Vassell rally brings attention to hate crimes

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/Collegian

A 13-minute march with constant loud chants in protest of hate crimes ended in relative silence yesterday as University of Massachusetts students and faculty members placed hundreds of flowers in a chain-linked fence to represent those who have been recently affected by hate crimes.

Each flower represented 30 of the over 10,000 hate crimes that were reported in 2007 across the country. But Wednesday’s rally and march from the steps of the student union to the horseshoe in Southwest residential area was in support of Jason Vassell – a former UMass student charged with assault with intent to murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon, following an alleged hate crime incident on campus on Feb. 3 involving Vassell and two white men.

John Bowes, 20, was charged with two hate crimes and disorderly conduct. The other, Jonathan Bosse, has not been charged. Yesterday’s rally followed a vigil for Vassell on Feb. 27 and was intended to raise awareness and lessen his charges before his pretrial hearing scheduled for Friday in Hampshire District Court.

“He is a survivor of a hate crime and a violent assault, who is being further traumatized by being isolated; from his partner, his friends, his academic studies, his community, the legal system and the excessive charges against him,” said Zane Barlow Coleman, a professor of biology at UMass who taught and knew Vassell.

“I find that unacceptable. I find it appalling,” she added.

Students gathered to listen as professors and fellow peers held speeches at the student union that started around 12:15 p.m. and ended 30 minutes later. Some students discussed their experiences of racism on campus while the faculty members that spoke talked about Vassell’s situation and about how violent acts on campus affect everyone.

“What took place here that evening at this University is something in which issues of justice, issues of fairness, issues of decency and the values in which we espouse as a community are threatened,” Michael Thelwell, professor in the African American studies department said.

After the group of speakers concluded, about 100 people held signs and chanted as they marched to Vassell’s former living area in Southwest, while many on-lookers watched, joined in or asked about what the rally was for.

The chants of, ‘Hate crimes have got to go! Hey-hey, ho-ho!,’ ‘What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!’ and ‘Justice for Jason! Justice for Jason!,’ permeated over campus and garnered attention as the group marched all along campus.

Those leading the march yelled the chants through their megaphones and one student made a makeshift drum to go along with the beat.

The march ended at the horseshoe in Southwest, as the flowers were placed in the fence near the basketball courts. Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the African American studies program, had a few things to say to those in attendance before the rally ended.

“It is only by this beautiful expression of love, and of justice and of concern, and these flowers, and the march and the rallies and the words and the passion that we bring to this effort, to this struggle that we are safe in no uncertain terms,” he said.

“And being categorically clear that [the prosecutor] is not representing the community in this prosecution,” he added. “Because this is a travesty of justice.”

Although the rally’s purpose was directed specifically to Vassell, the message by speakers and students participating in the rally reflected a larger societal concern here at UMass by some students.

“The hate crimes, the violence on campus, the ignorance and the lack of education around the issues of race, homophobia and sexual assault – need to stop,” Student Government Association president-elect Malcolm Chu said.

“It’s okay to be angry about this,” he added. “I think it’s normal to ignore these things in our society. We’re taught to ignore these differences and this hatred that comes with our differences, or socialized by our differences. It’s okay to stand up; it’s okay to fight against these things and be angry.”

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]