Protesters mark one-year anniversary of Jason Vassell incident

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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A group of about 80 protesters marched down University Drive on Tuesday afternoon, stopping traffic en route to the University of Massachusetts Police Department, in protest of the charges facing former UMass student Jason Vassell.The rally, which was organized by the Justice for Jason Vassell committee and came on the one-year anniversary of the campus incident that has Vassell facing a possible prison sentence of up to 30 years, took the marchers to the site of last year’s incident ‘- MacKimmie Hall ‘- to the UMPD, where organizers made a statement calling for change and awareness.

‘Today, we’re not just calling on [Northwestern] District Attorney [Elizabeth] Scheibel to drop the charges against Jason, we’re not just calling on [UMass Chancellor Robert] Holub to reinstate Jason into the University, but we’re calling on an investigation into the UMass Police Department,’ said UMass student and committee member Tristan Brosnan to the crowd in front of the UMPD.

Committee members specifically called out for an investigation of UMPD lieutenant Robert Thrasher, who they claim led a racist investigation and ‘had it out for Jason from the start.’

‘I think it’s important to understand some of the language that came out based on the motion to dismiss. What we found out as a result was that our lieutenant of the UMass Police Department ‘- the lieutenant that’s supposed to be protecting us, that’s supposed to be keeping us safe, that’s supposed to be treating us as students, as citizens, and as equals regardless of the color of our skin ‘- proceeded to investigate Jason’s case and referred to him as an ‘asshole,’ as a ‘donkey,’ as a ‘drug dealer,” Student Government Association President Malcolm Chu said. ‘That is the epitome of racist police behavior.’

Vassell, who is being charged with two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a pocket knife) and two counts of armed assault with intent to murder, is due in Hampshire Superior Court on Feb. 18 at 2 p.m., for a pretrial hearing, where the judge will hear Vassell’s motion to dismiss.

In addition to the march, organizers set up a national call-in day for Tuesday to the district attorney’s office, asking callers to voice their opinions to Scheibel regarding Vassell’s charges, which they deem to be unjust.

Chu said the committee had at least 600 people confirmed to call in from 20 states and four countries, and was hoping for over 1,000 people to call.

A message to the district attorney’s office was received but was not returned.

The charges against Vassell stem from a Feb. 3, 2008 incident between Vassell, an African American, and Jonathan Bosse and John Bowes, both Caucasian, who did not attend the University. According to court documents, Bosse and Bowes racially slurred Vassell outside his dormitory window, gained access to the main lobby and instigated a fight that left Vassell’s nose broken and Bosse and Bowes with stab wounds.

Bowes was later charged with two hate crimes and disorderly conduct and faces a maximum of four years in prison. Bosse was never charged.

The march, which lasted over an hour in the snow, went across the Southwest Residential Area, down University Drive, to the UMass Police Department and ended at the Whitmore Administration building. Much of the group held up signs urging people to call Scheibel, asking for an investigation into the UMPD and for the charges to be dropped.

The group chanted while they marched, including ‘No justice, no peace, no racist police’ and ‘Whose streets? Our streets,’ while they marched down University Drive with a UMPD cruiser riding behind them.

A vigil was also held Tuesday night outside of Vassell’s former dorm window of MacKimmie. About 30 people with candles stood in a snowy silence for 30 seconds to symbolize the 30 years of Vassell could face in prison.

‘It’s a day of shame, but it’s a night of pride,’ said UMass African American studies professor Amilcar Shabazz, reflecting on the day’s events. ‘For these students to make this kind of sacrifice for Jason, to do with they’re doing is something to be proud of.’

Chu was encouraged with the turnout and the potential impact the day made but was upset that the day was a full year in the making.

‘We’re going to keep on pushing, but today was a heartfelt day. We didn’t expect to get here last year. We didn’t think it would come this far; we thought it would be over quickly,’ Chu said. ‘The D.A. has continued to prosecute in the same way she’s done from the start. We’ll continue to fight that, but the University has continued to be silent. We didn’t expect that at all.’

‘I speak with Jason fairly often and it means a lot because he knows he has support, but ultimately he’s still facing 30 years in prison,’ continued Chu. ‘He’s persevering, and he keeps pushing forward, and he’s really appreciative of the support all over the country.’

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]