Bob Bytes Back Archive: 6/05/1996 Copwatch

by Bob Fitrakis

Put a hundred of “Columbus’ finest” in riot gear and you can count on a riot–usually a police riot.

The police tactics on Friday, May 17 are simply the last in a long series of police-instigated rioting and misconduct in the campus area. Last Friday, May 31, I spoke with a dozen students and a lizard exercising their First Amendment rights on the northwest corner of 12th and High. Their demonstration posed a simple question: “Is South Campus a student neighborhood or a penal colony!?”

Neither. It’s condemned and occupied territory, thanks, in part, to the hysteria whipped up by Campus Partners. All that “neighborhood in decay” rhetoric has been taken to heart by the Columbus Police Department.

Tom Vigarino, one of the first arrested on May 17, reports that he was “tackled from behind by a couple undercover cops” that he never saw and who have failed to identify themselves as officers. As they beat him, he recalls one of them warning, “Motherfucker, don’t ever come back to 12th again!” Vigarino, who lives two blocks away on 10th, wonders why he can’t walk the streets in his neighborhood. He is charged with “rioting” for allegedly throwing a bottle at the police, a charge he and various witnesses vehemently deny.

Other witnesses report that police officers purposely shoved Shomas Jones, a third-year criminal law major, over a chain-enclosed planter. Jones was attempting to videotape police activity, and as he lay defenseless on the pavement he was repeatedly Maced and his camera smashed. When police returned his tape, the video had been erased. Another triumph for the Columbus police’s interpretation of the First Amendment.

The police then beat, Maced and arrested Chris Wisniewski, a fourth-year journalism student, for complaining about Jones’ treatment. “I was knocked flat on my ass from behind. We were in back of the police by High Street watching what they were doing on 12th, away from the action, and they just turned on us because Shomas had a camera,” recalls Wisniewski.

Wisniewski says he was taken to the Zettler Hardware parking lot near campus and held. When students complained about their treatment, they were met with the flippant comments of officers, including one who encouraged others to “get ’em riled up, so I can Mace ’em again.”

Writing in the Lantern on May 24, Eric Sims, a senior majoring in journalism, recounts how he and a friend were accosted while walking to a convenience store on May 17 by police who offered helpful hints like “…What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Turn around, NOW!”

“They chased the students down, beating the ones they caught, Macing the others. Students were screaming and almost trampling each other to run back to their houses,” wrote Sims.

The students all tell the same story. No problems, no fights, prior to the police invasion. In fact, area residents had complied with earlier police requests to use plastic fencing to contain their guests and even made public announcements over a PA system asking residents to cooperate with police. Only after the police actions were bottles thrown and items set on fire. But, that must be put in the context of the indiscriminate beatings, excessive Macing and random assault with “knee-knockers”–rubber riot bullets–and other anti-riot devices. Throw in the mounted riot police and cop helicopter and you’ve got the makings for police-state mayhem. But, the students are fighting back.

The demonstrators announced the formation a new and long-overdue organization: Copwatch. They plan to monitor police activity and take legal action to prevent what has now become a long stream of abuses.

Let’s recall the most obvious. After Ohio State’s last big win at home over Michigan, unlike other universities that enjoy victory celebrations, Columbus cops Maced the hell out of celebrating fans attempting to tear down the goalpost. Last spring, riot police Maced and brutally beat Antioch students for holding a peaceful demonstration at the federal building opposing cuts in student loans. And last fall, police fired tear gas canisters and “knee-knockers” indiscriminately into south campus streets and residences making the air in a four-square block area virtually unbreatheable, and then beat and arrested students fleeing to fresh air.

The seeds of the problem germinated in bad social policy. First, an asinine decision to raise the drinking age. This only makes sense if raising the drinking age means that the students would comply; they won’t. College students always drink alcohol. If the drinking age is 18, they drink it in local bars; if it’s 21, they drink at house parties. If you close and burn down the bars, they’ll drink in their cars and alcohol-related fatalities will rise. In our society, it’s a rite of adult passage. The college and the city should be promoting responsible drinking, not police rioting.

What message was being sent when the police department decided to crack down on “drunk walkers” in the campus area a year or so ago? Again, why not crack down on drunk walkers at Christopher’s after the Ohio legislature adjourns on any given day? If the police would contact me, I could gladly give them the names of a few senators and representatives I’ve never seen sober.

Stop the police repression and brutality. Have the police read the Constitution. And if this is what the Columbus Public Safety Department means by a new policy of “community policing,” I wonder about their definition.