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As black-clad police moved in on a group of students Saturday during beer-soaked riots that disrupted Keene, New Hampshire’s annual Pumpkin Festival, the students began to chant, “Bring out the BearCat! Bring out the BearCat!”
The Keene State students, who faced tear gas and pepper spray pellets, were trying to taunt local cops into using their ultimate weapon, a $286,000 armored personnel carrier. Keene got the armored vehicle for free from the federal government in 2012 after citing a potential terrorist threat to the festival.
The city’s claim of a terror threat to the Pumpkin Festival, which draws thousands tourists to this small college town each October, won Keene notoriety and derision from both comedians and lawmakers. Just last month, Keene City Councilman Terry Clark said the armored vehicle had made the town a “national laughingstock.”
“We don’t need this thing ... just give it back,” Clark told the local paper.
Despite the weekend’s mayhem, the BearCat, dubbed “our own tank” by the mayor but officially known as the “Keene Special Mission Rescue Vehicle,” apparently never left its secret garage.
The standoff between police and demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, this August, which featured snipers and the use of a BearCat by St. Louis County police, focused national attention on the militarization of local law enforcement agencies.
Keene, like many other communities in the aftermath of 9/11, had used the threat of terrorism to win a grant from the Department of Homeland Security and acquire the armored vehicle. The Keene Police Department’s 2011 application for federal funding differed little from the applications that other local law enforcement agencies have used to buy equipment.
“The terrorism threat is far reaching and often unforeseen,” said the application. "Terrorists’ goals, regardless of affiliation, usually encompass the creation of fear among the public, convincing the public that their Government is powerless to stop the terrorists, and get immediate publicity for their cause.”
Keene became a magnet for snark, however, when its application cited the possible targets for terrorists in southwestern New Hampshire, and the methods those terrorists might use.
"Keene currently hosts several large public functions to include: an annual Pumpkin Festival, which draws upwards of 70,000 patrons to the City."
The threat to the festival, the application noted, could "include the use of Radiological Dispersion Devices by terrorists," adding that such “dirty” bombs are "much more likely than the use of a nuclear device." The BearCat has radiation and chemical detection devices, and the application argued that no other vehicle in the county was capable of protecting, transporting and measuring such radiation.
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Students used neither dirty bombs nor chemical weapons to attack police this weekend, relying instead on beer bottles, for which the BearCat apparently has no detectors. Students at Keene State were not cited as a possible threat in the DHS application, but instead were listed as a group that needed protection from terrorists.
In a meeting with Keene State College journalism students before the BearCat arrived in 2012, Keene Police Department chief Kenneth Meola stated, “Do I think al Qaeda is going to target Pumpkin Fest? No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes, and we should prepare for that.”
When Keene decided to apply for the BearCat back in 2011, some residents complained the vehicle was too “militaristic,” but the purchase had the support of a majority on the City Council, as well as the mayor.
"We're going to have our own tank," Mayor Kendall Lane was overheard whispering to Councilman Mitch Greenwald during a December 2011 City Council meeting, according to the Huffington Post.
Soon after the BearCat arrived in Keene, Terry Clark, a city council member who had opposed the purchase, told the Boston Globe the “danger of domestic terrorism” was “just something you put in the grant application to get the money.”
“What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this?” said Clark. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., also noticed Keene’s BearCat. He cited the purchase in his December 2012 report on alleged waste in DHS funding of police departments. The funding was granted and the vehicle was purchased, Coburn's report noted, even though the city had reported “only a single homicide in the prior two years.”
After Ferguson renewed questions about the militarization of local police, no one mocked the specter of Pumpkin Festival terror like Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's “Colbert Report” and John Oliver of HBO's “Last Week Tonight.”
“We’re talking about America’s premier pumpkin festival,” said Colbert, defending the BearCat’s purchase in his trademark tones of fake umbrage. “Need proof? Name another one.”
Oliver noted that the BearCat posed a deterrent for pumpkin smashers.
"Good luck easily out-maneuvering that, teenagers with baseball bats!" he said.