The Phoenix Press: Race Riot? What Race Riot?
"They were being called niggers and coons, sure, but it wasn't racial. It was just the basic tension of the fight. Just like if they were from Poland, you'd call them Polacks." Nineteen-year-old Sean Hedgecock, accused by critics of starting a race riot at Arizona State University, sat in his rumpled room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) house and explained how it all happened. "I've gotten threats since the fight. The house has gotten threats. We've heard that gangs, the Crips, are going to come down here and burn the house down," said Hedgecock.
The "basic tension of the fight" as well as the "racism" on the evening of April 14 erupted when 500 people, according to police estimates, surrounded four blacks on the streets of fraternity row at ASU.
The four black students leaving a fraternity party around 1 a.m. were encircled by an angry, drunk, white mob that spit on them and called them monkeys. The four black men had not done anything to provoke a confrontation. The white rowdies mistook them for other blacks who'd been involved in a fight with Hedgecock earlier in the evening. It was a clear case of mistaken identity and a worse case of "all blacks look alike."
When the racial taunts erupted into fistfights, campus police officers on the scene radioed for back-up. It took deputies from the sheriff's office as well as patrolmen from the Tempe and Guadalupe police departments to help the campus cops restore order.
As they attempted to break up the fights, police officers maced the crowd.
Two of the black students, mace in their eyes, were then handcuffed and taken in the back of a squad car to the campus police station in "protective custody."
A spokesman for the university police department said it is policy that when you are taken downtown, you are taken cuffed. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Observers were skeptical of a policy that handcuffs the victims.
Acting ASU Police Chief Doug Bartosh told New Times the handcuffing is under investigation.
"One of the suspects was advised he was under arrest. They were involved in the fight. They were fighting," said Chief Bartosh.
Once they got to the station, Chief Bartosh said they reviewed what happened and agreed it was a "mutual combat situation" and no charges were filed. At police headquarters, the two blacks were shackled to the furniture, still in "protective custody."
"Yeah, that's the procedure," admitted Chief Bartosh. "We don't have an interview room. When they complained the cuffs were too tight, we uncuffed one hand and cuffed the other to a chair." And for nearly one week the Phoenix print media ignored all of the racial hostility at Arizona's biggest university.
Although contacted three times by the State Press, the award-winning student newspaper at ASU, the Associated Press refused to run the story.
When contacted by New Times, the Associated Press refused comment.
The state's largest daily, the Arizona Republic, carried a page-two article about the brawl and the arrests, but there was no mention at all of the racial undercurrents.
The negligence of the press was encouraged by Chief Bartosh, who took the position that the fraternity-row riot was not racial.
"All they were trying to do was piss each other off," the police chief told the State Press. "I think if they [the blacks] were white guys, the same thing would have happened."
The police report of the first officer on the scene the evening of April 14, however, contradicts the chief's optimistic assessment of the situation.
In part, Officer James Klosterman wrote " . . . Hedgecock was shirtless. As I neared the group, I heard Hedgecock say, `Those are the niggers--those are the ones in the truck.' [Editor's note: There had been two altercations earlier in the evening that pitted Hedgecock against a different group of blacks as well as another white.]
"I got between the white crowd and two black males, later identified as Robert Rucker and James Liddell, both ASU students," continued the police report. "Another white male who was standing on the lawn of 706 Alpha was also chanting racial slurs. He had on a white shirt and was medium-sized. He was yelling niggers and fucking coons. I continued to encourage the black males to leave since more and more people (white) were beginning to gather. I could hear others yelling racial slurs (niggers), but was unable to identify who they were. They were within the immediate area. The crowd now was beginning to surround us (four blacks and myself) . . . "
Finally, student protests that demanded an investigation of the campus police and racial reforms at the university in the wake of the melee sparked coverage in the morning paper. But even this short article was buried on page D-13 next to the help-wanted ads in Thursday's classified section.
It was not until hundreds of students marched at Arizona State and then blocked the entrance to the Memorial Union that the Phoenix dailies discovered a front-page story.
In this atmosphere of newspaper neglect, it is not shocking that a legislative bill to create a statewide Martin Luther King holiday languishes on Senator Wayne Stump's desk.
And perhaps, in this spirit of neglect, it is not shocking that Senate Majority leader Robert Usdane can tell a visitor that a bill to create a Martin Luther King holiday is not all that important when you consider the big picture.
Race riots at ASU are not part of the big picture.
But before you can see this issue through the eyes of Senator Usdane, you must return to the SAE house where brother Hedgecock has a story to tell.
"I was outside the house playing with my dog," said Hedgecock. "I was just being mellow. These two girls came up. I didn't even know them. Then this jeepload of guys drove up. One of them was white."
It was about 9:30 to 10 p.m. on Friday night by Hedgecock's estimation.
The men in the jeep made remarks to the women, but when they didn't get a response, they started to drive off. They only went a few feet before braking.
"The guy yells `I don't believe you flipped me off, motherfucker, did you?'" remembered Hedgecock.
When Hedgecock responded, in kind, the guys in the jeep piled out.
"The white guy cold-cocked me" said Hedgecock.
The blacks in the group attacked Hedgecock with short lengths of pipe as the women ran into the SAE house for help.
When reinforcements came to Hedgecock's rescue, they, too, were attacked with pipes. The intruders were finally driven off and they departed in the jeep.
"They came back about a half hour later and were throwing rocks at the house," said Hedgecock. "One of them pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Jim Shait."
Although Shait was out of town and unavailable to comment, there is further confirmation of the use of a gun during the second confrontation.
"I don't want them coming after me, so keep my name out of this," said a second member of SAE. "I was twelve to fifteen feet away when I saw a black male standing there holding a pistol, a snub-nosed revolver. I ran back in the house as quick as I could and called 911."
By the time the police responded, the members of SAE had chased off the intruders a second time, following in their own cars and ramming bumpers at a stoplight before losing them.
Of the two women on the lawn with Sean Hedgecock and his puppy, one refused comment. The second would not allow her name to be used though she agreed to talk.
"The guys in the jeep were trying to talk to us but they weren't very polite. They were swearing. We just said, like, `no, thank you.'
"I didn't even know Sean's name until after the fight," said the freshman.
The co-ed confirmed that the white guy in the jeep threw the first punch.
After the initial fight, the young woman was inside the SAE house when the assailants returned.
"They were whipping rocks at the house," she said. "When I looked outside, someone was holding a gun up."
Following the second assault, things settled down on fraternity row until a little after one in the morning. The Friday night parties at the Greek houses were winding down and people were hitting the streets.
Darren Viner and his roommate Rico Walker got in one truck while James Liddell and Robert Rucker got into a second. All four blacks were leaving a party at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house.
After the events of the evening, the mere presence of four black men on fraternity row was apparently enough to trigger a confrontation. Never mind that they were not involved in any of the earlier disturbances.
"This guy started yelling, telling me to get the fuck out of there, that I didn't belong there," said Viner, a twenty-year-old junior. "Nigger, you don't belong here."
At that point, police officers from four different agencies began arriving as the racial taunts escalated and hundreds of onlookers watched various Greeks, not just SAEs, brawl with the four black men.
"I really believe the police department ought to discipline the officers involved that night," said Viner. "If that was protective custody, I'd hate to see an arrest. It's always the black people who get treated like that."
Rucker's handcuffs were so tight that he was in pain as he sat in the back of the squad car. As he shifted positions, he remembered an officer warning him that if he moved again, the cuffs would be tightened until tears came to his eyes.
"We were, by far, outnumbered," said Viner. "I was in disbelief. We didn't have any knowledge of the previous incidents. We didn't know what was going on. It really opened my eyes up to the bigotry and racism."
Hedgecock saw it differently.
"It wasn't racism. They'd just come from a party. Fighting after parties happens all the time. I heard people yelling out on the street so I walked out. People were saying, `Aren't those the dudes?'"
"The worst thing you could say was that bad language was used. But racism, that's just a joke. There was yelling back and forth. White boy this, nigger that. But it was as far away from racism as possible.
"Of course they yell racism. If I see it from their eyes, the only way they can get out of being arrested is to say it was racism."
On Friday, April 21, a newly formed coalition called Students Against Racism marched at ASU. It was exactly one week after the brawl. This was the third day in a row that the group had rallied. The freshman co-ed who had witnessed the very first assault on Sean Hedgecock a week earlier watched the protesters in wonder.
"How can they say it was racism?" she asked. "This whole thing started when one white guy hit another white guy."
The night before, representatives of the minority rights coalition and black leaders met with ASU President J. Russell Nelson and presented a list of demands. One of the reforms sought is a mandatory anti-racism program to be given to all fraternity members regardless of ethnic background so that they might begin to grasp the finer points of prejudice. (This is similar to courses on some campuses where fraternity men undergo training to learn precisely what rape is.)
Nick Merkerson, a sophomore, also watched the march. He is a member of the black fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma.
Merkerson was not shocked by the racial nature of the fraternity-row brawl.
"When people find out I'm a student, their first question is, `Do you play football, do you run track? They never ask what my major is. I'm not an athlete. They just think I must be because I'm black. This place is ridiculous."
Merkerson said that there is little, if any, mixing between black and white Greeks.
"Lots of those things the white houses are into aren't things we do. We don't have large amounts of alcohol at our parties. Volleyball, sun 'n' fun, get a tan, that's not for us."
Because of lack of mutual understanding, it took some three years for the Phi Beta Sigma house to be admitted to the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) at Arizona State. Three days after the brawl in front of the SAE house, the black fraternity was finally voted into the IFC. The victory was tempered by the aftermath of the melee.
Members of the black fraternity from ten western states were holding their regional conference in the Valley as the demonstrators marched at ASU.
Many national conventions canceled their bookings into Phoenix to protest when then-Governor Evan Mecham's rescinded the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Ironically, the local president of Phi Beta Sigma, Warren Brown, had persuaded his black brothers to book their regional conference into the Valley.
"After Mecham was impeached," said Brown, "I argued that it was unfair to penalize all of Arizona for one man's actions."
So 123 black fraternity members from ten western states came to Phoenix. And four black students were surrounded by hundreds of white fraternity boys screaming for blood. The newspapers all ran articles about how Evan Mecham was once again running for the governor's chair. Only this time, Ev Mecham's attorney is Phoenix's Donald MacPhearson who also represents Martin Luther King's assassin James Earl Ray.
Chief Bartosh said there have been eleven arrests from the weekend's disturbance and numerous citations. His department is under investigation and the university president signed an agreement with the demonstrators to institute racial reforms at ASU.
And down at the statehouse, Republican senators still refuse to pass a bill that would honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a paid holiday.
Martin Luther King? Martin Luther King? What's all this Martin Luther King business? C'mere. Let me tell you what's important down here at the Senate.
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.
- The Time Jared from Subway Hit On Me
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 13, 1:05pm
Mon., Sep. 14, 6:40pm
- Ecologist Dies on Rugged Grand Canyon Trail After Falling in Gully
- Arizona's Measles Vaccination Rate Worst in Nation, CDC Says