REVISITING THE CONTROVERSIAL STORY
Part Three in a Three-Part Series
BY JOSH WOLF
Six years ago last Valentine’s Day, an estimated 200 students surrounded Evergreen Police Services Officer April Meyers, after she arrested black breakdancer Kaylen Williams. The students blocked Meyers’ car in solidarity with Williams, who was handcuffed in the backseat, as Meyers attempted to drive back to Police Services from Evergreen’s College Recreation Center, where revolutionary hip hop group dead prez had just played. The students considered Williams’ arrest an unjust case of racial profiling, and demanded his release.
Trapped, Meyers called in for officer assistance, and the Olympia Police Department, Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, Tumwater Police Department, Lacey Police Department, and the Washington State Patrol mobilized to answer her priority assistance call.Seeing Meyers surrounded, the Olympia Police Department 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. 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, causing $51,685.50 worth of damage.In the aftermath of the riot, Thurston County Sheriff’s Department coordinated an investigation of students involved in the riot, and charged six students with crimes, that resulted in the payment of $45,000 in restitution.
Additionally, Evergreen placed a moratorium on concerts, which led to the suspension of Evergreen’s Students For A Democratic Society (SDS), and the occupation of former Vice President of Student Affairs Art Costantino’s office.
Suffice to say, the dead prez riot was one of the most tumultuous events in Evergreen’s history. But why is the dead prez riot important today? What can students and activists learn from the riot? And most importantly, how can we build student movements, challenge power, and fight for a better life?
In the wake of the riot, sudents were fearful of the police investigation of students, as well as the Evergreen administration’s willingness to cooperate. “There was definitely a climate of fear on campus, about how the administration would respond with arrests… The administration created what we at SDS called a Moratorium on Free Speech. They really put a muzzle on student events,” said Evergreen alum and Olympia SDS co-founder Brendan Maslauskas Dunn. The moratorium of student events was eventually lifted.
In response to the riot, Evergreen decided to implement the Risk Assessment and Review Team into the event planning process at Student Activities. “RART includes the Dean of Students, the Department of Health and Safety Officer, the Directors of Business Services, Police Services, and Student Activities, and a student representative, in order to review any big event at the college,” said Director of Student Activities Tom Mercado.
According to Mercado, RART is working well, and has never denied an event. “Students go away with more guidance and support in their event. They can feel assured that the college is in support of the event,” said Mercado. He emphasized that Student Activities wants to help students produce events at Evergreen. “If there are students out there who aren’t coming [to Student Activities] because they feel that we shut down events, that’s not true. We’re putting on events, and we want to continue, because it’s a part of college life.”
On February 19, five days after the riot, Mutulu Olugbala of dead prez spoke at Evergreen’s longhouse. Olugbala began by contextualizing the riot: “We have to be clear. This system that we are living in, in America, is profoundly called capitalism. This particular system was created, knowing that they had to do certain things to keep it in check.” One of the methods of instituting “population control,” (which is that which keeps hungry people from stealing bread, according to Olugbala) is the police.[pullquote_right]“Regardless of how misguided, there is a spirit of solidarity, of mutual aid, of genuine human compassion. The riot was when people acted on that solidarity.”
– Jonathan Steiner[/pullquote_right]
After establishing his viewpoint, as an activist who recognizes the dangers of capitalism, Olugbala offered his perspective on the riot at Evergreen. “I saw some courageous people, who – I was convinced at the time – saw injustice,” he said. Throughout his talk, Olugbala commended the intentions of the rioters, but he also provided a supportive critique.
“As we got back to our hotel room [the night of the riot] and started to summarize the situation, we asked: did we get justice?” said Olugbala. The main point of his talk pointed out the difference between uprisings and rebellions. “An uprising happens spontaneously, from a reactionary understanding. A rebellion is planned with specific goals. Rebellion is strategic. You got to know that…We need to be calculated. Revolution is an art and science, which we have to perfect,” he said.
“If you’re not being a political animal, a social scientist, if you’re thinking with emotion at all, get away from me and my army, because we are ready to put a rational, calculated point of view into movement,” said Olugbala. Olugbala avoided criticism of the riot, while promoting a refocusing of activism and rebellion.
He also used class struggle as the focal point of activism. “Our objective has to be to raise the working class interests,” said Olugbala.Though there were many critics of the dead prez riot, there was also a recognition that that night displayed a desire for students to oppose power, and stand in solidarity against oppression. Evergreen alum Jonathan Steiner, who was injured by police at the concert, commended the students’ actions. “Once the cops started attacking people, [the crowd] said ‘enough is enough.’ They wouldn’t stand for it anymore. They wouldn’t take it. It’s a tremendous showing of self-respect. The people that night decided not to be victimized, not to be brutalized. You can only march on people for so long, until they not only stand up, but they push back,” said Steiner.
The dead prez riot was a reactionary response, as opposed to a strategic rebellion, but it showed the students’ desire to take action, and stand against injustice. “Regardless of how misguided, there is a spirit of solidarity, of mutual aid, of genuine human compassion. The riot was when people acted on that solidarity,” said Steiner.