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UPDATE: Student in gorilla mask with bananas, nooses charged after Black Lives Matter face-off at ETSU - PHOTOS/VIDEO

Tony Casey • Updated Sep 28, 2016 at 5:03 PM

A barefoot man wearing overalls and a gorilla mask, trying to hand out noose-wrapped bananas to Black Lives Matter demonstrators, was taken away by East Tennessee State University public safety officers Wednesday afternoon.

According to a news release from the public safety office, freshman Tristan Rettke was charged with civil rights intimidation. Saying Rettke's actions "go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect," the university said the student has been placed on interim suspension. Criminal charges were pending before the local district attorney, and an internal student-conduct investigation was underway.

ETSU President Brian Noland held a press conference in the afternoon to speak out against what he saw Wednesday. And Noland did watch, almost in real time as it happened, via a video on a student's Facebook page.

"I was offended, but I was also saddened," Noland said about his personal response to Rettke's behavior. "The nation is not only raw, but it's healing."

Noland praised the Black Lives Matter demonstrators for their peaceful rally and handling of the disruption. He'd been in contact with many of those students through their academic careers at ETSU and was proud they reacted as such.

"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," Noland said.

Sophomore Jaelyn Grimes, president of the school’s rugby club, was carrying a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter (is not equal to) All Lives Don't.” After Rettke tried to hand him one of the bananas, Public Safety officers walked up and took Rettke away.

Grimes described his strategy for keeping calm and delivering the message they sought to share.

“Of course, it's hard to stay calm because they're doing it because they know they can get under your skin,” Grimes said. “You've just got to have thicker skin and be the bigger person and just show that ignorance is not going to override your ability to be calm. Because being calm is a lot more difficult than reacting the way they want us to react, which is in a violent stereotypical black way. But we're not all like that.”

Grimes helped counsel some of his peers to not allow Rettke to get a rise out of them. Their mission was clear: to engage with other students about the issues black communities face that are not being experienced by non-minorities communities.

While it was a silent protest, if approached, the Black Lives Matter protesters talked about some of those issues, including police shootings and disproportionate arrests of people of color.

Nathan Farnor, ETSU student government association vice president, was one of the organizers of the three-day peaceful protest. He said he often hears about how racism doesn’t exist anymore, but he pointed to Wednesday’s counterprotest as an example. If people aren’t able to grasp the struggles that still face the black community to this day, after seeing what occurred there at ETSU, Farnor said, he’s not sure it’s possible.

"It's an eye-opener," Farnor said.

Rettke also carried with him a burlap sack that had a Confederate battle flag and marijuana leaf on it. He told officers he bought the attire and items to provoke the Black Lives Matter protesters after having learned about it on social media site Yik Yak.

Farnor and Grimes both said they would have both welcomed their antagonizer to peacefully protest next to them, acknowledging his right to freedom of speech, but because the man in the gorilla mask had not cleared with the university and was causing such an uproar, the chance went away.

"We just want people to think out here," Farnor said about the purpose of the peaceful protest.

He pointed at real-life examples of everyday racism, much different than the nation's past in the Jim Crow South, citing black people being discriminated against in job interviews and when applying for loans at banks.

Noland spoke about the importance of Borchuck Plaza and how it's been a meeting place, and the fountain there was recently dedicated to the first black students to attend the university. As for what happened Wednesday, Noland said he doesn't want it to be the long-lasting memory of students at ETSU.

At 7 tonight, there is a community dialogue conversation taking place inside the D.P. Culp Auditorium, where the schools leaders will be present.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

———

Earlier report posted at 2:11 p.m.:

A barefoot man wearing overalls and a gorilla mask, trying to hand out noose-wrapped bananas to Black Lives Matter protesters, was taken away by East Tennessee State University public safety officers Wednesday afternoon.

Sophomore Jaelyn Grimes, president of the school’s rugby club, was carrying a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter (is not equal to) All Lives Don’t” when the man approached him.

Grimes described his strategy for keeping calm and delivering the message he and his peers sought to share.

“Of course, it's hard to stay calm because they're doing it because they know they can get under you skin,” Grimes said. “You've just got to have thicker skin and be the bigger person and just show that ignorance is not going to override your ability to be calm.

“Because being calm is a lot more difficult than reacting the way they want us to react, which is in a violent stereotypical black way. But we're not all like that.”

Grimes helped counsel some of his peers on not allowing the disrupting party to get a rise out of them. Their mission was clear: to engage with other students about the issues black communities face that are not being experienced by non-minorities communities.

Keep reading www.johnsoncitypress.com for updates on this story.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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