JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – A peaceful protest on East Tennessee State University’s campus Wednesday afternoon was disrupted when a man wearing a gorilla mask showed up and started handing out bananas to students holding Black Lives Matter signs.
According to ETSU spokesman Joe Smith, students were on campus holding a peaceful demonstration when the man approached them and started handing out bananas.
An ETSU Department of Public Safety report said officers responded to a disorderly conduct call at Borchuck Plaza, where a Black Lives Matter event was taking place.
According to the report, when police arrived they saw a man — later identified as Tristan Rettke — wearing blue jean overalls, a white T-shirt and a black gorilla mask.
Police said Rettke had a rope and bananas, which he was holding out to the students that were protesting.
Rettke was then identified, detained and taken to the Public Safety Office.
According to the report, Rettke said a couple of days ago he saw on Yik Yak — a social media site — that a Black Lives Matter event was happening in the Free Speech area of Borchuck Plaza.
Rettke told police he then went to the store Tuesday, where he bought a rope to tie a bunch of bananas to, and also purchased a gorilla mask.
According to the report, Rettke said he wore the gorilla mask, had a bunch of bananas hanging from a rope, was carrying a burlap sack with a rebel flag with a marijuana leaf on it to try to provoke Black Lives Matter protesters.
Rettke was charged with civil rights intimidation after discussion by public safety supervisors, campus administration and the District Attorney General’s office.
Rettke was arrested and taken to Washington County Detention Center.
He appeared in Sessions Court for an arraignment hearing Thursday and his next court date has been set for Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m.
ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland said Rettke is a freshman at the university.
Noland said to his knowledge, he was a member of a living learning community, but not a member of any formal clubs, organizations or athletic teams.
During a news conference around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Noland called Rettke’s actions incomprehensible and intolerable, adding that the student’s actions do not represent the values of the institution and said he commends the students gathered Wednesday who “rose above hatred.”
Students gathered at ETSU’s D.P. Culp Center Wednesday night to focus on the campus coming together to begin the healing process. Students at the event expressed how important the gathering was.
“It made me feel better, like people actually cared,” protestor Patrick Black said after the event.
Following Wednesday’s incident, ETSU officials posted the following statement on their Facebook page:
Earlier today during a student-led Black Lives Matter event at Borchuck Plaza, our campus community was outraged by the behavior of one student who confronted the participants. The actions of this one individual go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect.
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 ETSU Department of Public Safety staff responded to the incident. At this time, criminal charges are pending before the local district attorney, and an internal student-conduct investigation has begun.
Our university values diversity, inclusivity and respect for others. In keeping with those values, there will be an opportunity for community dialogue tonight at 7 p.m. inside the D.P. Culp Auditorium. University leadership will be present.”
ETSU’s campus newspaper, the East Tennessean, was at the demonstration and captured photos of the man in the mask approaching the students, as well as being escorted away by campus police.
“We feel disrespected and that I was below him, but I had to use that and put it back in my head and just come back out with a calm, peaceful, positive outlook,” Jaylen Grimes, an ETSU at the protest said. “Because if I had reacted any other way, that’s exactly what he was looking for.”
Jeremiah Pearson, an ETSU student and Black Affairs Association vice president, said he was in class when someone told hi there was a disturbance at the protest. Peason said he went to the plaza and saw a man in overalls with no shoes, a Confederate flag, a monkey mask and a rope, handing out bananas.
“I was really … distraught, confused on why this was happening at a peaceful protest,” Pearson said. “We weren’t being rude to anybody. We were being respectful, trying to handle this in a calmly manner and I’m just so proud of everyone in this protest today and how they kept their calm and did not react.”
“Seeing somebody blatantly disrespect people in that manner … I’ve never had someone to my face be disrespectful like that, so it was just new to me,” ETSU student Trevor King said. “It was hard for me to keep my calm, but everybody and the support that’s what kept me calm.”