The University of Massachusetts - Amherst is located in one of the bluest areas of one of the bluest states in the country. But that's not helping Jason Vassell.
Jason was a UMass student until early last year. Then, early one morning, he was in his dorm room with two white female friends when two drunk white men, John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, began peering in the window, yelling racial slurs including multiple if not creative uses of the N word. Bowes and Bosse ultimately broke the window, continuing to yell and challenge Jason to come out and fight them. He called a friend to come support him, and Bowes and Bosse followed the friend into the dorm, continuing their racist abuse and provoking a fight. They broke Jason's nose, and when they continued attacking him, he defended himself with a pocketknife.
There are multiple witnesses to these facts -- to drunk non-students breaking a dorm room window in a racist fury at seeing a black man in a room with white women, going into a dorm they had no business in, and starting a fight. Bowes and Bosse have been reported and arrested for assaults, including explicitly racist assaults with weapons, before in other towns.
And yet, of course, in our "post-racial" society, it is Jason Vassell, minding his own business in his own dorm room until he was attacked, who has been charged with felonies that could lead to 30 years in prison. One of his attackers, meanwhile, has been charged with misdemeanors including a civil rights violation without injury -- despite Jason's broken nose -- and the other has been charged with nothing.
More than 125 faculty and librarians have signed a petition in Jason's support, and hundreds of supporters have rallied on his behalf. But the prosecution goes on -- the D.A.'s only response being to ask for a change of venue since he has too much local support.
You can read Jason's lawyers' motion to dismiss (PDF) for a much fuller account of the incident and investigation -- an investigation in which a police officer took a look at two white non-students with sky-high blood alcohol content and no reason to be where they were and a black student with no police record and a solid academic history, and referred to the black student as a probable drug dealer.
On February 18, there will be a pre-trial hearing at which that motion to dismiss is considered. If you're in Western Massachusetts, consider attending that hearing to support Jason.
If you're not in Western Mass, you can help by participating in the national call-in day next Tuesday, February 3:
On February 3rd, 2009–the one year anniversary of the hate crime against Jason–organizations and citizens throughout the country will be calling into the Northampton District Attorney’s Office to demand Justice For Jason. Throughout the country folks are infuriated at the racist prosecution that has already taken a year of his life and is threatening to take away 30 more years! Join the effort by signing up to call the DA and DEMAND JUSTICE FOR JASON!
The phone number for the office of Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel is (413) 586-5150 . You are welcome to call anytime. We respectfully ask that your calls be respectful in tone.
There's no question this was a racist assault. Unfortunately, it's become clear that the investigation and prosecution have also been racist, extending the reach and brutality of that initial assault. There's not much we can do to prevent individual attacks or to change the minds of violent racists like John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse. But we can and we must act against miscarriages of justice like this one. Let's act now.