Trial date set in gorilla mask intimidation case, more videos surfaced

Becky Campbell • Nov 8, 2018 at 7:25 PM

More videos of a Black Lives Matter rally at East Tennessee State University, which allegedly show a white student dressed in overalls and a gorilla mask dangling bananas tied to a string, have surfaced and are now in the hands of the man’s defense attorney.

Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle told Washington County Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice on Thursday that she discovered the additional videos while interviewing potential witnesses to the incident, which happened in Borchuck Plaza, designated a free-speech zone at ETSU.

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.

In addition to wearing the gorilla mask and carrying bananas to the rally, Rettke also had a burlap bag with the Confederate flag and a marijuana leaf emblazoned on it.

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.”

Rettke was arrested that day on charges of civil rights intimidation and was later indicted on charges of:

• Civil rights intimidation, free from exercise.
• Civil rights intimidation, because of exercise.
• Disorderly conduct.
• Disrupting a meeting or procession.

His attorney, Patrick 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.

During Thursday’s hearing, Rice told McArdle that she wouldn’t allow any other videos to become evidence in the trial indefinitely.

“Nov. 26 is the deadline for the state to turn over all discovery,” Rice said. “Any discovery not submitted by that time will not be allowed into evidence.”

Rice set the trial for July 15-16. Rettke was not at Thursday’s hearing by permission of the court. He remains free on bond while the case is pending.


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