"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) . . . "
For nearly one full week, only the State Press thought a race riot at Arizona's largest university worthy of sustained coverage.