The East Tennessean received an anonymous letter to the editor earlier this week in reference to the incident in Borchuck Plaza on Sept. 28. It was signed “A Fellow Human Being.”
This week, Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) occupied Borchuck Plaza to peacefully dramatize a legitimate discontent about the wrongful exercise of police power in our society.
On Wednesday, Sept. 28, BLM’s soul force met a silly force. A freshman student made a spectacle of himself by appearing in a Gorilla mask and waving a bunch of bananas, a rope, and a sack decorated with drawings of a Confederate flag and a marijuana leaf.
Is there any possible better proof that the adolescent brain does not fully mature until age 25?
Of course this was provocation. Of course these acts had the potential to inflame passions and to arouse lesser parts of ourselves that might have been tempted to answer the Gorilla’s theatrics with verbal or physical force.
But that did not happen.
There was an opportunity to escort the silly Gorilla to a place at the table of human brotherhood, where he might have been helped to find his better soul.
That also did not happen.
Instead, the campus police pre-empted the unfolding events and took the student to jail. In so doing, they also took from everyone an opportunity as human brothers and sisters to understand and move beyond whatever misinformation, fear, pain, despair, hatred, or even mental illness might lie behind the Gorilla’s strange acts.
Why was pre-emptive police intervention necessary? Could students not be trusted to continue acting responsibly in the face of a nonsensical provocation? Were students deemed in need of protection from a silly Gorilla or worse, was the silly Gorilla deemed in need of protection from them? Did the police think that BLM or others in attendance might suddenly lose the ability to tell the difference between an idiot provocateur and a real threat? If police mistakenly imagined that the silly Gorilla was a real threat, isn’t that ironically the very issue that BLM sought to highlight — that the police too often don’t distinguish between a person who poses a real threat and one who does not, and so innocent, non-dangerous people are shot?
When BLM and others reacted as responsible and civilized human beings to the Gorilla’s mockery and provocation, some found this worthy of special congratulations. They were “proud” of students. For what? Because students acted not as expected, but better? Something isn’t quite right when students are praised for failing to live up to implicit pre-existing expectations of failure.
The Gorilla lives, but he is removed from the ETSU community, condemned, and dehumanized almost as surely as if he had been shot. Does this outcome really make ETSU a better place? Are we a better community because we can all join together in condemnation and banishment of another? Would we not all be lifted up if the problem of the Gorilla had been addressed by educating him rather than arresting him?
Even Gorillas are God’s children. Nelson Mandela showed us that, in the long run, the power and benefit of truth and reconciliation vastly exceeds that of punishment. Does that lesson not apply here? If the bell of freedom does not ring for the speech of a non-violent provocateur in an ape mask, then does it ring for any of us? For the force of BLM’s message to fully take root, all lives must matter, even the lives of ignorant Gorillas.
Next time a shoeless Gorilla offers me a banana outside Sherrod Library, I won’t call the police. Instead, I’ll accept his banana (even if it’s not organic), offer to buy him a cup of coffee and a bagel in return, and then invite him to sit down and tell me where and why it hurts.
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