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Students who were present during what Jonesboro police have called a riot at that city's The Grove apartment complex on election night Nov. 4 say the event was a peaceful celebration until cops arrived, and insist that accounts of rock and bottle throwing and an assault on an officer are false or overblown.
Meanwhile, an attorney for two of the eight black men arrested that night says the case could turn into a national embarrassment for Jonesboro if the city follows through with felony charges against the young men.
About 11:45 p.m. Nov. 4, after the presidential election was called in favor of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, police were dispatched to The Grove apartments in response to several calls to 911, including one in which a male caller said there were “200 black people” screaming outside, and he feared for his life.
Though the students had been told they could continue their celebrations until 12:30 a.m. by an off-duty police officer working security at the apartments, on-duty officers soon arrived and began trying to disperse the crowd. According to an incident summary from the Jonesboro Police Department, the voices of the officers on the radio soon “change to that of desperation as their requests change to ‘get us some help up here.' ”
In response, all city patrol officers were dispatched to The Grove, including K-9 and SWAT units. Soon after, according to the same report, an officer's “emergency button” was triggered, and radio calls for help went out saying that objects were being thrown. A county-wide call for assistance was sent, and officers from the Craighead County sheriff's office, State Police, and the Brookland, Bay, Bono, Lake City and Arkansas State University campus police departments converged on the apartments.
Before the incident was through, police had arrested eight young men at the scene: Clifford Crisswell, Jeffery Boyd, Seneca Hart, Kevin Jones, Jonathon Burns, Kiano Prater, Leroy Trahan and Donte Jones. Seven of the men were charged with the felony of inciting a riot, and Burns was charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Jeffery Boyd was charged with second degree battery on an officer for what police reports say was a violent attack in which he pinned Jonesboro officer Jo Carter down on the ground and punched her repeatedly in the face, resulting in a broken nose, black eye and busted lip.
The Arkansas Times has spoken to several students who were there that night — including one of those arrested — and they offer accounts that differ from those of the police. Alexandra Ingram is a senior at ASU who was in the crowd that night. She said that until police arrived, the event was just like thousands of other celebrations that night across America – in this case, a television watch party in a local apartment that spilled out in front of Building 5 when news of Obama's victory was announced.
“We were all having fun,” Ingram said. “We were all dancing, hugging, taking pictures. It was nothing of a violent attitude toward anyone. We were hugging people we didn't even know. We were just celebrating.” Ingram said that at most there were 60 to 70 people in the crowd, and that they had checked with off-duty Jonesboro police officer William Brumfield, who was working security at the apartments that night, to make sure the celebration was okay. Photographs taken by students and aired on Jonesboro TV stations show Brumfield smiling, surrounded by the crowd at The Grove. Though Ingram said Brumfield treated the crowd cordially and respectfully, when other officers began arriving, it seemed as if the decision was taken out of Brumfield's hands. Ingram said the new officers on the scene approached the crowd very aggressively.
“It was handled in a way that it shouldn't have been,” Ingram said. “They were very forceful when they came to us. They were very demanding and using curse words and pushing. It was a night from hell.” Ingram said that she never saw Jeffery Boyd or anyone else assault an officer, and disputes the claim that the crowd threw rocks or bottles at police on the scene. “There was nothing like that happened,” she said. “There were no rocks and bottles thrown. This was at an apartment complex. It's grass out there. There's no rocks out there anywhere.”
Chelsea Adams, a senior psychology major at ASU who lives at The Grove, also said that she never saw bottles or rocks thrown at officers. She believes that politics played a large part in the events of that night. “A lot of people here [in Jonesboro] have made it clear that they were very angry that Obama won,” she said. “And I think that part of what happened to us that night was that a lot of people were mad that a black man is now president. We were there, and we were the ones they could take it out on.”
Adams said the crowd was peaceful until the large force of officers arrived, including an instance in which they complied with Officer Brumfield's request to turn off a car stereo because of resident complaints. Soon after officers arrived en masse, Adams said, cops began arresting students out of the crowd seemingly at random. Adams said she never saw Jeffery Boyd pin the female officer to the ground and repeatedly punch her, though she said she did see Boyd on the ground surrounded by up to 10 officers who were punching and kicking him. Since then, she said, she has watched a video of the event taken by one of those in the crowd, and says it shows the female officer calmly walking away as Boyd is being beaten.
“She just walks off like nothing is wrong,” Adams said. “I'm sure that if somebody pounded you in your face or pinned you down to the ground, you wouldn't be able to just jump up like nothing is wrong with you and walk off.” Jeffery Boyd refused to talk about the incident, citing the advice of his attorney.
Jonathon Burns was one of the last suspects arrested that night. A 19-year-old sophomore at ASU, Burns is listed in one officer's incident report as someone who “played a large part in the disruptive behavior of the crowd,” and who had shouted obscenities at the police. Like Adams, Burns said that officers seemed to make random arrests that night. Burns said that he and a friend were making their way to an apartment to get inside when they saw a man getting handcuffed. “His cousin came out, talking about, ‘What'd he do? What'd he do?' ” Burns said. “About five minutes later, another cop ran up and pointed at me and said, ‘He started everything. Get him too.' I'm looking around to see who he's talking to, and one of my friends said, ‘Burns, be quiet.' I looked at my chest, and there were some lasers on my shirt from their tasers, so I just put my hands behind my back.”
Jimmy C. Morris, Jr. is a Little Rock attorney who is representing Burns and Clifford Crisswell. Morris said that Burns has been kicked off the ASU football team due to his arrest. “We're talking about B-plus, A-plus students, charged with felonies,” Morris said. “One of my clients, Mr. Burns, doesn't have so much as a parking ticket. Never been in trouble, but now he's charged with a felony.”
Morris finds it troubling that one moment a Jonesboro police officer was celebrating with students, and only moments later the gathering was termed a riot. While stopping short of calling the incident racially motivated, he said he believes the calls to 911 and at least some of the reactions by officers on the scene were due in part to McCain's loss in the presidential election. “The blowback or punishment is on these students for celebrating something that the greater Jonesboro area was not happy with,” he said.
Morris said that he has already had inquires about the case from reporters from national news outlets. He said that if Jonesboro pursues “this line of injustice” and prosecutes those arrested, he fears it may become a national embarrassment for Arkansas and the town. He goes so far as to invoke the name of Jena, a small Louisiana town that was engulfed in a media firestorm in 2007 after six black students were arrested for assault following an incident in which nooses were hung in a tree outside the local high school.
“I'm hoping that cooler heads prevail,” Morris said. “I'm hoping that it doesn't become a black eye for Jonesboro, but if they go down this road and prosecute these eight young men, I can see another Jena coming.”
Capt. Lynn Waterworth, spokesperson for the Jonesboro Police Department, said the department is investigating the event. So far, she said, everything that investigators have found supports what officers on the scene are saying, “but without the investigation completed, I think it's safe to say that everyone has their own version of events, and we are making sure that a thorough investigation is being conducted so we'll know one way or another.”
Waterworth said that the dispatch center received eight or nine calls from residents at The Grove that night, and the tapes of those calls differ from what those in the crowd have been telling the media in recent weeks. Asked if dispatchers took into account that some of the callers might have been disgruntled over the loss by McCain and seeking to cause problems for Obama supporters, Waterworth said police can't make that kind of judgment about a 911 call.
“If someone calls and says their cat's up a tree, [or] if someone calls and says Martians have landed in their back yard, we don't distinguish on a call for service,” she said. “If you start getting into that where you're trying to make a determination when someone calls — is this a legitimate call or not? — you run into judgments at the end of a telephone that you don't need to be making. We still have to go.”
Waterworth said she's confident the investigation will vindicate the department, which will make some who were there unhappy. “They turned this into something worse, and made a big deal out of nothing,” said Alexandra Ingram. “It's all about the way they came at us. If they had said, ‘The celebration is over, guys. You're going to have to go inside,' that would have been fine. But they jumped out on us and made this scene way bigger than it was.”