When Tristan Rettke went on trial this week, both sides agreed on one thing: What he had done was racist.
On Sept. 28, 2016, the white college freshman showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally on the campus of East Tennessee State University, dressed in a gorilla mask. Carrying bananas, rope and a sack emblazoned with a Confederate flag, he tied knots that resembled nooses around the bananas, dangling them in front of the black demonstrators. When one protester asked him why he was wearing the mask, Rettke, then 18, replied: “I identify as a gorilla. I look like you.”
“I’m not going to tell you this wasn’t racism,” Rettke’s attorney, Patrick Denton, said in court Monday. “That would just be disingenuous. We can all just acknowledge there’s a strong racist element to it. But what the Constitution says is that he can express racist views.”
An all-white jury agreed, clearing Rettke of felony charges on Wednesday, the Johnson City Press reported. During the two-day trial, prosecutors had sought to prove that the 21-year-old’s actions intimidated the Black Lives Matters protesters and violated their civil rights. But the defense successfully argued that Rettke, who withdrew from the university after the incident, was merely a heckler who had been exercising his right to free speech.
“Are we going to outlaw heckling?” Denton asked in his opening arguments.
Rettke’s arrest in 2016 had drawn criticism from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the ACLU of Tennessee. Both groups noted that there was no evidence that the freshman had threatened anyone, and said that as offensive as his behavior might have been, it was protected by the First Amendment. His attorney made the same argument in court this week, also asking jurors to keep in mind that Rettke was 18 at the time and hadn’t fully matured.
After hours of deliberation on Wednesday, the Washington County, Tenn., jury acquitted Rettke on charges of civil rights intimidation and disorderly conduct. They convicted him on one misdemeanor charge — disrupting a meeting — and recommended a $500 fine for the violation. Rettke’s attorney is considering appealing that charge, WJHL reported.
If he were convicted on the civil rights charges, Rettke could have faced up to two years in prison.
Taking place in the wake of fatal police shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, the Black Lives Matter rally that Rettke disrupted was part of a peaceful three-day demonstration that took place in the designated “free speech area” of the Johnson City, Tenn., campus. The students who planned the protest — many of them first-time activists — expected some backlash.
“We are in the South, a fairly conservative, religious area,” Nathaniel Farnor, then the vice president of ETSU’s student government association, told The Washington Post’s Susan Svrluga. “In our region it’s usually frowned on. Black Lives Matter — I’ve heard people call it a terrorist group, a hate group, a racist organization.”
Still, no one expected a white student to walk out of the library in a gorilla mask, then start making monkey noises and offering the demonstrators bananas.
Rettke fundamentally disagreed with the Black Lives Matter movement. He grew up in a conservative family where many of his relatives served in the military or worked as police officers, and felt that “railing against racism, while quantifying which lives matter, is contributing to the problems that you want to fix,” his attorney said during opening statements on Monday. When he learned about the rally that would be taking place on campus, he turned to an online forum, asking for suggestions for how he could “troll” the protesters. (Court exhibits referred to the Web board as “/pol/,” the name of one of the most infamous subforums on 4chan.)
Video filmed by bystanders showed what happened next. Barefoot and dressed in overalls, Rettke made his way through the crowd, taunting the black students with bananas and holding out his cellphone as if to record their reaction. For more than 20 minutes, the demonstrators did their best to ignore the man in the gorilla mask, though one could be heard admitting that his hands were shaking with anger. Finally, a campus safety officer showed up and dragged Rettke away.
“He went to the rally to provoke a reaction,” Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle said during opening statements on Monday, adding that the freshman later told police that he wanted to “piss people off” and “bait them.”
There was no question that Rettke had the right to attend the protest and to express his opinions, the prosecutor said. But the jury should take the history of racial oppression toward African Americans into consideration, she added, as well as the symbolism of what Rettke brought with him to the rally. When he had tied the rope into a noose, she asked, “was that done to exercise his right to free speech, or was that done to intimidate the people who were there?”
Denton, the defense attorney, claimed that it wasn’t really a noose. “It’s just rope around bananas,” he said. Furthermore, he argued, the videos from the protest showed that none of the demonstrators felt threatened by his client.
“They’re angry and they’re offended, they’re not scared and intimidated,” Denton said. “No one is hiding their face or running away.”
Students who participated in the rally said otherwise, testifying during the trial that Rettke’s behavior frightened them.
“When he came out here, honestly I was scared,” Brook’ale Anderson told the court, according to WCYB. “The thought kept running through my mind, like, am I going to make it home to my mom?”
Rettke “very much regrets the way it was blown out of proportion,” Denton said in his opening arguments. Denton counseled jurors not to assume that the 21-year-old’s views were the same as they were three years ago. The attorney also warned that cracking down on free speech could be a slippery slope, telling jurors that prosecutors “want you to be the thought police.”
It’s unclear what Rettke has been doing since he left ETSU, and if his attitude toward the Black Lives Matter movement has, in fact, changed. He has yet to speak publicly about the episode, but his attorney described his acquittal on Wednesday as “a vindication for the First Amendment.”
McArdle, the prosecutor, had a different takeaway.
“I’d like to think something positive came out of this and that, going forward, people will understand this type of behavior isn’t going to be tolerated,” she told WJHL.