Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Justice for Jason

This is a guest post by Rachel

One night last February, Jason Vassell, an African-American student at UMass Amherst, was in his dorm room with two friends. Unbeknownst to them, two young men (Jonathan Bosse and John Bowes) who were looking for a friend of theirs were peering in the window, and didn’t like what they saw. Although they did not know Vassell or his friends, who happened to be white women, they began yelling racial epithets, banging on the window, and demanding to know what he was doing in there with the girls. When Vassell refused to come outside and fight them, as they requested, one of them broke the window with his fist. They then gained access to the lobby of the dorm, where they confronted Vassell, and a fight ensued. Before leaving his room, Vassell had armed himself with a small pocketknife, and during the fight he defended himself with it. Bosse and Bowes struck Vassell first, but sustained multiple minor stab wounds, and Vassell ended up with a concussion and a broken nose. When he was able to break free, Vassell escaped behind a locked security door, and his assailants continued to pound on the door, yelling for him to come back out and fight, until the police arrived.

These are the basic facts of the case, as accurately as they can be pieced together from court documents, the reports of many eye witnesses, and the limited information from the surveillance videos that Vassell’s defense lawyers could release. Based on this description, it would seem obvious that Bosse and Bowes are the assailants in this case, and Vassell is the victim. However, in the eyes of the justice system, Vassell is the assailant and Bosse and Bowes are his victims. In spite of the abundance of evidence, the previous criminal records of Bosse and Bowes, which involve other similar incidents, and the fact that Vassell has no previous criminal record, prosecutors have filed major criminal charges against Vassell while only pursuing a minor charge against one of his assailants. Racial motives are the only plausible explanation for this.

The case of Jason Vassell contains many great examples of racial rhetoric at work. Words and phrases that invoke deeply-rooted preconceptions and attitudes recur throughout the case. To begin with, the motive of the assailants seems to be tied in to their objection to the fact the Jason was hanging out with two white women. After the case had attracted some media attention, an op-ed in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian described Jason as being taller and heavier than he actually is, claimed that he approached Bosse and Bowes first, and describes campus community members who have stood up for Jason as “furious activists” who are just trying to cause a lot of chaos. One of the police officers who was involved in the investigation of the case repeatedly suggested that Jason was a drug dealer, in spite of a complete lack of any evidence that would suggest that drugs were involved in the conflict in any way. Finally, Bosse and Bowes initially told police that Jason had approached them outside the dorm, wearing a ski mask and carrying a knife and an iron (of all things!). These words and phrases are carefully chosen because of the history they tap into and the emotions they invoke.

Today is the one-year anniversary of this event, and Justice for Jason (http://www.justiceforjason.org/) is holding a call-in day. Their hope is that many people will call the DAs office and express their outrage at the injustice involved in the charges that have been brought against Jason. You can participate by contacting the DA at (413) 586-9225, or via email at elizabeth.d.sch[email protected].

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