On Wednesday afternoon, a Black Lives Matter protest on East Tennessee State University’s campus was interrupted by a student wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas.
The student, identified as freshman Tristan Rettke, was dressed in overalls, a white T-shirt, and a gorilla mask. As students peacefully protested, Rettke attempted to distribute bananas while holding a rope in his hand.
Students at the event alerted officials and cited a disorderly conduct report. Rettke was then taken to the public safety office, where he gave a statement to officers. After a discussion between campus public safety supervisors, campus administrators, and the District Attorney General, Rettke was charged with civil rights intimidation.
While detained, Rettke told officers that he heard about the protest from the social media platform Yik Yak. He then stated that on Tuesday he went to a store and bought the overalls, mask, bananas, and rope. Rettke admitted that he attended the event “in attempt to provoke the protesters."
ETSU President Brian Noland held a press conference to address the campus regarding the disturbance. When Rettke interrupted the protest, one student streamed the event on Facebook live. Noland saw Rettke’s disruption in real time.
"I was offended, but I was also saddened," Noland said about Rettke's behavior. "The nation is not only raw, but it's healing."
Noland additionally praised the protesters for their maturity in handling the disorderly conduct. A community dialogue was held in the evening for the entire campus.
Sophomore Jaelyn Grimes was present during the protest and was approached by Rettke before he was taken away by officers. Grimes admitted that although the situation made him angry, he knew it was important to remain calm.
“You've just got to have thicker skin and be the bigger person and just show that ignorance is not going to override your ability to be calm,” Grimes said. “Because being calm is a lot more difficult than reacting the way they want us to react, which is in a violent stereotypical Black way. But we're not all like that.”
An official statement was released by ETSU officials and posted to the school’s Facebook page. Video of the two-hour-long community dialogue is also available on the page.
Rettke has been place on interim suspension.
(Photos from left: Johnson City Police Department, Grant Madison via Facebook)