Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Party Foul: Racist ASU frats are ruinning Tempe's party culture

Tempe frats aren't just racist.  They're also bad partiers.  And they're ruining it for everyone else.

At least no one wore blackface.  That may be the one positive thing you can say about the stupid, racist "MLK Black Party" organized by members of ASU's Tau Kappa Epsilon.  Saved by low standards?

Thankfully not.  The university stepped in, suspending the organization for a second time in just over a year after pics from the party surfaced documenting white celebrants donning sports jerseys, tossing up gang signs and drinking out of watermelons.  By the way, the first suspension came after a gang of about 20 TKE members invaded an apartment complex and assaulted a black associate of another fraternity, an attack that certainly takes on a different hue in light of recent events.  Local civil rights advocates have issued a series of demands and threatened a boycott.

Photo via Phoenix New Times

This newest incident comes as the latest in a long line of frats behaving badly in Tempe.  Recent incidents include the near-immolation of an underage female party-goer, the aforementioned assault, a gun fight, the ditching of frat brother, intoxicated and near death, at a local emergency room with a post-it note stuck to himEtc, etc.

Reacting to the frat chaos, the city and police department vowed to respond.  "These young individuals as well as the property owners, they have to respect the right of our community and that is what we are trying to do," said Chief Ryff at the time.  The city set about making a plan to crack down, not just on trouble-making frats, but on the community in general.

This plan manifested at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, under a program called Getting Arizona Involved in Neighborhoods (GAIN).  Hundreds of cops invaded and occupied the neighborhoods surrounding the university.  In Arizona's version of Stop and Frisk, thousands of police contacts were made.  Over three weekends Tempe police and Maricopa Sheriff's deputies charged almost 1400 people, certainly very few of whom were fratboys.

In particular, the inclusion of the MCSO in the program raised serious questions, given their terrible record of profiling Latinos and other people of color.  Students and residents in the neighborhoods around ASU resisted the police invasion in a variety of ways, including a popular Twitter campaign with the hashtag #shotsforjoe, which accompanied pictures of determined youthful partiers mocking Sheriff Joe Arpaio, drinks in hand, in defiance of the crackdown on good times.  Residents reached out to the media to explain their side of the story and to denounce the racism of the TPD and MCSO.

The crackdown was abruptly cut short after police gunned down a Tempe resident in broad daylight in the heart of downtown Tempe.  Witnesses contradicted the police story, but one this is for sure: the city had declared the area a police state, announcing a "zero tolerance policy" for any disorder.

There is an instinctual sense that ASU, still a regular top ranker in Playboy's top party schools list, has always been a place where partying was a part of life and that this was precisely what differentiated that part of the city from the quieter white bread suburban neighborhoods in the southern part of the city.  The areas around the school have always boasted a raucous culture of house parties and drunken walks home from the bar.  People live in downtown for a reason and accept and enjoy a certain degree of chaos.

But this traditionally more wild lifestyle has increasingly come into conflict with the city's plans for yuppification, upscalification and conventionification of downtown.  Recently the city changed it's standards for noise ordinances and residential codes in an attempt to homogenize the city.  Police can now act immediately to shut down loud parties whereas before they were required to give a warning.

As the city plans for a future of middle class USA basketball tourists and insurance salesmen, the need to domesticate downtown has become more pressing, and fratboy antics have given them the excuse they need.  Speaking to the Republic of the basketball deal, Susan Eastridge, CEO of Concord Eastridge, Inc., said, “In a lot of ways, we think this will invite even more development to happen in Tempe."  The expansion of commerce downtown demands order.

So it was no surprise that the police trotted out frat violence as their excuse for their crackdown.  The city recently released it's own self-tabulated results of the crackdown, citing reduced noise violations and lower incidents of muggings as proof that they had achieved their objective.  But at the outset the city had singled out in particular the frat violence and sexual assaults as justifications for their increased policing of what they deem the "loud party corridor."

Frat row, closed for business

Therefore, it's worth noting then that the city's own numbers have shown that they have completely failed in this objective.  Neither reports of aggravated nor sexual assaults declined in the period of increased policing, which cost nearly $150,000 (most of which was covered by the Feds) and which padded officers bank accounts with plenty of overtime before the holiday season.

But how does this relate to a bunch of white fratboys throwing a racist party?  Because despite what the city says, downtown Tempe is a place that welcomes parties, but the frats are really bad at partying.  They are self-centered and disconnected from reality in ways that are very troubling.  The failure to understand how their actions would be viewed and the message it would send is indeed deeply troubling.  And this violence, racism and general poor form is providing an excuse for the police to crackdown on everyone else.

Many people who are aware of Arizona's history as a segregationist state, of the battles over the MLK holiday, and the infamous racist rant of former governor Evan Mecham might not be surprised by whites acting badly.  Yet some people are wondering, "shouldn't these kids have known better?"  It turns out Tempe and ASU has its own troubled history.  Come time travel with me.

On April 14, 1989, a white mob surrounded four black students leaving a party on the now-bulldozed fraternity row.  In what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, 500 fratboys and other whites surrounded the men, spat on them and taunted them with racial epithets.  When it turned violent the cops broke it up, macing the crowd and arresting two of the black men, who were taken to the station in handcuffs.  The local press ignored the racist riot until a week later when protesters marched and blocked the Memorial Union on campus.  Among their demands, that all fraternities develop an anti-racism education program for their members.  Imagine that?  In 1989!

Before that, back in the day, Tempe was a Klan stronghold and a "sundown town," and many prominent members of the community -- including the mayor, city council members and civic leaders (the founder of the Tempe Rotary Club, for instance) -- boasted membership in the not so secret organization.

This included two-time mayor and perennial councilman Hugh Laird whose name graces a school and a street and who used to enjoy regaling friends and family with this touching yet eerily relevant story of racial appropriation, as detailed in the book "Memories of Old Settlers of Tempe."

'Between 1905 and 1910, the new manager of Borden's Creamery was coming from the East Coast on the train. In a letter to the present manager, who was retiring, he inquired whether he should be concerned about Indian attacks or train robbers. Several Tempeans heard about the inquiry and decided not to disappoint him.

'The evening of his arrival, he was met by several Borden officials and was driven to the creamery by horse and buggy. Borden's Creamery was located on Eighth St. just east of Rural Road. About twenty of the leading townspeople we awaiting, west of Rural and Eight St. on horseback, dressed up in feathers and war paint to "attack" the buggy. When the "attack" occurred, the officials jumped from the buggy, but the new manager grabbed the reins and started back toward town. The "Indians" followed whooping and hollering and then faded away in the vicinity of Mill Avenue. The new manager drove the buggy back to the train depot on Ash Avenue, got on the train and headed back to Phoenix.

'Other Borden officials had a "devil" of a time trying to persuade him to return and assume his duties. He didn't think the prank was funny! I know this story because my grandfather, Hugh Laird, was one of the "Indians" and he delighted to tell it every Christmas.'

It seems to me that this isn't just a question of not "knowing better."  Racism isn't just about the maintenance of a white supremacist system, although it clearly is that.  And this kind of thing isn't just a social faux pas.  As if the real crime is that the thoughts were expressed publicly.  It's obvious why the caricature of blackness, of the rapper or the sports star or the drug dealer, would appeal to a bunch of workaholic repressed white kids who were likely raised in the suburbs by parents exactly the same as them. Hell, there's not much that is appealing about the repressed white protestant pressed-suit work-worshipping 9-5 life they're all sadly destined to lead.

Whites in the US, experiencing the constant self-repression of Protestantism and the work ethic, have a long history of envying idealized versions of the lives of others.  In terms of white fantasies, you can draw a line from the Noble Savage to the hip hop artist.  The white New Ager wants the spirituality without the poverty of the reservation.  The white fratboy wants the rap swagger without the police attention and prison time.

But these fratboys are playing black without the consequences.  Paul Mooney famously remarked on this historical tendency.  These kids want to play black without the disadvantages.   To inhabit that identity when its convenient.  That's a big part of why it's particularly offensive to see a bunch of privileged rich white kids doing this kind of racist shit.

On a Tempe neighborhood forum where complaints about local cops, fratboys and racism are common, one black former frat member described his experience this way, 
The privileged white kids of these fraternities will engage in all the post-racial backslapping in the world. They say "nigga" When it comes up in rap songs, so they get to thinking they "get it"--that it's all for fun, that "only lazy hood [black] people are know what I mean right bro? You're different."
He continued: 'These kids probably say things like "but, God, racism ended like 40 years ago, right?"'

Another problem with the behavior of the frats in the neighborhood is that the repercussions for their actions generally land squarely on other people.  Which, in the case of the police response they invite, means poor, working class people, and people of color in particular.  That is, people with a lot less power and resources than fratboys have and who don't have rich daddies with season football passes and exclusive organizations to back them up.  

Fratboys can play black all night in the apartments their parents pay for, but when they're driving home in that shiny new graduation present they fly under the cops' radar.  Their whiteness protects them.  But they have brought upon the whole neighborhood a police crackdown from which they themselves are largely immune, which is painfully ironic coming from an exclusive club of resume-builders constantly crowing about the self-described community "philanthropy" they engage in.  Check out the Facebook page of any one of these organizations.  It's nothing but photo ops of well-off mostly white kids masturbating themselves for resume points while doing what should be considered normal, human behavior.  As the old saying goes, if you're who they've sent to save us, we don't want to be saved.  Or, "you're a little short for a stormtrooper."

In addition to denouncing their racist brothers, which they should do immediately, ASU Greeks also need to be better partiers.  Most people who live in the neighborhoods around the university support parties -- welcome them, in fact.  Not just because they're fun but also because they help push back against the developers and city managers who dream of raising rents, filling the neighborhood with condos, driving fun-loving people out, and squashing out all good times that aren't bought and paid for in a bar or restaurant on Mill Avenue.  So throwing these godawful racist or violent parties puts everyone who likes parties in an awkward position.

If there's hope for defending a rebellious Tempe where fun can still happen, it's in refusing to be cowed in the neighborhoods by buzzkillers in blue (who are sometimes actual killers) and pencil-necked urban planners.  But the frats' shitty, racist, sexist and idiotic behavior has become just another excuse for the ongoing crackdown on good times in the neighborhood.  The frats need to get their shit together.  Dump the racism first and foremost.  There are parties to be thrown and beers to be drunk.  For the common good.  And before it's too late.


  1. Excellent critical analysis of both Tempe policing and the impact of white privilege and both institutional and interpersonal racism, going out on a limb as usual. Thank you for the history lesson, too.

  2. I think the wild-Indian prank sounds fucking hilarious. If that's racist, I don't give even the smallest shit.