Posted February 12, 2014 by Felix Chrome in Features
 
 

The Dead Prez Riot

Several people flipped over a police car outside a dead prez show on Feb. 14, 2008. Photo courtesy of Rozell Townsend

Several people flipped over a police car outside a dead prez show on Feb. 14, 2008. Photo courtesy of Rozell Townsend

Revisiting the Controversial Story

Part One in a Three-Part Series

BY JOSH WOLF

Six years ago this Valentine’s Day, an estimated 200 students surrounded Evergreen Police Services Officer April Meyers. Meyers had just arrested black breakdancer Kaylen Williams, who was watching the crowd gather from the back of Meyers’ patrol car. “Let him go!” the crowd chanted. As Meyers attempted to drive back to Police Services from Evergreen’s College Recreation Center (CRC), the students blocked her car in solidarity with the handcuffed suspect in the backseat. As Meyers called in for officer assistance, the Olympia Police Department, Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, Tumwater Police Department, Lacey Police Department, and the Washington State Patrol mobilized to answer the priority assistance request. After seeing Meyers surrounded, the Olympia Police Department wasted no time and fought their way through the crowd using batons, metal flashlights, and pepper spray. Immediately, the students became enraged. According to Meyers, “a hailstorm of objects” descended upon the car and the assisting officers. The police retreated, and were forced to abandon a Sheriff’s squad car.

Immediately, the students became enraged. According to Meyers, “a hailstorm of objects” descended upon the car and the assisting officers. The police retreated, and were forced to abandon a Sheriff’s squad car. The crowd took control of the area and destroyed the car, smashing the windows and flipping it on its back. The result—$51,685.50 worth of damage; a shocked and confused campus community; a suspect student body; the retribution of law and order; suspended campus concerts; allegations against hip hop: the dead prez reaction.

The dead prez riot has become commonly associated with The Evergreen State College. Yet, despite the number of students and police officers at the event, eyewitness reports are numerous and conflicting. Did Officer Meyers racially profile Kaylen Williams? Was dead prez to blame for inciting the riot? Did the police use excessive force? How did faculty and administration react to the riot and police investigation into students? Over the past six years, these questions have become obscured through rumor and hearsay. This is our investigation to review the causes and effects of the dead prez riot, and to illuminate new information that had yet to be collected.

Hip Hop to Blame? 

People gather around as others flip over a police car at a dead prez hip-hop show on Feb. 14, 2008. Photo by Rozell Townsend

People gather around as others flip over a police car at a dead prez hip-hop show on Feb. 14, 2008. Photo courtesy of Rozell Townsend

In 2007, Evergreen student Noah Theeman-Lindberg founded Evergreen’s Chapter of The Hip Hop Congress. By the time of the dead prez show, the chapter had over 200 email constituents and about a dozen people who regularly attended their meetings. The Hip Hop Congress has over 1,000 members in over 30 chapters nationally, and works to provide the hip hop community “with the tools, resources, and opportunities to make social, economic, and political change on a local, regional, and national level,” according to the organization’s mission statement. It’s about “using hip hop as education,” said Mariel Cutler, who graduated from Evergreen in 2011 and was the backstage manager at the dead prez concert. Evergreen’s Hip Hop Congress was the main sponsor of the event, and coordinated everything involved in putting on the $12,000 concert. The dead prez concert was their “jump off show,” said Theeman-Lindberg. “This was how we wanted to let the community know that we are here, that we’re serious, and come join us.”

The show itself went smoothly and was planned with the help of Student Activities, according to Tom Mercado, director of Student Activities. The concert was open to the public, and an estimated 800 people attended. In his review, former writer for “The Cooper Point Journal” Riley Fishburn described the concert as a “flawless performance…The show was dope as hell,” wrote Fishburn. “I had high expectations going in, and they were exceeded.”
Later in the review, Fishburn wrote: “To call dead prez a socially conscious hip-hop act is to understate the group’s dedication to revolution, as well as their struggle against government oppression, racism, sexism, and the overarching apathy and ignorance of 21st century hip hop.”

Although the concert was a great success filled with “unity within hip hop,” said Theeman-Lindberg, The Hip Hop Congress felt that they were being attacked for their culture and politics in the aftermath of the riot and the overturned cop car. Many voices were blaming hip hop culture for the rioters’ actions, and cited dead prez’s radical politics as evidence. Hip hop magazine “XXL” reported that dead prez began playing their song, “Fuck The Police,” as the suspect was being arrested, which made the crowd “more aggressive.” Although dead prez did perform their staunchly anti-police tune, the “XXL” report (published the day after the concert) contributed to the perception that dead prez instigated a riot — a claim for which there is no concrete evidence. Still, it can be argued that dead prez did encourage the crowd to hold the police accountable.

“The Seattle Times” reported that as the crowd was singing along with the anti-police song, someone on stage with dead prez addressed the crowd, urging people to go further than simply condemning police: “Hold up, hold up, it’s not just ‘fuck the police.’ That’s great. But now you’ve got to organize behind this here. Make sure you find out that man’s name and after we organize and have some justice, right?” This was the extent of dead prez’s involvement in the riot.

Amidst the sensationalist reporting and confusion, Executive Director of Hip Hop Congress Shamako Noble flew to Olympia to support the Evergreen chapter. He said that he came in “defense of artists and cultural communities. I came out to defend the community that I am a part of…When we were done, they weren’t blaming hip hop any more.” The Hip Hop Congress produced a short documentary on the riot titled “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Truth Behind The Evergreen Uprising.” Julie Chang Schulman, Northwest regional director for The Hip Hop Congress presented the video by saying, “We offer the results of our inquiry not only as community media producers and advocates of hip hop culture, but also as supporters of the movement towards universal restorative justice and proactive restitution.”

Racial Profiling?

The controversial arrest of Kaylen Williams was the spark to start the riot. Williams, a black breakdancer from Seattle, was invited to the concert by The Hip Hop Congress to perform with other breakdancers before the show. The dancing never took place, because the CRC staff laid out a tarp to protect the floor. Williams declined to comment for this article, and the principal eyewitness accounts of his arrest conflict. Although it is impossible to be certain of what happened, understanding different peoples’ perspectives can at least help explain their actions.

Rozell Townsend, co-coordinator of Evergreen’s Hip Hop Congress during the concert, said that there were about 25 “event staff volunteers,” who were asked to help manage the crowd, but their responsibilities as security weren’t clearly defined. Townsend said that the role of event staff “was not as clear as it should have been.” Additionally, it was difficult to distinguish the volunteers from casual concert-goers. This became a problem when one of the volunteers approached a man who was smoking marijuana in the crowd.

According to an anonymous eyewitness account gathered by Professor Tony Zaragoza and published in “Works In Progress” (the witness did not want to be identified due to a police investigation into the riot at the time), a small fight broke out in the crowd after an event staff volunteer (neither a student nor a member of The Hip Hop Congress) aggressively approached someone who was smoking marijuana. A few minutes later, the same people, including the volunteer, were involved in a six-on-one fight outside of the CRC. The eyewitness recalled that “the security volunteers were extremely proud of the way they handled the situation.”

The eyewitness wrote that the volunteer said, “This is my job, this is what I do and I love it!” According to the eyewitness account, Williams and the anonymous eyewitness helped break up the fight and did not take part in the altercation. In a police interview with Williams conducted by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, Williams confirmed this and said that he tried to break up the fight. Eventually, all charges were dropped against Williams. Officer Meyers, who arrested Williams, has a different perspective.

According to the Police Services Community Review Board (PSCRB), an “advisory committee composed of students, staff, and faculty members, whose mission is to review complaints regarding the work of Police Services,” Meyers was dispatched to a “fight in progress outside the CRC,” just after midnight during dead prez’s set. She was told that a confrontation arose after “event staff security members were struggling to eject the suspect from the venue.” After about an hour of investigating, during which Meyers collected statements and information from witnesses, she was told that there was only one person who was involved in the fight who was still at the concert. “Everyone else had run off,” said Meyers, making Williams the only available arrest. Meyers said she spoke with a “victim who was a student employed as security,” and that he pointed out Williams as the suspect. Meyers said she gathered “probable cause to arrest the suspect,” and she handcuffed Williams in the crowd.

As Meyers took Williams out of the concert, a group of about 12 people followed her out of the CRC, demanding an explanation for Williams’ arrest. Some of them told Meyers that she was making a “bad arrest,” while others were accusing her of racial profiling. Evergreen graduate Jonathan Steiner was one of the concertgoers who was extremely concerned with Meyers’ actions. “It was basically the consensus that Kaylen [Williams] tried to break up the fight,” said Steiner. “People were asking why she didn’t arrest anyone else. She said that anyone with statements could file them later with police, but to us, it seemed like Kaylen wasn’t going to get fair treatment.” The group began to grow around Meyers’ patrol car as more people confronted her about the arrest. “I told people that if this is a bad arrest, then you need to tell me,” said Meyers, but because Williams was handcuffed in the back of Meyers’ car, she couldn’t take statements from witnesses. “My intention was to make the arrest and bring [Williams] back to the police station, so he could tell me his side of what happened,” said Meyers. The PSCRB said that Meyers “offered to take contact information” of witnesses in order to gather additional statements later on by phone, but the crowd responded with “obscenities,” and “derision.” “I was empathetic to them, because I absolutely understood where they were coming from,” said Meyers, “but I thought that when I explained to them what had happened, that they would understand, but I was completely wrong.” Meyers called for “administrative assistance,” so that additional statements could be taken from witnesses. After two Sheriff’s Deputies arrived to take statements, Meyers began to drive off, but the crowd moved to block her path and surrounded her car. At that point, there were about 75 people demanding Williams’ release.

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So, why was William’s arrest considered unjust? Because Williams, a black man in a predominantly white crowd, was the only one who was arrested, and although Meyers had probable cause to arrest Williams, many people in the crowd asserted his innocence. The event staff volunteer who accused Williams and pointed him out to Meyers was allegedly an aggressor himself, according to Zaragoza’s anonymous eyewitness. Additionally, dead prez’ anti-oppression and pro-justice message almost certainly had some influence over the crowd. All of these elements contributed to the crowd’s belief that Williams’ arrest was an unjust case of racial profiling.

Whether or not Williams’ arrest actually was a case of racial profiling is still debated. The PSCRB concluded that “Officer Meyers made an arrest based on probable cause, not on racial profiling.” And Meyers has always denied that her decision to arrest Williams had anything to do with race. When I asked Meyers for her opinion of the riot, she said, “I think the whole thing was an extreme exercise in irony, because I am a person who has gone out of their way for race justice. I wore anti-racist t-shirts in college. I quit a job based on a racist remark by an employer. I am so of the same mindset that racism is alive in our society. It’s even alive in law enforcement to a degree. I thought Evergreen would be kind of utopian: here is a police officer who totally believes in justice and equality. But, I was wrong about that.”

The dead prez riot is widely considered to have been a racially-motivated event by many people in the Evergreen and Olympia community. Olympia’s Students For A Democratic Society released a statement saying that they “condemn the racist arrest,” and in doing research for this article, I heard many people say that Williams was racially profiled. But why is it remembered as a racist arrest? The answer is undoubtedly complex. Did people make judgements before knowing the facts? Is it because a justified arrest would invalidate the entire riot, violence, investigation, moratorium of concerts, and prosecution of crimes that followed? The Olympia and Evergreen community considered William’s arrest an unjust act of racial profiling, in order to justify and explain the entire dead prez riot.

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In Part 2 (Available 2-27-2014): An analysis of Evergreen’s investigation, faculty opinions, police brutality, criminal investigations, and activist views.

Part 2 HERE