Views from University Blvd., where merchants had a front-row seat during post-game melee

Here’s the question still being asked about last weekend’s fracas between police and a crowd of several hundred youths gathered on University Boulevard as the University of Arizona narrowly lost to Wisconsin last Saturday night:

Who started it?

At bars, restaurants, and clothing and other stores on University Boulevard that cater to the student population, owners and employees had a front-row seat. Some of them agreed to speak about what they saw and how they saw it.

George Markou is the owner and chef of Pelio Grill, a Greek tavern and restaurant on Park Ave. at University Boulevard. He said that he believes the police came ready prepared for a riot, like one that occurred in 2001. And he thinks that was a mistake.

“Thirteen years ago, in my opinion, it was gangs, not university students, who rioted,” he said. Last Saturday night, he added, the police “came dressed as S.W.A.T — and they wonder how drunk students are going to react when looking up at police officers dressed” in intimidating gear.

Markou said he believes Tucson Police Department set a provocative tone because they had been drilling for riot response for weeks before the game. “In 2001 they were gangs burning things at the end of the game,” he said. Last Saturday night, he added, it mostly was young people “chanting ‘U of A!'”

He said, “Maybe it’s a good thing that we lost because we didn’t  have to go through this all weekend.”

Cullen Cassidy works at a store on University Blvd. called “OOO!” which stands for Outside Of Ordinary. It sells an eclectic mix of items from clothes and soap to arts and crafts. He said he thought the melee was a culmination of events that started Thursday night, March 27,  during the game three days earlier. Police on Thursday seemed to think they didn’t have enough officers on hand, so they beefed up the force on Saturday, he suggested.

“I know the cops felt like they were under-forced. That’s why I think they were so many cops on Saturday, because they felt that the presence they had on Thursday wasn’t enough for what it was,” said Cassidy, who added that on both nights incidents began at the streetcar station in front of the bar Frog and Firkin, when students were taking pictures and chanting as the police pushed ahead in force to close the street and declare the gathering an “unlawful assembly.”

“On Saturday there was a gentleman who was talking to my dad. It’s my parents shop. And he goes ‘So are you guys worried about tonight?’ and my dad goes, ‘No, not at all,’ and I guessed that he was a police officer when he said, ‘We can’t wait for this whole thing to be over; we’ve been training for this for so long that we’re all getting sick and tired.’”

Tucson police say they’ve begun an investigation into the melee — and into charges that police overreacted with unnecessary force on several occasions — and are looking at more than 100 hours of videos. In all, 15 people were arrested.

Cassidy said he asked his father to close the shop at halftime during the game, and said there was no damage to OOO!

Holly Higgason works at Campus Candy & Yogurt on University Blvd. and said the police arrived on the street in riot and S.W.A.T. gear during halftime. She said police were just “kind of hanging out” in a long line from Euclid to Park.  She also attributed the increased presence of cops to an incident that happened on Thursday during the celebration of Arizona’s entry into the Elite Eight.

On Thursday, “People were excited. There was one girl I heard was dancing on a Mercedes, so the cops came. It wasn’t a big issue, but I think because of that, they decided to be prepared” for potential disturbances during the Saturday night game.

She said she believes police could have done a better job in crowd control on Saturday night, but the circumstances were challenging, especially with many students appearing to have been drinking. “I saw one guy, obviously drunk — they were trying to get him off the streets and because he wouldn’t move they started shooting him with rubber bullets, and people got upset at that and started throwing water bottles and little mini firecrackers and stuff. Then the police took action.”

Higgason herself got caught up in the commotion. “I was standing outside my work watching what’s going on and I got pepper-sprayed. I wasn’t doing anything, but it was in general not towards me in particular — they were doing that to everyone,” she said. Higgason said she understands that police needed to maintain order, but she also questioned the forceful tactics.

“It could have gone a more subtle way,” she said. “You know, there wasn’t even a warning.”

Jesse Melen, a supervisor at the American Apparel store on University Blvd., said he saw about ten people get arrested, and said he worried about what could have happened if the police were not on the scene in sufficient strength that night. But he said the tactics and the riot gear police were wearing might have increased tensions on the street.

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