A barefoot ETSU student in a gorilla mask confronted Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Borchuck Plaza Wednesday, dangling bananas in front of their faces with a rope and brandishing a sign that said “Lives Matter.”
“I saw him come down the steps as a gorilla,” said Jaylen Grimes, one of the demonstrators. “He pulled out his burlap sack and then he had the rope and whatnot and then he started offering us bananas. A lot of us didn’t take it, but I just took as a sign of peace offering and just to show him that, just because he’s being disrespectful towards me, I won’t be disrespectful towards him.”
The student offered Grimes another banana, and Grimes took it again. Eventually, officers with ETSU Public Safety escorted the man in the gorilla mask away from the plaza. The freshman student has been identified as Tristan Rettke, who has been charged with a count of civil rights intimidation. Aside from the rope and the bananas, Rettke also had a burlap sack that had a marijuana leaf and a Confederate Flag printed on it.
“He was just trying to get a reaction out of us,” Grimes said, explaining that the demonstrators were there to conduct a peaceful protest. “If we would have lashed out violently, that would have been another problem and we would’ve all got in trouble … and like I said, that’s not why we’re here. We were here as peaceful (demonstrators), so we had to remain as such.”
The demonstrators were in the plaza as part of a three-day series of demonstrations that were organized in protest of the recent shootings by police of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte.
On Wednesday afternoon, the office of the president released a statement responding to the incident.
“We are exceptionally proud of the students who were peacefully participating in the event and the manner in which they exercised restraint, thoughtfulness and strength in the face of inappropriate and offensive behavior,” the statement said.
The email said that criminal charges are pending before the local district attorney, and the university has begun a student-conduct investigation.
University leadership quickly organized a community meeting tonight Wednesday night in the D.P. Culp University Center Auditorium.
During the demonstration on Wednesday, protestors linked arms and held up mirrors emblazoned with the names of victims of police violence, hoping that passerby would take the time to see themselves in the faces of those victims.
“When you take the opportunity to view it from another person’s shoes, your opinion and your perspective can change a little bit,” said SGA Vice President Nathan Farnor on Monday, who helped organize the demonstrations, “and that’s the intention.”
The demonstrations were held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Borchuck Plaza. Another protest is planned for Thursday at the same time.
On Tuesday, students gathered around the fountain in a symbolic protest, Farnor said, against the silence that has been forced on the black community. During the demonstration on Thursday, protestors will wear white T-shirts personalized with their names hashtagged (for example, #NathanFarnor).
“Meaning at any point that I might be the one that will have to claim my hashtag,” Farnor said. “Because at any point in time, that traffic stop or that stop and frisk by police could be the last moment of my life, and my hashtag could be the next one that you see on Facebook or Twitter or at the bottom of the news reel on television.”
Despite the controversy caused by the protestor’s appearance, his presence did seem to attract a larger crowd, and Grimes said that his arrival was a good thing.
“I was going to let him stay as long as he wanted to,” Grimes said, “because once white people see how the counterpart of their same culture acts, they can just reflect on that and see, ‘Oh, I’m not like that. Oh, I actually might want to help.’ And they might want to push against what his thoughts and what his beliefs are.”
“Violence is not our answer to anything,” Grimes said. “Because once you fight fire with fire, it just starts a larger fire. And where there’s more fire, there’s more destruction.”
During the community meeting in the D.P. Culp University Center Auditorium, ETSU President Brian Noland and other administrators spoke to students about the events in Borchuck Plaza. ETSU professor Chris Dula served as the moderator, and encouraged participants to ask questions and to discuss the incident on campus today.
“This does not represent our university,” Noland said. “I hope that students do not look upon their time at ETSU and think of this moment.”
Many of the students shared concerns about what they said were administration’s lack of response to smaller incidences of racism, such as micro-aggressions, in the classroom.
Noland and Dula have been working with other faculty and staff for the past nine months to ensure a safe and diverse campus; this served as a reminder to why these conversations are necessary.
A student questioned what would set this plan apart, and Noland addressed the community. There will be plans put into place, attached to resources, with measurable outcomes implemented. Noland invited the community into his office hours, to further discuss these plans.
“It starts in the classroom,” said a student. “We have to educate others.”
This rare dialogue has brought conversations that this university has never seen before, and the reaction has been positive.
“It’s unfortunate that it took this heinous act to start this conversation,” Noland said. “I hope today is only the beginning for these types of conversations here.”
Sophomore Jeremiah Pearson delivered a personal narrative, which challenged attendees to think about why black skin has a stigma attached and the stereotypes black people are held to.
Despite their anger and distress, protesters remained calm, many citing the stereotype of the angry black woman or the angry black man as their reasoning.
Pearson spoke on behalf of many of the minority students at ETSU.
“I’ll be dammed if society thinks they can change me.”
General-Assignment Reporter Alexia Stewart contributed to this story.