Johnson City, Tenn. — An East Tennessee State University student has been charged with civil rights intimidation after heckling Black Lives Matter demonstrators at a peaceful silent protest on the school's campus.
Tristan Rettke, an ETSU freshman, arrived at the protest at Borchuck Plaza at the school's campus barefoot in a gorilla mask and denim overalls.
Video footage showed him attempting to hand out "noose-wrapped bananas" from a burlap sack to the demonstrators. The sack had a marijuana leaf and a Confederate flag printed on it.
"He pulled out his burlap sack and then he had the rope and whatnot and then he started offering us bananas," said Jaylen Grimes, one of the demonstrators. "A lot of us didn't take it, but I just took (it) as a sign of peace offering and just to show him that just because he's being disrespectful towards me, I won't be disrespectful towards him."
As part of his counterprotest efforts, Rettke held up a sign that said "Lives Matter."
"He's just trying to get a reaction out of us that we're not going to give him. We're bigger than that," said one protestor who held a sign that read "Black Lives Matter (doesn't mean) all lives don't (matter).
Rettke, 18, was escorted from the protest by public safety officers and was later criminally charged by the Johson City Police Department.
Rettke told police he went to the event "in (an) attempt to provoke the protesters."
ETSU President Brian Noland held a press conference Wednesday after seeing video of the incident. He discussed the event during a "community dialogue" on campus.
"I was offended, but I was also saddened," Noland said, calling Rettke's actions "incomprehensible, intolerable and impermissible."
Rettke has been placed on interim suspension from the college.
In a statement, ETSU said Rettke's actions "go against the values" of the school and that the university is a place "where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect."
The university applauded the protestors for remaining clam despite Rettke's actions.
"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," Noland said.
"Of course, it's hard to stay calm because they're doing it because they know they can get under your skin," Grimes told The Johnson City Press. "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. 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."
"We hold no ill towards him," another student, Grant Madison said. "I added him on Facebook and want to speak with him about why he did it."
Read more at the East Tennessean.