A PROCESS IS DUE AT SOUTH MOUNTAIN HIGH
When Roberto Frietz, now 39, was a student at South Mountain High School in the 1970s, a riot brought on by racial tensions broke out at the school.
"I had no charges brought against me, because I wasn't a participant," Frietz recalls. "But I still remember what it was like on campus that day. The riot was distinctly race-related. You had blacks fighting Hispanics and whites against blacks."
On October 13, South Mountain was the scene of another riot, which spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood. Heavy television coverage served to blow up the problem. The coverage thrilled the viewers in Paradise Valley, but created deep resentment in the neighborhood around the school, which felt its reputation had been attacked unfairly.
What the South Phoenix residents could not possibly know is that a riot is almost as big for television as is a fire burning out of control. Both events provide hot images for the viewer at home. It is an ironclad media rule that no one can turn off a television set that is showing either a fire or a street riot.
Fires are plentiful. But street fights that last long enough for TV camera operators to reach the scene while blows are still being struck are rarities to be cherished.
In the television-news business, riots are like found gold. So they are shown over and over.
How many times do you still see old footage of the riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968? How many times do you think you will see the reenactment of the riots in Los Angeles that were connected to the outcome of the Rodney King case? For the next decade, you will be shown the film of that truck driver being pulled to the ground and hit with a brick. By the time TV wears it out, you will have every step down pat, as though it were a ceremonial dance.
At South Mountain High, there are 3,600 students enrolled in a school built to handle only 2,500.
The overcrowding at the 40-year-old school has been cited by Moody Jackson, South Mountain's principal, as a root cause of the disturbance.
The fighting was so out of control on the day of the riot that it was halted only after school security guards, Phoenix police and Department of Public Safety officers entered the fray and separated the black students from the Hispanics. Even then, the fighting shifted off campus, erupting sporadically through the surrounding area.
Police reports show that 18 students were arrested at the scene. It has been estimated that approximately 60 students who were seen fighting have been suspended from classes for the rest of the year. Principal Moody Jackson did not return phone calls from New Times to confirm the number.
The suspensions brought Frietz into the case as a volunteer advocate. He doubted that they were being handed out on a fair basis. Frietz recalls from his own days at South Mountain that many of those who started the trouble in the 1970s went undetected, while innocent students suffered suspensions.
So on the Tuesday after the riot, Frietz attended a public meeting at which school officials and police attempted to explain to parents and interested residents what happened on the campus and what was about to happen.
Frietz was startled to hear Commander Ron Bates of the South Mountain police district give what Frietz interpreted as a callous reply to a question about endangering the students.
Bates was asked if the use of police lines to push the competing black and Hispanic groups off campus together was not like throwing them from the frying pan into the fire.
By Frietz's account, Bates said:
"In an operation of this sort, you have to expect casualties."
Frietz noticed at the meeting that even though many of the Spanish-speaking parents could not understand what was being said from the podium, there was no attempt to provide an interpreter for them.
Frietz sat next to the parents of two students who had been suspended from school for fighting. He offered them his assistance.
You might wonder why Frietz would volunteer his time in an effort that offered no financial reward and promised a lot of detailed investigation. Only after you have spoken to him several times do you realize he is sincere in his effort to help the less fortunate. He is a do-gooder in the best sense of the word.
Frietz, who attended Northern Arizona University, has worked for the past five years as a Homeless Outreach coordinator. His job is to provide mental-health treatment to the homeless who are mentally ill.
His wife has been a grade-school teacher in South Phoenix for more than a decade. She has seen at least 100 of her students go through South Mountain High School.
They both are proud of the school's status as a magnet school, and feel that the school's administration should be frank and open in explaining the disciplinary actions that have taken place since the riot.
The parents of two Hispanic youths agreed to have Frietz act in their behalf with the school administration. Neither can understand English, and without Frietz's help, they would be unable to cope with the situation.
"My goal in this is to see that the kids get due process in their hearings. If they are guilty, they should be punished. But they shouldn't be singled out and tossed aside if there is no evidence against them."
At first, Frietz's only clients were Jorge and Arturo Hernandez, both suspended for fighting with two black youths. In checking out the reports, Frietz found they were supposed to have attacked a black youth named Clemmie Cheatham.
Frietz knew only that Clemmie Cheatham lived in the Vista projects neighborhood at 16th Street and Roeser. Frietz scoured the phone book and searched the neighborhood in his car before finding Cheatham.
Frietz asked Cheatham if he could identify the two Hispanic youths he had been fighting with on campus that day. Cheatham agreed to meet Jorge and Arturo face to face to make an identification.
Once Cheatham saw the brothers, he was able to tell Frietz they were definitely not the two Hispanics who attacked him on campus.
Frietz brought Cheatham as a witness to a hearing at the school, where he testified that the Hernandez brothers were not guilty.
School officials were angered by Cheatham's testimony. They expected him to be their star prosecution witness. Frietz says that one school official even accused him of paying Cheatham to change his story.
Now Frietz is also representing both Cheatham and his 17-year-old sister, Shannon. They have been suspended for the rest of the school year for fighting.
School officials have allowed Jorge and Arturo back into school temporarily, but they face further action that could lead to their suspensions, too.
"People don't understand that a suspension from school at this point in their lives could ruin the lives of these kids," Frietz says. "They may never be able to make it up. What chance do they have if they don't graduate from high school?"
Frietz says the Hernandez brothers are also accused of leaving classes and going home without permission. But there was so much confusion on campus that day that many students report that police ordered them to go home.
Frietz finds it difficult to understand the attitude of school officials.
"When I went to see Dr. Moody Jackson, the principal, he first wanted to know why I had an interest in this case. He said these kids had no right to have a guardian angel like me pop up to save them."
Frietz's interest is in the sanctity of due process, a constitutional precedent set in the 1930s as a result of the Scottsboro case, in which seven black youths were arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white women.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the youths' convictions on the grounds that the blacks had been denied due process of law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment because they did not have effective legal representation at their trial.
Frietz is striving to see that the four youngsters he is representing get a fair hearing and that the school authorities present real evidence against them or drop the cases.
Last weekend, Jorge Hernandez and Clemmie Cheatham sat in Frietz's living room watching the Notre Dame-Florida State football game on television.
"All I remember about the fight," Cheatham said, "is that some heavyset guy with a ponytail hit me. I started back to defend myself; that's all I did. I never started anything."
He tells what he remembers of the riot:
"I saw this black guy and a Mexican guy getting ready to fight," Cheatham says. "There was a security guard standing in between them. I saw a black guy pick up a garbage can and hit the security guard upside the head. The security guard ran after him, and I ran down to see what was happening, and somebody hit me from behind, and I turned around, and we started fighting.
"Then the police started telling everybody to leave campus, and we started going out the front gate onto Seventh Street, and the black guys were beating up on those Mexican guys every time they went out onto Seventh Street. I kept hearing rocks and bottles being thrown back and forth."
Clemmie Cheatham looked over at Jorge Hernandez and smiled.
"I know for sure that he and I never fought on that day."
Jorge Hernandez seemed nervous.
"All I remember is that was the day I lost my pager. I was back in study hall trying to find it during the fights. My girlfriend's sister had warned me to stay inside, because everybody was fighting outside."
Jorge says that when he finally did go outside, a security guard took down his name. "I remember asking him, 'What are you taking down my name for? I haven't done anything.'"
Jorge is asked why he carries a pager.
"I need it because my mom calls to tell me whether she can come to pick me up in the car. If she can't come, I have to walk home, and it's about four miles down the road.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.