Student parties turned into riots at two American colleges last night.

At the University of Minnesota, an off-campus student party associated with the campus’s Spring Jam got rowdy when a fire was built in the middle of a street. Bottles and rocks were reportedly thrown at police, who retaliated with tear gas, pepper spray, and “foam rounds.”

Here’s commenter Sun from the Minnesota Daily website with a first-hand perspective:

“I wouldn’t call this a riot as much as a large get-together that was slightly out of hand. People were not hurting each other or raiding houses. There was a strong communal understanding of respect, however, there was some bottle smashing and fire starting. If you were there you know what I’m trying to get at … the majority of the activity was allotted to mere standing and conversing with occasional sing-a-longs.”

Standing and conversing with occasional sing-a-longs, bottle smashing, and fire starting. Got it.

Only four people were arrested in the UM incident, but KentNewsNet is reporting that police made 125 arrests in the course of an off-campus confrontation at Kent State. There, participants suggest that the party turned into a riot because of police action.

According to reports, police moved aggressively to break up a street party mid-evening, and bystanders responded by throwing glass bottles in the road. Two students are quoted in the article saying that police then fired rubber bullets into the crowd indiscriminately. As many as four fires were then started in the street, and participants reported that police were manhandling individuals who were breaking no laws.

These two incidents — on the surface very similar, but apparently quite different in how they developed — demonstrate the difficulty in drawing bright-line distinctions between student rowdiness and student protest. 

In Minneapolis, police apparently moved in to break up a party that had already gotten out of hand, where in Kent it was their heavy-handed response that transformed “a typical party” into a riot. Seen from that perspective, the Minneapolis incident looks more like rowdiness, and Kent more like protest.

But that distinction is based on a reading of two hurriedly-written articles, either or both of which may be flawed. It’s possible that excessive police force played more of a role in Minneapolis, or less of a role in Kent, than is suggested by these articles.

There’s a strong tendency for outside observers to approach student boisterousness as acting out for acting out’s sake, whatever its supposed purpose. On the other side of the coin, observers like myself find it useful to explore the underlying tensions that lead to even apparently random and apolitical outbursts. It’s really easy to let that kind of analysis run away with you, though, particularly since the facts about any particular student outburst are likely to be ambiguous.

Blogging is easy. History is hard.