Former ETSU student indicted on civil rights intimidation, disorderly conduct charges

Becky Campbell • Mar 21, 2017 at 5:40 PM

A former East Tennessee State University student, who dressed in overalls and a gorilla mask, then offered Black Lives Matter rally participants bananas, was indicted by a grand jury last week on charges of civil rights intimidation. 

Tristan Rettke, 18, Hendersonville, was originally charged with one count of civil rights intimidation for an incident at Borchuk Plaza outside Sherrod Library on the ETSU campus. The area is considered to be a free speech zone where students can express themselves peacefully.

After a preliminary hearing Dec. 19, Rettke was bound over to a grand jury on the original charge as well as several others requested by the prosecution. Those included two types of civil rights intimidation — by intimidating another person from their free exercise of right of speech and with the intent to intimidate other students who were exercising their right to free speech — two counts of disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting or procession.

During the preliminary hearing, three men who witnessed Rettke’s alleged intrusion on the otherwise peaceful protest on Sept. 28, which was organized to highlight a rash of law enforcement shootings of unarmed black men, said they felt his actions were threatening and racially intimidating, including one who pulled out his phone to video the incident and streamed it live on Facebook as it unfolded.

Thomas Madison, who was not part of the rally but stopped by on his way to a class, said he began videoing and asked Rettke what was his purpose for being there. On the video, Rettke can be heard saying in a muffled voice that he was there to support the protesters.

“He said, ‘I identify as a gorilla,’ ” Madison testified. “I took that as a reference to me being black. And I took him wearing a mask at a Black Lives Matter protest … the fact black people historically have been called monkeys.”

Madison also testified that he took the bananas being tied up with rope as “a very serious threat … when you come offer me a banana this close to my face, it’s calling me a monkey, and I’m not a monkey,” he said, demonstrating that Rettke was just inches from Madison’s face during the encounter.

Jaylen Grimes testified Rettke wrapped a rope around the bananas over and over, then pulled the ends of the rope, which sliced through the fruit. Grimes said he viewed the rope as a noose and took it as a reference to the historical lynching of African Americans.

Jeremiah Pearson testified he had helped organize the BLM rally, but was in class when it started. He received a message that something was going on at the event, so he went to investigate.

“I seen a student in a mask, holding a rope and asking people, ‘Do you want bananas?’ and holding up a sack that had a Southern flag,” Pearson testified, referring to a burlap sack with the Confederate flag on it. Pearson also said Rettke said several times that “ ‘I’m doing what you’re doing.’ ”

“I never felt that type of fear in my life,” Pearson said about what he felt as the events occurred. He said the impression he got from Rettke using the rope to cut the bananas in half was “snapping someone’s neck.”

During his questioning of the witnesses, defense attorney Patrick Denton asked the men if they could have misinterpreted what Rettke meant by his actions that day. The witnesses said their distinct impression was that Rettke was implying that African Americans are apes, which eat bananas, and the Confederate flag was meant to intimidate them as well.

Denton maintained the constitutional right Rettke was accused of violating was the same one that protects his client’s right to free speech.

Rettke is scheduled for his first appearance in Criminal Court on April 10. He is free on $10,000 bond. Since the incident, Rettke has withdrawn from enrollment at ETSU.

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