 9th. I was at the press conference when they fired Paterno and—being a recent alum—was fully aware that students were going to, ahem, react unfavorably. So, a friend and I headed downtown so that I could cover the riots. I live-tweeted the entire night. We were standing at the corner looking on when we began to get hit with stray rocks and bottles intended for the news van. We then made the conscious decision to back away from the van, instead of toward it, when the crowd began to chant for its upheaval. We watched as students at our university gave every major news outlet a headline and a photograph destined to land above the fold.

Since November, I’ve had a lot of reasons to struggle with my Penn State pride. Between the horrendous acts of Jerry Sandusky and the alleged cover-up, and the scores of students and alumni who took to the Internet in extreme defense of the school and the football program before really considering what might have taken place, I can’t remember the last time that I bumped into someone and wasn’t called upon to address the scandal in some manner. But through it all, the toughest moment for me was that night after the riots. The disdain I held for the students who made matters worse for no reason other than that they were pissed off. Scream into a pillow, have a drink—shit, put a hole in a wall. But to take to the streets and participate in or be a party to that type of destruction was not conducive to the situation.

Justin Strine is upset that no one listened to his account. “No one ever looked at me as an individual. They looked at me as 5,000 Penn State rioters,” he says. Well, that’s because he wasn’t an individual. Instead of doing what he knew was right and backing away from the van, he moved toward it. He wasn’t the rising star ROTC cadet or the Dean’s List student; he was just another Penn Stater contributing to a problem that’s bigger than any one individual.

I don’t feel sorry for him. Not one bit.