Demonstrating on a “day of shame”
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.--Students and community members are continuing to build the fight for justice for Jason Vassell, a former University of Massachusetts (UMass) student who was the victim of a racist hate crime last year, but who is, incredibly, facing felony prosecution--with a possible sentence of 30 years--for defending himself.
Despite cold and snow showers, some 200 people turned out on February 3 to rally in support of Jason on the one-year anniversary of the attack against him--a day protesters labeled a "Day of Shame."
In February 2008, Vassell was attacked by two white men as he sat in his dorm room. The men, shouting racial epithets, broke the dorm window. In a physical altercation that followed, they broke Vassell's nose and caused a concussion. Jason, acting in self-defense, used a knife to inflict minor injuries on the two men.
Vassell was arrested and charged with two counts of assault with attempt to murder (these charges were later dropped) and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon. The Justice for Jason Committee is calling for Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel to drop all the charges against Jason. Additionally, activists are demanding that UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert Holub reinstate Jason at UMass and investigate the UMass Police Department (UMPD) officers involved in the case.
Jason's lawyers' motion to dismiss the charges against him alleges that police engaged in misconduct, racism and neglected to note key evidence in their pre-trial testimony. One of officers, Lt. Robert Thrasher, reportedly called Jason a "donkey," an "asshole," and said in a call to another officer, "Now how poor of a Black kid he is, I don't know, because I think he is a drug dealer."
The protest and rally started from Jason's former dormitory and marched to the UMPD station, where activists spoke about police racism and misconduct, before marching back to UMass.
The rally coincided with a "National Call-in Day" to District Attorney Scheibel's office. Campaign organizers estimated that as many as 1,000 people called in from all over country and from other countries, including Canada and Venezuela. One news station reported that they could hear the phone lines "ringing off the hook" when they called the DA's office to get a statement.
Two weeks later, on February 18, supporters of Jason and members of the Justice for Jason Committee packed the Hampshire County Courthouse at Jason's latest pretrial hearing. Every pretrial hearing to date has been overflowing with supporters. Another 60 of Jason's supporters who couldn't make it into the courtroom picketed outside the courthouse.
Organizers are now planning for a National Day of Action on March 7 in downtown Northampton, to keep the pressure up for justice for Jason.