The events of Wednesday, Sept. 28 were a unique learning experience for everyone — ETSU students, faculty, and people all around the world who never knew our university existed until they read an article on the Time’s website, the Daily Beast, the Daily Mail or Snopes.com, after the story trended on Facebook.
It put us at the heart of a conversation some of us would have felt more comfortable leaving alone.
But this incident was a manifestation of a larger problem that we should have been facing from the beginning.
Tristan Rettke, the gorilla-masked student, acted alone, but the thoughts that spurred his actions were part of the general beliefs of people, especially people in the communities surrounding ETSU.
Confirmation of this can be seen in the comments section of any local news article on the events, where at least one person tries to defend his actions as free speech.
The Black Lives Matter protesters were there to exercise their right to free speech; Rettke was not.
Rettke’s dress and actions were clearly meant to provoke the other students, to disrupt a peaceful protest.
Rettke did not have a sign explaining his position, unless you count a small piece of paper that said ‘Lives Matter,” or a prepared statement on the ways in which he disagreed with the BLM protest.
He had several symbols of hate and oppression.
This difference is the crux of the matter: free speech means you have something to say, a belief that you want to publicly express, a soap box you want to stand on.
The BLM Movement has a list of grievances, a code of conduct and guiding principles (all of which you can read about on BlackLivesMatter.com).
The organization supports policy actions proposed by the The Movement for Black Lives, available at policy.m4bl.org. Rettke was not supported by any organization.
The swift response of ETSU President Brian Noland and other university officials made it clear that no person or news outlet could believe that Rettke was supported by ETSU.
And the large scale and grand fervor of students who gathered at Borchuck Plaza on the day following Rettke’s actions made it clear that the student body will not accept such behavior.
If anything positive can be seen to have come from the events of Wednesday, it is that the university and surrounding community were confronted with a clear example of modern racism, defining why the BLM Movement exists and how far we are from a society of equality.
Though the issue of racism should always seem like a high priority, most people living their everyday lives have the privilege of ignoring the struggles of others until an incident like this makes them pay attention.
Racism seems more pressing when you’ve seen it clearly with your own eyes.
Moving forward, we cannot forget what has happened, what we have learned.
The best way to turn this negative event into a positive is to come together to support fellow students, to endeavor to create the equal society we all desire, together.
We need to remember the shock as news of this event spread and use that as momentum in the larger push to ensure that we reach a state in which black lives do matter.