Events of Deadly Relevance

Just eight days ago, on April 25, Craig Malmstrom entered an Arizona State University classroom armed with a semi-automatic 9mm pistol.

When he confronted three blacks who were giving a presentation to the class, Malmstrom had one bullet advanced into the chamber and the safety was off. He carried two clips of ammunition, giving him 31 rapid-firing rounds.

Malmstrom had already startled classmates with virulently bigoted remarks in the aftermath of recent racial unrest at ASU.

Incredibly, not a single word on this potentially deadly stand-off was carried by the Phoenix dailies, which have shown themselves reluctant to publish the continued evidence of widespread racism at ASU. But no one in that classroom will ever forget how close they came to bloodshed.

The lecture by two former members of the Bloods and an ex-member of New York's Shadows--a chapter of the Zulu Nation--was designed to give students in the "Police Functions" class a street-level understanding of black gangs.

As part of the demonstration, a student training to be a cop had frisked one of the Bloods. Following the pat-down, the ex-gang member reached into his pants and produced a small caliber pistol the trainee had missed. After showing that there was no ammunition and that the firing pins were removed, the three ex-gang members--all of whom are studying at ASU--passed around weapons favored by the Bloods and Crips as well as a package of simulated crack. Ten minutes into the lecture, Malmstrom barged out of the class. He returned visibly shaken, with the 9mm automatic partially concealed in his waistband.

Although most of the class saw little more than that something clearly was agitating Malmstrom, a handful of others in the back of the room spotted the 9mm pistol.

"My heart dropped when I saw him put his hand over the gun," said Amy Osborne. "I got up and left the class. I thought I was going to be shot in the back."

The five students who fled the classroom ran to a phone and dialed 911.
Back inside, jaws clenched, cotton balls jammed inside his ears, sweat pouring off his face, Malmstrom demanded that the three blacks produce cleared gun chambers. "Now!"

As the students began looking nervously at each other, the campus police were already arriving outside the room. Both classes on either side of the stand-off were evacuated.

At first the three black men--Michael Simmons, Nick Merkerson, and Randy Jefferson--did not realize the enormity of the threat they faced.

"When I saw him, I thought he was sick, you know, ill," said Merkerson. "He was sweating, he had cotton balls in his ears. But the people at his table were visibly frightened. He said something about checking the guns, and when I started telling him, they were empty, he just yelled, `Now!'

"Then I noticed his weapon. You don't go get a loaded weapon to check out the safety of the class. If you're concerned, you go get a cop, like the other students did. But when I noticed he had his own gun, I thought, `Yo, Mike, let's go home.'"

Mike is Michael Simmons, an injured ASU football player and a former member of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bloods who had organized the presentation. He is also a member of the class.

"He [Malmstrom] looked very, very unstable," said Simmons. "He wanted to see all the weapons, empty. We think he may have been looking for a confrontation, and if we'd confronted him, well . . . with a weapon like that, he could have gone crazy."

The police asked Malmstrom to step out of the classroom and that's when Simmons acted.

"Hey, there's trouble here," said Simmons to Malmstrom. "You've got a lot of people nervous. I'd appreciate it if you'd hand me the gun. Put it in your backpack, then give it to me."

At six feet seven inches and 315 pounds, Simmons' mere presence can be, by turns, reassuring and intimidating. Whatever reaction Malmstrom had to the request--when contacted, he refused to discuss the events--he did turn over the 9mm pistol.

"You could tell the guy had gone psycho," said classmate Kena Contrearas. "He was just waiting for Michael to say the wrong thing."

"Just the look on Malmstrom's face was terrifying," said student Rose Choulet. "His eyes were glazed, he was shaking and out of control. That's when I got scared. I remember his eyes."

A former policeman, Dr. Armand Hernandez, teaches the Justice Studies class.

"Man, he was uptight. He was sweating, his body was rigid. It almost seemed like he was trying to provoke an incident," said Hernandez. "If the blacks had said the wrong thing, we'd have had dead people."

When the police searched the room, they seized the 9mm pistol as well as the two clips. Malmstrom was released after receiving three misdemeanor citations and has since been suspended from the university.

Sitting through the lecture was a fourth black, Darren Viner. It was Viner who'd been the target of Malmstrom's most recent racist remarks.

"He could have wiped a lot of us out," said Viner. "It could have been another McDonald's, like in San Diego, where that gunman killed all those people."

This was the second time in less than two weeks that Viner had faced life-threatening violence at ASU.

On April 14, Viner was one of four blacks surrounded by 500 white students on fraternity row in the wee hours of the morning. As the mob pressed forward, the blacks were spat upon and a police officer on the scene reported hearing shouts of "niggers," "coons" and "porch monkeys." Four Valley police agencies were rushed to ASU to break up the brawl.

The black men's crime that evening was the color of their skin. They were jumped because they'd been mistakenly identified as the ones involved earlier in the evening in a fight at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house. Despite being the victims of a white pack fired up by prejudice and the usual amount of weekend alcohol, the blacks were the ones handcuffed and taken to the police station that night. This "protective custody" is now under investigation by the FBI for possible civil-rights violations.

When the race riot in front of the SAE house was discussed in Viner's "Police Functions" class, Malmstrom told classmate Dean Sparks that, "the fucking niggers deserved it."

The week after the melee on Greek row, the campus was picketed for three days by students who ended their vigil by staging a sit-in at the student union and by issuing a set of demands for racial reform at the school. During that week, Malmstrom told classmates he vigorously supported the behavior of the white fraternity members.

At least one student was not entirely surprised by Malmstrom's remarks. Earlier in the school year, when a black woman had brought her child into the class, Kena Contrearas overheard Malmstrom say disapprovingly, "Black kids are always troublemakers."

On Saturday, April 22, the media carried reports that ASU President J. Russell Nelson had signed a twelve-point plan aimed at improving race relations at America's fifth largest university.

Three days later, Craig Malmstrom entered the "Police Functions" class armed with his semi-automatic 9mm pistol.

"It could have been a Stockton, California," said eyewitness Garrett Gilliam, referring to the schoolyard massacre earlier this year by a madman carrying an AK-47. After sitting through nearly an entire semester of the class with Malmstrom, Gilliam summed up the feelings of many of the students who'd agreed to discuss their brush with tragedy: "He did it because they were black. He did it because they were gang members. He did it because he was a bigot."

None of this warranted a single word in the daily newspapers, on radio broadcasts or by local television stations.

While tension mounts at the Arizona State Legislature over a deadlocked bill to restore the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., events of deadly relevance pass without mention.

The day after the terror in the ASU classroom, Senate President Robert Usdane, a Republican from Scottsdale, is on the phone. Insiders identify Usdane as the key to any hopes that remain for passing the King holiday this year. Two things stand out in the conversation with Usdane: He is unaware of the confrontation between Malmstrom and the blacks; he is adamant that the bill's only chance depends upon King supporters not causing a disturbance.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey