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Thursday, March 6, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Evergreen State College divided after riot

Seattle Times higher education reporter

The Evergreen State College

About:The Evergreen State College is a small, state-funded liberal-arts college. It's unusual in that there are no departments or majors, and students don't get letter grades. Rather, students get individual written evaluations from professors and design their own curricula.

History: Opened in 1971. Located on 1,100 acres of forest near Olympia.

Student and faculty profile: 4,500 students, 93 percent of whom are undergraduates. Twenty percent are students of color, and 78 percent of students are Washington residents. Median student age is 22. There are 158 full-time and 84 part-time faculty.

Popular programs: Visual and performing arts; social sciences; natural resources and conservation

Mascot: The geoduck, a giant, edible clam that can live more than 100 years

Source: The Evergreen State College; Seattle Times archives

OLYMPIA — The Evergreen State College is known across the country as a liberal, politically active campus where students are ready to challenge authority.

But when a riot broke out here three weeks ago in which a police cruiser was overturned and trashed, the mood changed. The campus has found itself divided over who is to blame. Already-strained relationships with police have deteriorated. And Evergreen has found itself with a mark against its name that may be difficult to erase.

On Wednesday, Thurston County sheriff's deputies arrested five suspected rioters on felony charges and were holding them overnight pending a hearing today. Four of them are Evergreen students, including two women who play college soccer and one man who plays baseball. The sheriff's office said it expects at least a dozen people will face felony charges by the time the investigation is complete.

The riot was the first in Evergreen's 37-year history and came as a shock to alumni, students and faculty, many of whom consider the close-knit school a bastion of peace. Students even agree to a "social contract" when they attend, which emphasizes intellectual freedom — as well as civility and respect for others.

The riot

Some Evergreen students have been at odds with Olympia police since last November, when dozens of people were arrested at the Port of Olympia during protests against military shipments to Iraq. Two students and a professor are among four people who are suing Olympia Police for more than $10 million, alleging officers' use of batons, pepper spray and other crowd-control methods amounted to brutality.

What's become known as the Valentine's Day Riot began peacefully enough Feb. 14 with a hip-hop concert in Evergreen's recreation center featuring the group Dead Prez. Organizers say 900 people showed up — about 500 Evergreen students and 400 other fans.

At two minutes past midnight, April Meyers, the lone college police officer on duty, got a call: Organizers had tried to toss out a man for allegedly smoking pot and groping women. But he'd thrown punches and now, half-a-dozen people were fighting.

By the time Meyers arrived, the suspect had left. But another man, who witnesses said also threw punches during the scuffle, remained. Meyers handcuffed him and led him away.

Someone in the crowd told the men on stage.

"Oh yeah? ... Say '[Expletive] the police! [Expletive] the police!' " the hip-hop group told the crowd, which chanted in response. But the group quickly changed its tone, video footage posted on the Internet shows:

"Hold up, hold up, it's not just '[Expletive] 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?"

Some concertgoers remained incensed at the arrest. They followed Meyers out, arguing that the man had simply tried to intervene and was singled out because he was African-American.

As Meyers led the man to her car, the crowd continued chanting and grew increasingly agitated. Meyers tried to reason with students and explain her actions but was soon surrounded by about 200 people. Several deputies from Thurston County arrived to help out, but they, too, soon felt overwhelmed.

Meyers tried, unsuccessfully, to drive away with the suspect. "Within a minute, I could hear my car getting struck," Meyers said. "The windows were getting covered in spit, and glass bottles were bouncing off the windshield."

Meyers, a former Seattle police officer, said she finds it ironic that part of the reason she moved to Evergreen is because she strives for social justice. "I wanted to be in an environment that questions authority and is socially conscious and active," she said. "I was attracted to the very thing that got me in trouble."

Meyers let the suspect go, but it went almost unnoticed by the crowd. By then, officers from the Olympia Police Department were also getting involved.

The Olympia officers moved in with batons and released pepper spray to try to extract the other officers. The situation exploded. Meyers described it as "Lord of the Flies-esque."

The officers retreated under what they describe as a hail of rocks, trash cans and branches that rioters used as spears. One Thurston County deputy couldn't start her car, so she grabbed the weapons inside and left it behind. Perhaps a dozen rioters overturned the car, trashed it and stole a laptop computer, a hand-held breath tester, even a seat. The laptop contained no sensitive data, according to police.

Nobody was seriously hurt during the riot, although at least one officer and several protesters sought medical treatment for minor injuries. Film clips of the riot soon surfaced on the Internet and became central to the sheriff's investigation. Damage to the trashed cruiser and three other police vehicles is estimated at $50,000.

The aftermath

Evergreen has been nursing the hangover since. At a campus forum, a shaken Evergreen President Les Purce told students that the college would pay the costs for the vehicles, and that campus concerts were banned until further notice.

"The range of emotions that I have gone through — from just being flat sad, to disappointed, to angry, to violated — have just swung back and forth," Purce told students. "Because I think about ... the promises that we made to you and your parents about what this place was and what we strive for it to be. And to have that kind of event occur in our house has caused me great pause."

But soon after the president finished talking, Peter Bohmer, a professor of political economy, spoke out with a different message.

"I really urge people here not to cooperate with campus police and administration," he said to raucous cheers and boos. "We need to deal with this among ourselves rather than use a police state, what appears increasingly like a militarized police state that is more and more restrictive."

Bohmer, an MIT graduate who took part in the port protests, said he made the comments because he was worried that students could implicate each other and face felony charges when the matter should be dealt with in-house.

"The police came in swinging. They were the original aggressors," he said.

Since the riot, there have been a number of campus demonstrations and meetings.

"I saw a sign yesterday that said, 'All cops are bad cops,' " sophomore Rebecca Papageorge said last week. "I just disagree with that. I feel like it poorly represents us."

Another student, who didn't want to be named, said he admired the rioters for taking a stand.

"Everybody's been talking about it," said Belinda Man, a freshman and the photo coordinator for the campus paper, the Cooper Point Journal. "People are still venting their emotions."

Some say it's time to think again about having campus police carry weapons on all patrols, the policy since 2003. There are seven patrol officers in the Evergreen force, which is stretched thin covering 24-hour shifts. But others say the riot only reinforces the need for tight campus security.

The healing

Student leaders and administrators hope that continuing forums and discussions will help the campus heal. Trevor Kinahan, a representative of the Geoduck Student Union, said it may be time to review the social contract, reassess police protocols and perhaps set up meetings with Olympia Police and the Olympia community. He said the riot may become a point of discussion in classes. And a student group has formed: Greeners for Truth and Reconciliation.

The man who was arrested at the concert, Kaylen Williams, 24, has been charged with misdemeanor assault. He is not an Evergreen student.

Purce said he will put measures in place "to make sure nothing like this ever happens again."

"We are relatively quiet here in the woods, but we ended up with a wake-up call," Purce said. "Sometimes, events come together in ways that no one expects."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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