My thoughts on Queen’s Homecoming

Queen’s University had its annual Homecoming this past weekend and of course bad press, broken bottles and a city calling for sanity were to be expected.

Every year, the fixed residents of the city take Queen’s to task for noise violations, littered streets and the annual madness that is Homecoming Saturday night on Aberdeen Street.

I’m still a student at this school. I’m currently a graduate student and this comes after my undergraduate degree at Queen’s. This means that I’ve now attended the Homecoming festivities for the 7th year in a row. Back in my first year, the Aberdeen street party was relatively tame. Thousands of students and alumni flooded the streets then as did this past Saturday, yet there was a certain threshold that didn’t extend much past the casual breaking of beer bottles on the street and perhaps a couple of arrests. One knows to wear thick soles when going to Aberdeen on this weekend in late September.

However, this year, something just didn’t seem to be right. The local media and local residents had been particularly vocal and militant against the annual street party and city council had installed a de facto Aberdeen task force which was founded shortly after last year’s party had ended. Townhalls were arranged between the Queen’s administration and the city of Kingston in order to show that Queen’s was sincerely listening to the concerns of the city residents. In my opinion, Queen’s University did its best to contribute to the management of an issue which was frankly within the city’s jurisdiction and realm of responsibility. I remember that the week after last year’s local outcry against the party, there was an increased police presence around student neighbourhoods which did little to enforce law and order and merely served to assuage the political outcry against Queen’s University. This same year, Kingston police faced the disastrous PR that resulted from a study slamming the force for racial profiling. Walking through my student neighbourhood, I see police cars patrol slowly along the street and some slow down when I’m walking with my friends. While I’m not being racially profiled, I feel as though Kingston police are openly profiling students and painting us all with the same brush. This is a result of political pressure exerted by local officials and by the fixed (non-student) residents of Kingston. In a city where our university contributes significantly to the Kingston community, our students find themselves and their neighbourhoods categorized by law enforcement. On city streets where students are left to walk through unplowed snow in the winter, police cars patrol looking to ticket students for open bottles during the rest of the year. Our city councillors are largely elected without the input of the Queen’s students which inhabit their districts as we are temporary and mobile residents in Kingston. Perhaps this is why the city has treated students as a problem instead of as a resource. Yet the most serious crime committed in the Queen’s community last year was the murder of one of our own at a Kingston bar by a Toronto man with dreams of a gangsta rap career.

For as long as I’ve been here at Queen’s, I’ve always seen Homecoming as an interesting problem in management in the political, economic, and social contexts. As the annual tradition contributes a significant dollar figure to the local economy, the city would never require that Queen’s shut down Homecoming. However city council has always tried to manage it, even when it comes in the form of contrarian politics as it did this past year. I believe that these politics brewed an attitude of defiance among the troublemakers. These politics even jilted the rest of us as we saw our collective collegial reputation under weekly attack in the local media and by our elected representatives, yet somehow we hoped for some sort of order among the chaos.

This year, the University planned a free concert, which the city happily endorsed by extending the city noise ordinance from 11pm to 2am. It turned out to be a noble yet futile attempt by Queen’s to reduce the number of students and alumni headed to Aberdeen Street.

This year I arrived at the street party at around 12am to witness the events that would unfold. Broken beer bottles littered the street and police were driving unmarked white cars, trucks and vans arresting people about every two minutes. There were even a few police officers in riot gear mixing among the students on those four city blocks. More than a few people asked us for directions and one even clarified that he was lost because he was from McMaster. There were students from Carleton and McGill among the Queen’s students as well. A significant number of non-student city residents also walked amongst the crowd. As I walked up the street with a few friends we saw people, in the distance, jumping up and down on something in the distance and my heart sank. I knew immediately what these damned idiots were doing. They were jumping on a car as the fools around them sang “Ole, ole, ole”. You know the type.

We decided to take a closer look and sure enough, one could barely make out a light blue, overturned car under the feet of the idiots that ruined Homecoming for everyone. The smell of gasoline was thick in the air as one particularly stupid woman was dancing on top of the car… smoking a cigarette.

It was time to get some distance…

As we quickly made our way away from the potential disaster-in-the-making I looked back towards the overturned car and didn’t see any police present within the vicinity and it was clear that there weren’t any authorities present to stop this abhorrent destruction of private property.

Instead the police were flanking the ends of the four blocks encouraging people to leave the street and they were preventing others from entering. We walked off of the street somewhat stunned at the mob mentality that we had just witnessed. Most of the thousands that were there had the intention of enjoying the party peacefully. About twenty individuals ruined this event for everybody.

So, if I may, I have a few recommendations as a longtime student and participant in Homecoming festivities at Queen’s.

There are two options: Shut down the Aberdeen street party or allow it to continue with better management.

If the party is allowed to continue on Aberdeen (preferable option):

  • Security fences should be erected at each end of Aberdeen street (4 blocks) and on the main streets that feed it. The street should be officially closed to traffic and students should have their ID verified (both student and age of majority). Whenever the University hosts an open air concert on campus (>3000 people), an openly accessible central parking lot is effectively cordoned-off by an erected security fence. Furthermore, the city closes streets a few times each year during the summer for the Jazz and Blues festivals. Tickets are even sold for these events and those without tickets are prevented from entering the street.
  • City council should immediately abandon its contentious position. The mentality that labels Aberdeen as a “Queen’s problem” is not helpful. Rather, the Aberdeen street party is a puzzle in management. “Kingston vs. Queen’s” only encourages troublemakers and evokes sympathy and anger among other students that see the city’s position as an affront to their school’s traditions.
  • Keg parties among the Aberdeen houses should become the norm and Queen’s should set up a beer tent on the street. People should be frisked of alcohol as they enter the street from one of the gates in the fence. These measures would prevent the thousands of beer bottles smashed on the street.

If the Aberdeen party is to be shut down:

  • The city should close the street on Homecoming Saturday for the next four years. Close the ends of the street with rented security fences. Shutting down Aberdeen for four consecutive Homecomings would have the effect of dissipating the Aberdeen buzz among the students.

These two options, of course, are options of appeasement. If Queen’s wanted, the school could instead ignore the city’s complaining and carry on as usual (perhaps with the request that the city try its best not to paradoxically encourage the students).

Fault and Consequences:

  • Students arrested for the general destruction of private property should be suspended while students that participated in the destruction of that car should be expelled. Of course, primary fault lies with these individuals that ruined this year’s Homecoming.
  • Instead of acknowledging and legitimizing the Aberdeen street party, the city chose to treat the street party as some sort of spontaneous yet expected riot. The police had planned for this confrontation for almost a year. This party happens every year; it is not unexpected. Therefore, measures to legitimize and thus control the party as a public and closed event should have been enacted (with a security fence perimeter). Instead of preparing to manage for a large public gathering, the police prepared for a riot. The city’s lack of planning on the former helped precipitate the latter. The city deserves blame for this.
  • Queen’s tried desperately to manage this situation from their end from organizing townhalls to footing the bill for a three-act concert that was attended by thousands. The administration seems to have gone beyond expectations in trying to manage a situation that quite frankly fell within the jurisdiction and realm of responsibility of the city of Kingston.