The Louisville Purge Happened, But Not How You Think It Did

1st October 2014

Sometimes, reactions to events are events in and of themselves. What originally began as a hoax in Louisville turned out to be more than that.

If you were like me, on Friday, August 15 2014, you were pored over the Internet witnessing the spectacle of mobilization in the process, as individuals from in and around Louisville, Kentucky and beyond posted about the “Purge” that was supposedly going to be happening in the city.

This is of course a reference to the 2013 thriller ‘The Purge’, wherein, due to highly profitable economic outcomes and high potential for curbing crime (!), the government declares all crimes to be legal once a year for a period of twelve hours, suspending all emergency services during this time. The rumor of an event inspired by the film set to occur in Louisville on August 15th was sparked by an Iroquois High School student who tweeted a flier that outlined the day and time when the Purge was to take place, using the movie poster as a backdrop. A sequel, ‘The Purge: Anarchy’, was released on July 18.

This image was circulated on Twitter, and similar posters reportedly appeared around Louisville

Social media has a unique way of reinforcing really bad circular thinking. There is such a thing as good circular thinking, especially when real logic and deduction are used, but when the circle consists of absurd clamoring, paranoia, fear, and sarcasm about a hoax, what emerges turns out to be equal parts perplexing and frustrating. Local officials stated in interviews that they take every threat seriously, as they should. A local high school scrimmage game was postponed due to the threat. There was a noticeable drop in attendance at the Kentucky State Fair on Friday night.

On Friday night, thousands of tweets began to roll in under the #LouisvillePurge tag (and later the #LouisvillePoliceScanner tag) as the Purge start time of 8:00PM EST drew nearer. At one point it was a top trend worldwide. There were tweets that came from disgruntled residents of the city, many of them teens and twenty-somethings, as well as people from surrounding areas, who seemed so scared they didn’t even know where to look to find out if the Louisville Purge was real or not.

Fear is a great motivator in that way, and when fearful people take to social media to see if others are sharing their same fears, just to get some sort of personal confirmation, often times they will forget why they were afraid to begin with. Why? Because they think that is how they are supposed to feel in that moment. Or because it’s fun to pretend, to participate.

Others expressed anger over jokes that incite violence. A lot of people turned it into a sort of overnight internet party. “Louisville Purge” now has entries over at Snopes and even the actual film’s Wikipedia page under “Trivia”. There were rumors of other Purges set to happen in many other cities, dates and times that came and went quietly.

What helped get the “story” started was a ThoughtCatalog writer from Louisville who live-blogged the Louisville Purge, updating the post throughout the night with all the various calls and rumors about what was happening, taken from the Louisville police scanner. That’s when people started to pay attention. A lot of people. There was not a lot of press coverage or social media posts about the Purge rumors outside of Louisville until 8PM drew near. Then the calls started coming in…

At 9:54 a group apparently attempted to rob a liquor store with knives. At 11:34PM a Little Caesars received a phone call saying “We’re coming.”

And the outcome? No one ever came — except for people who wanted to buy pizzas (they did only say they were coming, not that they were going to loot the place and butterfly everyone’s kidneys with butcher’s knives.) At one point the Louisville police scanner stream had 80,000 listeners, which probably broke a record somewhere. The ThoughtCatalog writer claimed to hear gunshots outside his home that turned out to be fireworks. One can look at this log of activity in retrospect and realize how ridiculous it was to report these things as being part of a “Purge”, and to have made all of those connections, but it’s worth pointing out it is natural to be at least suspicious and curious about what is happening.

Just a recap: The Louisville Purge wasn’t a thing, but then we kind of made it a thing.

Stories are my weakness. They are everywhere. Even the Louisville Purge is a story. There are stakes, there are characters (not just the giraffe), and there is a narrative. I think that is why it’s so easy for me to give myself to stories; despite knowing that not only was the whole Purge thing completely farcical and ridiculous — extremely ridiculous — that didn’t stop me from locating the stream for the Louisville police dispatch scanner and following it like a backwoods Dale Gribble-type who thinks he’s going to hear something. But I did.

There was the typical garbled police chatter consisting of the standard 10-codes being spat back and forth in varying levels of volume and (oftentimes horrible) sound quality, which kept my left index finger riding the volume knob on my computer speakers to keep the sound from clipping. I played along. For hours. I pulled up a list consisting of what each police code meant in Kentucky and tried to piece it all together. I read hundreds of tweets about how people were scared, that they heard something from someone about something. Some of them were completely serious. Many of them weren’t. Two friends and I sat and listened to the scanner stream and followed the tweets and other posts until around midnight. There was constant radio traffic between the hours of 8PM and 11PM. According to the Courier Journal, dispatchers received 20% more calls than they would on a typical Friday night.

Police scanners are creepy. It’s creepy to listen to dispatchers and the police communicate with one another. There’s something unnerving about it. But it held our attention, many of us, for hours. It definitely held mine. There’s always a sense of urgency in their voices. They have to be brief and in times of panic they have to be swift and calm. Listening to what would otherwise be fairly boring in its routineness turned into something that tens of thousands of people were paying very close attention to.

It’s bizarre sitting in a dark room listening to a police scanner to begin with, but when you come into it with the expectation that something is going to happen, any given thing one hears can confirm or deny one’s suspicions and fears, and whether or not these suspicions and fears had any legitimate basis behind them is not necessarily the point; many people reacted with hysteria anyway. Here’s a fact: all of the calls that came in, if there was no widespread worry about a Purge, people would have thought it was just another night in Louisville. At one point my friends and I were listening to the scanner and a calm female voice announced that they received a call about a shirtless man who was molesting a cat. Strange? Absolutely. But not entirely out of the ordinary, apparently. However, with the aura of the Purge hanging over the entire city and, in turn, everywhere (thanks to the Internet), each little thing that happened that night in the city was colored with Purge mania, and people acted accordingly.

I have a theory: bad circular thinking reinforced by social media about a hoax or any rumored event that stimulates fear turns us into oglers of sorts, because part of us, deep down, want to believe that whatever is supposedly going to happen will really happen or is happening; think of how many people you know who want a zombie apocalypse to happen. But the thing about the Louisville Purge is that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to social media. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” David Foster Wallace referred to fiction writers as “gapers who slow down for car wrecks” because they “covet a vision of themselves as witness.” This is not entirely unlike what those of us who followed the Louisville Purge were doing. The difference lies in how we participated because we didn’t just follow the Louisville Purge. We made it. It turned into a story that we added to, bit by bit, tweet by tweet, collaboratively, until something tangible emerged. The question is not whether the Purge actually happened in Louisville–clearly it did not. But something did happen. I can find no better example of illustrating what the night was like than this picture. Just because there was indeed murder and petty crime in Louisville that night doesn’t mean there was a Purge, but that didn’t stop many from believing it, wanting to believe it, or having fun with it. Ultimately, it was just another night in Louisville. I’m sure some would say it was just another night on the Internet, too.

The kid who started the rumor did not envision this happening. However, we all know how “The War of the Worlds” was not meant to incite terror. But it did, and the reason was because of the underlying anxiety Americans had about World War II, fearing the absolute worst about the unknown capabilities of enemy nations, fearing what could emerge from highly-industrialized totalitarian regimes. And for the Louisville Purge to happen during the same week as the protests in Ferguson, MO… Circle completed? Perhaps.

The Louisville Purge became a hoax with a story, rather than a story of a hoax. Tweet Share

How might we better operate in service of the truth? That’s the question we should ask. After all, Adolf Hitler responded to the panic incited by the “War of the Worlds” broadcast by saying it was “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” Though to be fair, he was also Adolf Hitler.

In the beginning it was a kid who was just having a laugh. That’s it. Just one tweet. From that point on, others got ahold of it, and then it morphed into something bigger than the sum of its parts. Do we make things happen by simply believing them into existence? We are drawn to the unknown. We ask “what if” questions. We dream. We fantasize. And we worry. What happened that night were our reactions and little more. Some people reacted with fear. Some with anger.

The Louisville Purge became a hoax with a story, rather than a story of a hoax. Will we, much like how it started, look back later and have a laugh? Could it be the basis of a future urban legend? After all, who wouldn’t want to believe that a giraffe is broken out of the Louisville Zoo once a year each August 15th, ridden by the lonely ghost of a man who never got to do the Bambi Walk?

I think Dwight Mitchell, police spokesman for the Louisville Metro Police Department, said it as plainly as can be when discussing the reaction of the general public: “There is a thing called Freedom of Speech, but with that comes a responsibility.”

Sometimes, we don’t like being responsible, though, because where is the fun in that?

Humans like sharing… are you one?


Originally published at urbantimes.co on October 1, 2014.

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