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.

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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.’ ”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”