Attorneys in civil rights gorilla mask case agree on social media evidence

Becky Campbell • May 29, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Attorneys in a civil rights intimidation case were ready to argue about potential social media evidence a former East Tennessee State University student wrote regarding a Black Lives Matter demonstration he’s accused of disrupting.

Tristan Rettke, now 20, showed up at the Sept. 26, 2016, rally where other students had gathered to display signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and other slogans used during a volatile time when several encounters between police and black men across the nation ended in fatal shootings. One sign at the rally said “Remember Them” and had the names of 14 African-Americans who had deadly encounters with police in the months prior to the ETSU rally. 

Rettke was wearing a gorilla mask and carrying bananas to the rally, He also had a burlap bag with the Confederate flag and a marijuana leaf emblazoned on it. He was charged with civil rights intimidation, free from exercise; civil rights intimidation, because of exercise; disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting or procession.

Rettke’s attorney, Patrick Denton, and Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle reached an agreement on which statements were allegedly posted by Rettke regarding the BLM movement.

The statements that will be allowed at trial are:

  • ”Hey there’s some BLM protests at my university in front of the library. It’s a three day thing starting today where they’re just standing around a fountain with signs and duct tape over their mouth. Any ideas on how to troll them or signs of my own to disprove them? I’ll try my best to send pictures when it happens again.”
  • ”I like it period. Thinking about wearing bedsheets as a spooky ghost and holding signs saying Happy Halloween too along with the rope. What do you think?”
  • ”That’s gold. So rope and chicken. I love it guys, Keep it up.”
  • ”I like that idea. Will do ... closest Confederate thing I have is this. Got it at a sale.”
  • ”Should I put the chicken bucket in the bag? I think that would be funny but don’t want to ruin the burlap.”
  • ”Rope is being hard to come by now, but I’m still trying. They’ve only got a Bojangles at my uni, so I’ll have to use that for chicken.”
  • ”A quick run to the store has been successful. I am prepared for tomorrow.” 

Other evidence, including a video of part of the incident will also be allowed while Judge Lisa Rice will rule later about additional disputed evidence.

According to a statement he gave police, after he heard about the rally, Rettke went to buy rope to tie to a bunch of bananas and came across the gorilla mask so he purchased that, too. An official press release from the university after the incident said Rettke's actions "go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect.”

Denton, argued a motion to dismiss the case earlier this year, and said his client was protected under the First Amendment when he wore the mask and overalls while dangling rope-tied bananas in front of Black Lives Matter supporters.

During that hearing in January, the judge heard testimony from an ETSU police officer about Rettke’s statement after his arrest. According to the officer, Rettke said, “In a foolish act of incredible risk, stupidity and increasingly dangerous behavior, I decided to put on a gorilla mask, overalls and store bananas in a burlap sack as a form of a sick joke towards the (Black Lives Matter) movement. I knew it would make people angry with my behavior, and I just wanted to record their reactions for my own personal humor.”

Participants in the rally told police that Rettke called them racial slurs.

Rice set the trial for July 15-16. He remains free on bond while the case is pending.

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