Those between the picket signs

By S.P. Sullivan, Collegian Columnist

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It takes a hearing to have a hearing.

Over 100 people made their way over to the Northampton District Court’ Wednesday to rally in support of Jason Vassell, and walked away with another appointment to wield their picket signs.

Judge Judd Carthart heard the defense attorneys for Vassell ‘- the former University of Massachusetts student facing an upwards of 20 years in prison after a racially charged incident that gets more difficult to provide background on every time it gets written about ‘- as they filed a motion to dismiss.

After an hour or so of proceedings, an evidentiary hearing was scheduled for March 3.A hearing from another hearing. Another day to protest in the snow.

The court room, its capacity 50 or 60 people, was full before the case even began, and I milled about outside talking to Vassell’s supporters as they spilled over in the hallway outside Superior Court 2.

Mary Snyder, an Amherst resident, sat herself on the bench outside the courtroom, unable to get inside, but remained. She said she got her wires crossed and went first to the Belchertown court house, righted her course and showed up in NoHo. She and Will Snyder, a UMass freshman who accompanied her, heard about the incident from all the talk that’s been going on in the community.

‘My husband was a professor of biology before he retired, and I heard Jason was a student in the department,’ she said.

‘It seems to be a miscarriage of justice. Jason was just defending himself, and now he’s on trial,’ she said, and she laughed. The late author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that laughter and tears were both responses to frustration and exhaustion. Vassell’s supporters keep showing up to hearings and rallies, almost invariably in the snow, and always leave with another X on their calendar and more frustration to laugh ‘- or cry ‘- off.

‘I heard a lot about the case last year,’ said Will Snyder. ‘We talked about it a lot in my Race, Gender, Class and Ethnicity class.’ He came to learn more about race in the justice system and, of his own volition, to lend his support.

It is easy to write these people off as crazy liberals in an Internet forum or a news website, but it’s not so easy to see it on their faces.

The dialogue this controversy has sparked on and, and to a lesser extent in private conversations, has been bipolar at best. There is the highly-charged rhetoric of the Committee for Justice for Jason Vassell [CJJV], and the equally knee-jerk allegations from Vassell’s detractors. There are the protest-jumping Amherst liberals, and then there are racists.

But Mary Snyder isn’t a protest-jumper; she’s a sweet old lady who wanted to lend her support to a nice boy who studied in her husband’s department. And Will Snyder isn’t liberal whacko; he’s a young white man trying to understand inequality in his community.

That’s right: inequality. There are many, many questions left unanswered about this case, Vassell’s culpability being the biggest. But there’s no question about this being an issue of race, no matter what people hiding behind the mask of anonymity write on message boards.

That’s not to say that Vassell should become the poster boy for racist prosecutions in the Valley. It’s one thing to let an issue shine light on institutional wrongs; it’s quite another to let a community member become its token.

But there is no layered understanding of this issue going on in the public sphere. There’s only: ‘He’s guilty, he’s playing the race card,’ and, ‘He’s innocent, and anyone who says otherwise is a racist.’

There’s no discussion of the possibility that regardless of what Vassell did or didn’t do, his prosecution ‘- and the treatment of the other two men involved ‘- is more than a little suspect. There is politics involved in this case, and the most painful politics are local. Yet many of the 100 or so people who gathered outside the district courthouse as the snow grew heavier and stacks of paperwork higher weren’t political crusaders. Right or wrong, they’re concerned community members.

You don’t have to be an innocent to be innocent, and you don’t have to be a ‘drug dealer” to exercise poor judgment in a time of crisis. And when the last hearing is heard, and a decision made, we all have to live with each other, and get over this ‘- with tears or with laughter.

S.P. Sullivan
is a Collegian columnist. Read him online at