How a quiet night morphed into a melee

South Campus area riot began with a spark, spread like wildfire

Saturday night in Chico’s South Campus area started out quietly, at least by neighborhood standards. What nobody knew was that a street riot was just waiting to happen; all it took was the right spark, and it spread like wildfire.

The trouble began in the waning minutes of Oct. 11 at a large apartment complex on the 600 block of Cherry Street, where as many as 500 youths were partying in a large open area in the back. At 11:30 the police arrived, as did a fire truck. They broke up the party and ushered the kids into the streets. That’s when matters got worse.

A disturbance at Sixth and Ivy streets—Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty later said he thought it was either a fight or a woman exposing herself—attracted the attention of the displaced youths, as well as those standing around at the popular intersection of Fifth and Ivy streets.

“It was like a vacuum just sucked them all in there,” said Hagerty.

Suddenly, a quiet night—the chief characterized it as “benign"—had morphed into a thousand-person riot in the streets.

Fifth and Ivy bars began closing and emptying into the streets two hours too early because of the disturbance. The converging crowds became a body of rowdy, drunken youths. Then the fires started—first a couch on Ivy Street between Third and Fourth, later tree branches way down by Whitney Hall.

By 12:45 a.m., Chico police began dispersing the crowds. Starting on Ivy near Second Street, they formed a phalanx across the street and, using shields and wearing full riot gear, began walking slowly south. Meanwhile, farther north, firefighters were hosing down a fire started in the middle of Warner Street—and onlookers, as well.

Hagerty said it took 45 minutes to clear the streets. Fortunately, nobody was injured. Two people were arrested for disorderly conduct.

Chico City Manager Dave Burkland praised the police, saying they handled a difficult situation “as delicately as possible” and “defused a potentially dangerous situation.”

It was the largest Chico riot in more than a decade, but unlike past disturbances, it almost immediately went viral, showing up on FaceBook, YouTube and the nightly news from the North State to San Diego. Chico and its university got widespread attention for a disbanded party gone wrong, complete with 12 fires, dented vehicles, multiple arrests and cops decked out in full riot gear, wielding batons and shields.

In the aftermath, many Chicoans are wondering what happened.

“We don’t know,” Hagerty said—not that it matters. Whether it was stress from school or the economic downturn, or just a drunken brawl gone amuck, such behavior is simply not acceptable, the chief said.

There was an “element out there that [wanted] to see things get out of hand,” Hagerty continued—forces that purposely incited and agitated the kids. He suggested they were gang members.

Whoever they were, they created what Hagerty termed a “mob mentality” that made people do things they normally wouldn’t do—like turn over cars, jump across fires and throw bottles.

“There were people standing in the middle of the street trying to punk [the cops],” said Chico State student Kiersti Matejka, 20. She was part of the crowd that night, though only as a sober observer. Matejka thought the crowd looked like a lot of “out-of-towners.”

“It sucks this kind of stuff happens,” Matejka said. “It just gives Chico State a bad name.”

Folks in the larger community are angry at the school.

“That’s it,” wrote one blogger in response to an article on the Enterprise-Record’s Web site. “It’s time to close CSU Chico. No one is there to learn. They are just a bunch of idiots there to party and cause trouble.”

“These idiots have turned Chico State into an overpriced daycare center and the city into the playground of over-privileged punks,” wrote another.

While this riot seems to have instigated something of a war between students and locals, said Danielle James, a journalism student at Chico State, “they don’t see what goes on in the classroom.”

With Halloween just around the corner—and on a Friday night this year—Hagerty said the police will gear up for heavier deployment. Chico State student organizations will work with the Chico Police Department from now through Halloween, walking the streets with officers and talking with their classmates, telling them to be safe. Burkland and University President Paul Zingg will also be walking the streets and talking to students.

Despite the few incidents of students acting out against police, Hagerty said, “I love Chico State students. … This was a small sample, and some weren’t even students. Students get a bad rap.”

Zingg also came to students’ defense.

“Chico State has built a reputation of achievement and accomplishment far beyond the poor decisions and boorish and lawless behavior of a few,” Zingg said via e-mail. “I would encourage anyone to check out the true story of this university, not cast it through the lens of a troubling YouTube image.”