State, defense rest in First Amendment case involving gorilla mask at BLM rally

Becky Campbell • Jul 17, 2019 at 10:52 AM

Jurors in a free speech case heard some emotional testimony from several former and current East Tennessee State University students involved in a 2016 Black Lives Matter rally that was interrupted by another student dressed in a gorilla mask and who told them he looked like them.

Tristan Rettke, now 21, was a freshman at ETSU when he heard about a Black Lives Matter rally at Borchuck Plaza outside the campus library. That particular area, which has a fountain dedicated to the first African-American students to attend ETSU, is a “free speech zone,” where students can openly express their beliefs and opinions about an issue.

Rettke 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.

He was wearing a white T-shirt, overalls, was barefoot, had a gorilla mask on and carried a burlap sack emblazoned with a Confederate flag and marijuana leaf, rope and bananas. He offered the bananas to BLM participants and later in the video was seen kneeling down to tie the rope around the fruit. Then he dangled it in front of the protesters and later unfolded a piece of notebook paper with “Lives Matter” written on it.

Brook’ale Anderson was a freshman at the time and participated in the silent protest.

“I was so shocked it really didn’t seem real at the moment,” Anderson said, describing seeing Rettke walk out of the library toward the BLM group. “He tried to hand me a banana that was hanging from a noose.”

The bananas were apparently tied with a slip knot, which was interpreted by rally demonstrators as a noose. Rettke’s attorney, Patrick Denton, tried to downplay how the rope was described, but the students at the demonstration all said they saw it as a noose, and that to them it seemed to represent a time of slavery and during times in history when blacks were lynched.

When another student asked Rettke why he was there, Anderson said “he said he was there to support us and when asked why he had the gorilla mask on he said, ‘I’m here to support you. Don’t I look like y’all?’ And I thought wow, that’s how they see us.”

As Anderson told the jury how that made her feel, she became emotional. 

“It hurt. This was my freshman year. I was one month in. I was coming together with my friends and doing something for a cause. When he came out there, honestly I was scared. The thought kept running in my mind that ‘am I going to make it home to my mom?’ ”

Five other demonstration participants —  Jimmy Young, Trevor King, Jeremiah Pearson, Keyana Miller and Jalen Grimes — all gave similar testimony, and said they felt Rettke was referring to them as animals.

Denton, however, continued to propose the idea that since the area outside Borchuck Plaza is deemed a “free speech zone” by the university, Rettke had the same right to be there expressing his opinion just as the BLM members did.

Denton also had a verbal grapple with former ETSU Investigator Tim Anderson on the audio recorded interview with Rettke and pushed the retired officer to pinpoint exactly which of Rettke’s actions met the criteria for a civil rights violation charge. During closing arguments, Denton said the disorderly conduct was the only charges his client could have committed.

The defense rested its case without putting on any proof. Denton and Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle gave their closing arguments late Tuesday, and the case will resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The jury will hear instructions for deliberation from the judge before they being determining Rettke’s guilt or innocence.

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