THE FREALITY OF THE "RIOT"
The police reports describing the South Mountain High School riot are written in the idiom of men apparently striving to emulate the literary style of a veteran sergeant.
All drama is drained. The tone is monotonous. The repetition of phrases fogs the reader's mind. But after you've read enough police reports, your mind breaks through the "officialese." You are finally able to understand the events being described.
There is even a minute-by-minute recounting of riot developments at the very time they were taking place that Thursday, October 13.
But we are left with a lingering question. Was it actually a riot? Or was it simply a series of disturbances blown out of proportion by the media?
Nowhere in any police reports released to date are there any indications that the event was planned.
Although gang involvement was initially given as a cause, no further evidence for that assertion has ever been offered.
So, again, we are faced with troubling questions. Is South Mountain High School too overcrowded, or is it impossible for black and Hispanic students to coexist on the same campus?
Here are some excerpts of a report written by Phoenix police officer William Gadberry, who was on the South Mountain campus taking a criminal damage report. While completing the damage report, Gadberry was told by a school security guard that fights had started breaking out all over the school.
The security guard told Officer Gadberry it was a gang thing between the Crips and Bloods, stemming from a shooting that had taken place several days before. In the many pages of police reports that I read, this is the only mention of gang rivalry as a cause of the riot.
Here is part of Gadberry's account:
"11:40 a.m.: School security related to me that there were fights breaking out on campus in the general quad area of the high school and that I needed to get more officers. They had eight security officers already on campus. I was told the fights were over the shooting on Desert Road on Saturday night, and it was a Crips and Bloods thing."
From another report:
"Units were on the way to the scene. The fights were breaking out on the east side of the campus, and as we got to the area, fights broke out on the west side of the campus. There were approximately 1,200 students in the quad area at this time and running in all directions. There [were] rocks and bottles and cans flying."
From still another report:
"1:00 p.m.: A large fight at South Mountain High. The call was put out to all precincts for any and all additional units to respond reference this large fight."
In the first roundup by police and school security guards, 18 South Mountain High students were arrested. They were all between the ages of 16 and 19. There were eight black males, eight Hispanic males and two black females.
A police command post was set up at the football field next to the bleachers. Rushing to the scene was a full array of police brass, all under the direction of Commander Ron Bates.
What follows are excerpts of a minute-by-minute police narrative of the riot:
"1:32 p.m.: Rocks and bottles being thrown between Eighth and Ninth streets just north of Roeser. Additional units requested.
"1:37 p.m.: Students were sprayed with Mace and complaining about being sick. We need to know where they go for first aid.
"1:43 p.m.: Request another traffic motor to go to Sixth Street and Sunland to assist in traffic.
"1:45 p.m.: Request to know whether kids are in or out of school. Some students are still in classes and being held until other students causing problem have left the area.
"1:48 p.m.: Advisory that there are still 3,000 kids in classrooms who still need buses for transportation.
"1:59 p.m.: Captain Denny of Department of Public Safety arrives. He advises that he has seven squads of officers available if needed.
"2:00 p.m.: Captain Denny advised to go ahead and start DPS units to the school.
"2:04 p.m.: Commander Bates requests that Captain Denny take the units he has on the scene into the quad to sweep the area.
"2:05 p.m.: Buses come on campus to remove kids from school. Unknown supervisor asks if there are hot spots. Per command, none known.
"2:09 p.m.: Advised there are 500 students still in classes. Request to let them go. Per command, do not let them go at this point.
"2:12 p.m.: All students will be released at same time but send all parents picking up students to administration building.
"2:30 p.m.: Release all students order given.
"2:42 p.m.: Command advises there are 15 students in custody at the security office.
"2:59 p.m.: Command all units to start breaking it down. All supervisors report to command post.
"3:07 p.m.: Sergeant Ron Vasquez gives briefing to command staff and supervisors as to what started the fight. Please see Officer Gadberry's original report regarding as to how this incident started."
Here is what Sergeant Vasquez told the police command staff:
"At approximately 12:40 p.m., I responded to a request for assistance at the South Mountain High School, 5401 South Seventh Street. There was a very large disturbance at the school, and security officers were under attack.
"I observed an enormous group of students exiting the campus building and running into the parking lot. They were obviously in a very agitated state. I saw several female students who were crying and visibly upset. As more students began exiting the school, they became increasingly agitated and began to break trees and throw rocks and other objects. At that time, I was the only officer at that location, and I was in plain clothes in an unmarked police car. I elected to withdraw from that position and attempt entry at another location."
Sergeant Vasquez ended up at the east end of the campus, where he assisted officers who were bringing in prisoners from the central quad area. He was one of the officers who was knocked down in the melee.
At the security office, Vasquez met Michael Craig, a South Mountain security officer. Craig identified a 16-year-old black student then being held in custody as one who had been right at the center of the fighting at the start. He had been fighting a Hispanic youth, also 16, who was easily identifiable because he was wearing a blue rag wrapped around his hand.
Six students were picked up from this original melee and transported to the South Mountain precinct at 400 West Southern.
But the general battle was on. What might have started as a fight between two street gangs turned into a larger event pitting black students against Hispanics.
The 16-year-old black student arrested at the center of the battle spoke freely of the event to Sergeant Vasquez. His version was that he had just come out of a physical education class when he got caught in a large crowd that was running down along the narrow school hallway. He claimed that "some Mexican guy" then hit him in the jaw.
"Hey, man," the black youth said he asked, "why did you hit me?"
He said that during the argument, he was grabbed by a security guard. He acknowledged that he was shouting at the other young man, but only because he was angry over being hit in the face. He was released later to his aunt.
The Hispanic youth with the blue rag around his hand had been observed hitting the black youngster by Craig, the security guard.
The security guard said the actions of the young man with the blue rag on his hand were, in his view, "seriously disruptive to the operation of the school and greatly disturbing to the faculty, the students and the surrounding neighborhood."
The Hispanic youth was also released later in the day to his father.
When Phoenix Patrolman John Wals reached the campus at 12:30 p.m., he saw hundreds of students fighting in the central quad area.
He remembers telling one student to leave the area with the other dispersed students. The subject refused and defied the police officer. When police attempted to arrest him, his brother, also a student, jumped on another officer from behind.
After the blacks were separated from the Hispanics, Wals remembers, the Hispanic students began hurling rocks at him. Wals gave chase to two Hispanic students who were throwing rocks from an alley just north of Ninth Street and Roeser. They jumped a couple of fences, but were later apprehended at the corner of Seventh Street and Atlanta. They were taken to the South Mountain police station.
Patrolman Clinton Swick was sent to Jesse Owens Memorial Hospital to take statements from injured students.
Carlos Navarro said that at noon, he was attempting to leave the school when he was attacked from behind by a black male who kicked him. Another black male threw a brick at him as he lay on the ground.
Kristal Navarro said that she was leaving school at 1 p.m. with several friends when she saw a large group fighting. She said that she and her friends were then jumped by a group of black females. One of them, who pushed her to the ground, was wearing a White Sox tee shirt and white shoes with red laces.
Mario Pasqueira told Swick that at 1 p.m., he had been "jumped" in the quad area of the school by seven or eight black males. Pasqueira had already been told by the faculty to go home because of the trouble. He suffered bruises to his hip and back.
David Castillo said that at 1 p.m., he was told to go home by the faculty. While walking through the school, he was attacked by several black males, and one of them hit him in the back of his head. He fell to the ground, and the others began kicking him.
Jermaine Liggins, a 17-year-old black youth, walked home after the riot. On the way, Liggins saw a group of Hispanic males congregated in a park at Fourth Street and Sunland. Liggins said he kept watching the gathering of Hispanics closely, making sure they didn't plan to "jump" him.
So he never noticed the Hispanic youth coming at him from a different direction. Liggins was attacked. He told police the Hispanic youth cut him on the right hand with a razor blade and then fled the scene. The wound was not serious.
Not one of the victims interviewed by Officer Swick at the Jesse Owens facility said he or she could identify his or her assailant.
Phoenix police officer Michael McElroy arrived at the school at 12:30 p.m. and contacted James Simon of the school's security detail.
Simon told Officer McElroy of seeing the initial fights break out in the quad area. He saw a 16-year-old female black student punch a Hispanic female student without provocation. Simon took her into custody.
Returning to the quad, Simon saw a 15-year-old black student punch a Hispanic male student. He was also taken into custody.
Next, Simon saw a 16-year-old Hispanic student walk up to a Channel 3 news photographer who was recording the disturbance and push the camera into his face. Simon spoke to the photographer, who was unhurt and did not wish to prefer charges.
Officer Rusty Stuart arrived at South Mountain at 12:15 p.m. In his report, he recalls seeing the fight break out in the main courtyard.
"The officers from our squad, along with officers from the field, attempted to break up this fight. We began taking rocks, bottles and cans from the crowd. The decision was made that we should retreat to the east end of the building, just east of the courtyard . . . "After enough officers had arrived, we were ordered to form a police line. We were instructed not to let anyone through our line and to move everyone west and north off the campus."
In the course of carrying out this formation, several students who resisted the police line were taken into custody following scuffles.
The disturbance at the South Mountain campus lasted only one day. There has been no trouble between black and Hispanic students reported since October 13.
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