Protesting a day of shame

February 3, 2009

Dan Gagnon reports on why Jason Vassell faces years in prison for defending himself against a racist attack--and what his supporters are doing to defend him.

IF YOU pay regular attention to the news, you may have heard of Oscar Grant, a police murder victim in Oakland, Calif., or the Jena Six, the Louisiana high school students who were targeted for prosecution after suffering a racist attack.

But these aren't isolated examples of racism, as we're sometimes told by the media. There are similar cases around the country.

Take a look at Amherst, Mass., where an African American student at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Jason Vassell, is facing charges that could put him in prison for years for defending himself after two white non-students tried to break into his dorm and attack him.

Prosecutors have added insult to injury by leveling less serious charges against one of the two attackers, John Bowes--and letting the other, Jonathan Bosse, go free.

Jason's supporters have called for February 3--the one-year anniversary of the hate crime committed against Jason--to be a "Day of Shame," with a rally and vigil planned at UMass, while other people around the country are asked to call in to the Northwestern District Attorney's Office to demand that the charges against Jason be dropped.

Marching for justice for Jason
Marching for justice for Jason (SW)

One year ago on February 3, Jason was sitting in his dorm room with two female friends. When one of these friends went to the window to let some air in, she found two heavily intoxicated men standing outside and looking in. The two men began yelling at Jason, calling him a "nigger" and verbally abusing him.

They challenged Jason to come outside and fight them. When Jason refused, one of the men smashed the window, and both continued to shout racial slurs. In the midst of the commotion, Jason called Vishan Chamanlal, one of his friends, for help.

Jason went to the dorm entrance to let Chamanlal in, taking a pocketknife in case he needed to defend himself. When he got to the entrance, he found that Bowes and Bosse had followed him there. Now inside the dormitory, the men challenged Jason to fight again. Jason took out his pocketknife and told the two men to leave, and not to touch him.

Security video camera footage shows Bowes and Bosse throwing the first punch. Bowes hit Jason in the face, breaking his nose. Fearing for his life, Jason used his pocketknife to stab at the men, causing minor injuries to both. Jason fled behind a locked door while Bowes and Bosse continued to scream at him. At this point, UMass police arrived on the scene.

What you can do

Participate in the "Day of Shame" national call-in on February 3 by calling the Northwestern District Attorney's office at 413-586-9225 and asking that the charges against Jason be dropped. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.

A rally and vigil is planned for February 3 at UMass. Gather at 11:30 a.m. at the MacKimmie Dorm.

Sign a petition to protest the charges against Jason Vassell.

To get involved with the campaign to defend Jason, visit the Justice for Jason Web site. You can also donate at the site to help his family in defraying the cost of Jason's legal defense, or send a check to Esmie James, "Justice for Jason," P.O. Box 197, Amherst, MA 01004.

AFTER THE attack, it became apparent right away that the authorities' attitude toward this case would be highly influenced by the race of those involved.

According to students who witnessed the scene, Lt. Robert Thrasher of the UMass Police Department (UMPD) behaved in a racist manner. In a call to another officer, Thrasher said: "How poor of a Black kid [Jason] is, I don't know, because I think he is a drug dealer." Thrasher said this knowing that a police search of Jason's dorm room had come up clean, and that there was no other evidence of drugs being involved. In another phone conversation, Thrasher was heard saying: "You gonna get a story out of this asshole?" and "What's this donkey say?"

The Justice for Jason campaign is calling for an investigation of the officers involved in the case, many of whom are cited in the motion to dismiss as committing misconduct and treating Jason unfairly because of his race.

The racism didn't stop with police, however. Prosecutors and the courts also showed an obvious bias.

This is the only explanation for why a Black man faces prison time for defending himself against two drunken white men who shouted insults at him, physically threatened him, smashed the window of his dorm and broke his nose. This is the only explanation why only one of the two white men has been charged with a much less serious felony, and the other faces no charges at all. This is the only explanation why District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has not exercised her power to drop the charges altogether.

This case has sparked an uproar in the community. Jason's supporters have come together in the Justice for Jason campaign, organizing a benefit concert, informational meetings and several protests that have drawn hundreds of people. Last month, the campaign held a 400-strong march to the Northwestern District Attorney's office to demand that Scheibel drop the charges.

Justice for Jason has organized a "Day of Shame" for February 3. Supporters around the country are asked to call in to the prosecutors' office to ask that the charges against Jason be dropped. A rally and vigil at UMass will also press the demands for an investigation of the UMPD officers involved in the case and for Chancellor Robert Holub to offer Jason reinstatement at UMass.

It's up to us to fight back and say no to racism.

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