Students hold vigil for former UMass student

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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With candles in hand, approximately 35 students braved the cold weather last night for a two-minute vigil to show their support for former University of Massachusetts student Jason Vassell, while raising awareness about recent hate crimes on campus.

The vigil took place outside of MacKimmie residence hall in Southwest, the location of an incident on Feb. 3 involving Vassell, a 23-year-old African-American, and two Caucasian males not enrolled at the University.

Numerous students cried during the two-minute moment of silence, while the cold air breezed and blew out some of the candles. Despite the difficult conditions outside, Student Government Association President Aaron Buford thought the evening went well and was a good start to improving race relations on campus.

“It was really powerful to see people come out and show signs of solidarity and affirm the commitment that they have to seeing these issues be resolved,” Buford said. “We’re working at some really powerful and positive changes on campus.”

Before the vigil, a 20-minute session was held at the Malcolm X Cultural Center featuring speakers and an open-floor discussion focusing on racial issues on campus. The focus was on Vassell but also included the commonality of hate crimes and the “negative culture” of Southwest.

“The FBI reported in 2006 that there were over 10,000 hate crimes, 66 percent of which were anti-black hate crimes,” said Chris Tinson, the Assistant Resident Director of John Quincy Adams dormitory. “Of those hate crimes, 44 percent have been on campuses, colleges, universities and residences.

“Why at institutions of so-called higher learning are these types of issues unfolding,” he asked. “It’s unfortunate and uncomfortable, but if we’re going to change it, we’re going to have to embrace an anti-racist perspective.”

He also talked at length about how the “negative culture” of Southwest has only fueled the problem at UMass.

“We seem to think that it’s okay when the Red Sox and Patriots play or win that we can just act up,” Tinson said. “We’re all going to have to be foot soldiers in the army against racism.”

During the open discussion, talk centered on how incidences involving race are difficult for people to openly discuss and how these situations tend to get dismissed.

“I think this is a very clear sign that racism does exist and that oppression has continued to play out with hate crimes on our own campus, and it’s really time to address it,” Malcolm Chu, SGA Secretary of Diversity said. “The only way to address this is for the university and everyone else to be accountable and build relationships, dialogue and communication to challenge racism and the violence that comes with it.”

The issue at the forefront last night involved the result of the Feb. 3 incident, which sent three men to the hospital with injuries and ultimately two in handcuffs.

At approximately 5 a.m., that morning, John Bowes, 20, and Jonathan Bosse, 19, allegedly kicked in Vassell’s dorm window, while yelling racial epitaphs at Vassell. Bowes and Bosse then gained access into the dormitory when Vassell tried to open the main door for a friend. A fight ensued, leaving Vassell with a broken nose and the two other men with stab wounds.

Vassell was arrested approximately nine hours later and charged with two counts of assault with intent to murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon. Bowes was later charged with two hate crimes and disorderly conduct. Bosse has not been charged.

Tracy Kelley, the Executive Secretary of the Committee for Justice for Jason Vassell, called for Vassell’s charges to be reduced during a speech inside the Malcolm X Cultural Center before the vigil.

“His human rights were completely violated,” she said. “Why do we always want to look at how it ended instead of how it was able to occur in the first place.”

There will be a rally held on March 12 at the steps of the Student Union from 12-1 p.m., further discussing the issue two days before Vassell’s pre-trial hearing.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]