Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Vassell supporters claim to see profiling connections between Vassell case and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

By Hannah McGoldrick

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In a July 22 Boston Globe Op-Ed, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Carol Rose, suggested that “we’re a long way from being a ‘post-racial’ society in Massachusetts.” This said in response to the July 16th arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

According to the incident report printed by the Cambridge Police Department, Gates was “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place.” Rose advocated, “the arrest of [Gates]… while trying to open the front door to his home is the latest reminder that racism is alive and well even in the most progressive enclaves of Massachusetts.”

Members from the Committee for Justice for Jason believe they have found distinct connections between Gates’ arrest and former UMass student Jason Vassell’s ongoing trial. In an interview with the Valley Post, Committee member Kate Traub said, “I’m angry, but I can’t say it surprises me. It does surprise me that it happened in this area with its history of community justice programs.”

“Maybe the Cambridge police officer was instead following the example set in the case of Jason Vassell,” said Rose.

Over the past 17 months Vassell’s lawyers have attempted to make the case that Vassell was prosecuted on the basis of his race. His lawyers cited the past incidences of alleged racial violence of his attackers and the alleged racial bias of the UMass Police during their investigation process.

“I think that circumstance had a significant effect on the way that Jason acted the night of the incident,” stated Committee member Joe Mirkin. “When white people are calling you a nigger and they enter the space where you live, given the history of racism in this country, you have to err on the side of caution assuming that your life is in danger.” Defend himself he did, according to the motion to dismiss Vassell’s charges, when he indicated that, “he was terrified and realized that ‘if I don’t do something, I’m going to die’.”

In an interview with Christopher Ott, Communications Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, he told the Collegian that, “both [cases] raise serious questions about unequal treatment of people of color by police and our legal system.”

The ACLU recently joined Vassell’s defense team in an effort to dismiss all charges against Vassell on the grounds that it has been a discriminatory prosecution. Ott continued his thoughts on the case by stating, “Why does the African-American victim face more serious charges than the intoxicated white assailants who invaded his dormitory and assaulted him?” Ott also drew parallels to Gates’ arrest by saying, “Would a white person have ever ended up being arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ under similar circumstances, or have been suspected of committing a crime in the first place?”

A July 26 press release sent out by the Committee for Justice for Jason claims racial profiling has led to phrases such as “driving while black,” but in the wake of Vassell’s case and Gates’ arrest they suggest that “perhaps a new phrase might soon take on a cultural meaning- ‘being home while black.’”

Derek Khanna, president of the UMass Republican Club commented on the matter by stating, “I am repulsed by the idea that disagreeing with an officer inside of one’s home could be considered disorderly conduct.” He went on to say, “Americans should have the right to be disorderly within their own homes provided that they do not threaten others.”

While Vassell has stated that he no longer wishes to return to UMass, due in part to the administration’s reaction to his arrest, no efforts have been made by the administration to re-enroll Vassell as a student. Although Chancellor Holub was not at UMass when Vassell was arrested, he and his administration have said there is nothing they can do to reinstate Vassell at the University.

Mirkin says, “This is nothing more than an insincere act of avoiding responsibility and misrepresenting the situation facing Jason when he was attacked and wrongfully charged.”

Meanwhile, Khanna, held the opinion, “I think the Dean’s Office system is ridiculous in how it handles these cases to begin with, and I think the entire system needs serious overhaul, but I don’t think the Dean of Students office’s actions are nearly as unethical as the SGA’s actions regarding paying for Jason Vassell’s defense.”

Khanna was referring to allegations surrounding the use of SGA funds to purchase T-shirts that were sold to support Vassell’s legal defense fund.

In the ACLU newsletter Rose said, “This case raises serious questions about racial bias. It’s bad enough that Jason Vassell had to endure racial slurs and a violent attack from intruders in his dormitory, and it’s very hard to understand why he now faces far more serious charges than the two white assailants he defended himself against.”

The Committee for Justice for Jason discussed how they would like to see the UMass community and American society at large change in the wake of Vassell’s case and Gates’ arrest. “[We] would like for everyone’s peace and worth as humans to be valued the same, be they black, white, brown, male, female, queer, trans, gay, straight, young, middle-aged, elderly, rich, middle-class, poor, homeless, differently abled, and regardless of occupation, religious or political background. Hate crimes take place against people of all stripes, and they are equally reprehensible in every form and manifestation.”


19 Responses to “Vassell supporters claim to see profiling connections between Vassell case and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.”

  1. Mishy Leibum on September 8th, 2009 11:48 pm

    Alleged SGA funds? Why it’s a matter of public record that his defense fund was paid for by the UMASS SGA illegally!


  2. Abby Adams on September 8th, 2009 11:57 pm

    Justice for Jason T-shirts were in the SGA office for a prolonged period of time. On numerous occasions i saw the shirts under the main table in the front of the office. not quite sure if these are allegations?


  3. Patrick Higgins on September 9th, 2009 9:09 am

    Everyone should be aware that the author of this article is DATING A MEMBER OF THE JUSTICE FOR JASON COMMITTEE! This is the most biased piece of garbage that I have ever read. If this paper is going to continue to publish NON-OPINION pieces by those who have an awkwardly close connection to the subject then they should see if they can get bought out by the New York Times.


  4. John Connor on September 9th, 2009 10:14 am

    Just to clarify, dating Ben Thompson.

    Why doesn’t this article mention that Vassell stabbed the white individuals till the point where one nearly died? I don’t care what type of language was used, regarding the question of excessive force, which is the question at hand, it is irrelevant. The question of “did he use excessive force” which is the ENTIRE question of the trial, has NOTHING to do with what racial slurs were used beforehand. I think it’s sad that people as intellectually incompetent as quoted from the J4J committee actually attend this university.


  5. S.P. Sullivan on September 9th, 2009 11:07 am

    @Patrick: I’ve been made aware of the apparent conflict of interest, and our news editors have been instructed to take that into consideration when assigning stories in the future. We keep tabs on what other RSOs our reporters are involved in to avoid conflicts of interest, but it is difficult to foresee things like conflicts with their social attachments. Thanks for making that clear and keeping our methods in check.

    The story isn’t about the contentious incident itself; we’ll update that as court proceedings continue. This story is about the ACLU’s involvement and the comparisons that have been drawn between Vassell’s case and Gates’

    /S.P. Sullivan, managing editor


  6. Michael Foley on September 9th, 2009 7:45 pm

    This entire situation is a debacle. This man had his dorm broken into, and people are upset because he used “too much force” when THEY were in HIS dorm and he was frightened for his life.

    How preposterous. You can never use “too much force” to defend yourself from people who are breaking into your home – dorms included – and threatening you with violence. The attackers are 100% in the wrong.

    If Jason had opted to break into THEIR dorms, that would be a different ballgame altogether. Unfortunately for those who think he used “too much force,” we don’t live in reverse-world and he didn’t attack anyone in their dorm.


  7. Abby Adams on September 9th, 2009 10:52 pm

    Unfortunately the last commenter knows nothing about law.

    NO ONE, is alleging, that Vassell’s dorm was “broken into.” They gained unauthorized access, seems likely, but this is not breaking and entering. Similarly, legally speaking the dorm itself is not his house, it is not his “castle” (a legal term), it is not even legally speaking his residence. If they broke down his door, for his room, then the Castle laws go into effect what you say as never using too much force. But in MA, there are serious restrictions upon self defense in such a situation.

    In a few states, Southern mainly, you can kill an intruder without provided any other evidence. In MA this is not the case, and as stated, the dorm is not legally his home.

    The attackers were in the wrong, but this does not make Vassell’s actions. Stabbing one multiple times until he almost died, legal. The only way it is legal is if he can prove that he could not have retreaded, and that he provided equal force to his attacker and subdued them and did not act any further, which is not the truth.

    People like you, with no knowleddge of the law, should not be involved in situations like this, that’s what the J4J group is for. Making up legalisms based on race.


  8. Michael Foley on September 9th, 2009 11:18 pm

    I must admit that I am in fact from the South so I was unaware of the particular laws here in Mass. In which case, those are laws that need to be reformed. Self defense should be an inalienable right, not a privilege in ‘certain situations.’

    What a tragedy that this man, defending himself from people who gained unauthorized access (by saying “broken into” I was not referring to “breaking and entering” per se, but unauthorized access in general – I apologize for the ambiguity) to his dorm, intent in stirring up racial trouble, is being condemned by the justice system based on such absurd laws.


  9. Michael Foley on September 9th, 2009 11:36 pm

    Further, Jason stated that his window was broken – while perhaps not technically “breaking and entering,” as you say, the dorm room was actually ‘broken into.’


  10. Abby Adams on September 10th, 2009 12:24 am

    Hmm interesting points. However,self-defense is allowed in MA, but it is limited in application. The question at hand is not was he attacked (which no one is denying), nor was it because of his race (which few are denying), but rather, did he use excessive force to subdue his attackers. Even in the South, excessive force can still result in charges, that is what is at question here.

    Regarding access, survellance tapes indicate that it was Jason who let them into the dorm. They were unauthorized because anyone who is not UMASS or signed in it technically unauthorized, but legally speaking this is not in the same realm as B/E (although you do make a slight distinction).

    Regarding the window, that’s intimidation, perhaps in MA a hate crime for vandalism, and it’s likely why Bowes was charged with his charges (but he was found innocent meaning that we have to assume that there was more to the story).

    Breaking a window from the outside without intent to enter is not breaking and entering.

    The key is your comment that you can never use too much force, in some jurisdictions your correct, but not in MA.


  11. Patrick Higgins on September 10th, 2009 8:21 am

    I would like to point out to Abby and Michael that you are discussing a point that is irrelevant. Neither side is contending that the intruders ever entered into Jason’s DORM ROOM and therefore any type of “castle laws” don’t apply. The incident took place in the DORM LOBBY, which is a public place. Jason has access, because he lived in the building and Bowes and Bosse had access, because another resident willingly let them in. The broken window in the dorm room, while important to note, has taken a much less serious role in the case since authorities have been unable to conclude whether or not the window was broken before/after the attacks and/or from the inside/outside.

    Also, if either side is going to discuss this case then they should get all of the facts first. If you are able to obtain still copies of the video footage from the lobby cameras, you will see that Jason enters the lobby, wearing a ski mask and holding a clothes iron, from behind a locked hallway door. It is only then that there is a physical confrontation involving Bowes and Bosse. I would not all this “defending himself”.

    How would J4J supporters like it if a white male came out of his dorm wearing a mask and carrying and iron, because he felt threatened by the anti-white tone of one of their rallies? When you’re a black man and somebody calls you a “nigger”, you do nothing, but sit in your room, behind a locked door and know that you are the bigger man. Disgusting terms like “nigger” only have power, because people respond to them. If a minority population truly cares about stripping bigots of their power, then they will stop being offended by “hate speech”.


  12. S.P. Sullivan on September 10th, 2009 11:57 am

    @Patrick, “John Connor” and “Mishy”: We’re trying to keep the conversation on the Collegian comments boards a little more respectful and reasonable. I don’t neccesarily take issue with anything you’ve said here, but you should try to be honest in how you represent yourself.

    I’m fairly certain “John Connor” is a pseudonym. I’m also fairly certain “Mishy Leibum” isn’t former SGA member Mishy Leiblum, considering the last name was spelled wrong. I don’t know for certain if Patrick Higgins is a real name (it didn’t turn up on any student databases I tried, but you don’t have to be a student to comment), but I’m fairly sure Patrick’s email isn’t vanna.snow at gmail.

    The reason those emails are provided in the first place is a) so people can follow up on points via email and b) to provide some accountibility. Collegian staffers put their names and emails along with every thing they write – the least you could do is not misrepresent yourself with someone else’s name or email address.


  13. Brad DeFlumeri on September 10th, 2009 9:34 pm

    Pat Higgins is the former SGA Senate Speaker and the centerpiece of the “KKK 9” scandal a few years back. I don’t think this is really him. Perhaps it is one of Ed Cutting’s aliases.


  14. ralph reed on September 11th, 2009 7:51 am

    The issue is not one of race, but poverty and lack of education, and police are demanded to work with poor people of differing ethnicities and arrest some of them. Rather than reify pigmentation, one should work on enriching persons.

    Ralph Reed


  15. Ed Cutting on September 25th, 2009 5:48 pm

    The interesting thing here is that the Gates arrest was for the EXACT SAME THING that hundreds of UMass students have been arrested for over the past few years. Essentially being loud, obnoxious and possibly drunk.

    Look at it this way: you kick open the door of a university-owned apartment and when the police show up, you start screaming at the cops. What do we honestly think would happen to a white kid at UMass, or in Puffton?

    Enough said?


  16. Arthur P. Hastings on September 29th, 2009 8:08 pm

    This story was so last year. Lets just forget about now OK? Cops aren’t racist they are smart and were doing their job. Jason doesn’t go here any more anyways. So lets forget about it.


  17. Laura Huber on September 30th, 2009 3:18 pm

    “Let’s forget about it” because it’s “so last year”? You’re being awfully flippant about the question of unfair prosecution and racism in the judicial system, and violent criminals getting off scot-free. Even if some of the details of the situation are unclear or debated over, even the possibility of such injustice should be enough to capture the the public’s interest and concern.
    If you were being unfairly prosecuted for self-defense, I guess everybody could “just forget about it”, if you “don’t go here anymore anyways”, right? And cops aren’t racist? Tell that to Rodney King, who was brutally beaten with clubs by four LA police officers. Tell that to the family of Oscar Grant, who was lying on the ground, unarmed, when he was fatally shot by a police officer. Certainly, all cops aren’t racist; perhaps most of them aren’t. But to make a blanket statement that NO cops EVER behave in a racist manner is ignorant and extremely disrespectful to those who have suffered at the hands of racist police officers.


  18. Jonathan on September 30th, 2009 3:55 pm

    Repeat after me.

    The plural of anecdotes is not data.
    The plural of anecdotes is not data.

    [Slams head against wall]


  19. Suspicion on January 13th, 2010 6:50 pm

    It was wrong for the students to break inside, but this story just seems fishy. No white students on campus would break into a dorm just because the inhabitant was black. The way society reams any bit of racism, even if it isn’t racism and only makes a comment about those of one race would make any drunken student think twice about their actions. Also, if a student wanted to commit racial based crimes, I would target a black student walking around campus rather then one behind a dorm window which would take me time to break through. A hit and run attack on a black pedestrian would make alot more sense then taking the time to cut through and smash a window.

    That leads me to believe Vassell was somehow involved, either by yelling at the attackers or maybe he was recognized from another prior run-in. Also, the fact that he didn’t run from his dorm room when attacked is a bit suspicious. If the police were to deeply inspect his room I wouldn’t be surprised if like many students rooms drugs or other illegal substances (alcohol, etc.) were found.


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