St. Anne's Retreat: Civic Brushfire
The trespassing incident at St. Anne’s Retreat was more than news. In fact, it clearly fits into a so–called “civic brush fire incident.” Keith Grant-Davie, Utah State University, uses this phrase in describing local news bits that have a huge impact on the local population (Grant-Davie, 1-2). Grant-Davie proposes four qualifying areas as conditions for civic brush fire incidents and St. Anne’s is one of his examples.
1) A provocative incident: The St. Anne’s controversy was started in dramatic fashion by two events in quick succession: first the teens' visit to the property and the caretakers’ hostile reaction, and then the raising of criminal charges against all involved.
2) An emblematic object or image: In the example of the St. Anne’s incident, the incident itself provided a strong enough image—an angry, nighttime confrontation between a few armed men and a crowd of thrill-seeking teenagers—to excite the general public’s imagination.
3) Accessible media and forums: The St. Anne’s debate was played out in at least seven articles, two guest commentaries, seventeen letters to the editor, more than fifty call-in messages (a selection of nine of which were printed), and an editorial.
4) A conflict between threatened values: This was very apparent in the St. Anne’s incident, which became a debate between property rights and civil rights. The first wave of letters to the editor sided with the caretakers, who were characterized as heroes wrongly crucified for defending property and taking a stand against vandalism, while the second wave defended the teens’ actions as a harmless, traditional prank and condemned the caretakers for assaulting and terrorizing them (Grant-Davie, 3-5).
Grant-Davie also suggests that the brush fires surrounding the St. Anne’s incident “were fueled by some fundamental issues and deeply-rooted values that fired the public emotions.” Clearly the St. Anne’s incident on Halloween 1997 was more than local news—it goes much deeper than that. It taps fundamental group values with regard to ex: religion, gender, and property rights, that play a crucial role in this particular “civic brush fire” and fire up emotional debates among the local population.
The angry response of parents whose children were manhandled at the St. Anne’s Retreat while legend-tripping on Halloween in 1997 was based on their notion that teenage trips to St. Anne’s were so common that they constituted an understandable, coherent tradition, the rationale of which was more important than the relatively trivial matter of trespass. In other words, local concepts of justice—as elsewhere in the world—are heavily influenced by local traditions. It taps fundamental group values with regards to religion, gender, and property rights that play a crucial role in this particular “civic brush fire” and fire up emotional debates among the local population. Parts of the community and the media portrayed the lawless teenagers as victims while others rejected the notion of justifying trespassing as a rite of passage, or teenage prank. Little sympathy was given to the three security guards defending the property being confronted by 30-plus teenagers and young adults, in the middle of the night, in the dark of Logan Canyon. The event was clearly biased in the media, and certainly did not, for the most part, take into account the circumstances in which the security guards operated under.