An East Tennessee State University student was arrested Wednesday after going to a Black Lives Matter protest on campus wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas.
Tristan Rettke, an 18-year-old freshman, wore overalls and a gorilla mask and, wandering barefoot while holding a burlap sack with a Confederate flag and a marijuana leaf on it, offered bananas to students who were protesting, according to a report by ETSU police. He was arrested and charged with civil rights intimidation.
According to campus police, after being read his rights Rettke told officers that a couple of days earlier he had seen on social media that there would be a Black Lives Matter event in the “free speech” area of Borchuck Plaza on the Johnson City, Tenn., campus. He said he went to a store Tuesday to buy rope to tie to a bunch of bananas. While there he also bought the mask and brought it all to the event on Wednesday.
According to the police report, Rettke said the stunt was an attempt to provoke the protesters.
Rettke did not immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post seeking comment Thursday.
In a video posted on social media, the protesters appear to be trying to ignore Rettke, although one protester says on the video that his hands are shaking with anger. A woman at the protest called police.
The East Tennessean, the newspaper on campus which first reported the incident, quoted one of the protesters explaining why they didn’t react angrily. “I was going to let him stay as long as he wanted to,” Jaylen Grimes told the East Tennessean, “because once white people see how the counterpart of their same culture acts, they can just reflect on that and see, ‘Oh, I’m not like that. Oh, I actually might want to help.’ And they might want to push against what his thoughts and what his beliefs are.”
“Violence is not our answer to anything,” Grimes said. “Because once you fight fire with fire, it just starts a larger fire. And where there’s more fire, there’s more destruction.”
Grimes did not immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post requesting comment Thursday.
It was the latest in a series of ugly incidents on campuses across the country as the school year begins with racial tensions high. This month at the University of Michigan, racially offensive posters were found on campus advising white women not to date black men. At Eastern Michigan University, someone painted KKK and slurs on campus walls. At Kansas State University, a photo of a former student with her face painted black and a racial slur was shared on social media.
ETSU President Brian Noland sent a message to campus Wednesday:
Earlier today during a student-led Black Lives Matter event at Borchuck Plaza, our campus community was outraged by the behavior of one student who confronted the participants. The actions of this one individual go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect.
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.
The ETSU Department of Public Safety staff responded to the incident. At this time, criminal charges are pending before the local district attorney, and an internal student-conduct investigation has begun.
Our university values diversity, inclusivity and respect for others. In keeping with those values, there will be an opportunity for community dialogue tonight at 7 p.m. inside the D.P. Culp Auditorium. University leadership will be present.