Rally Against Racism in Northampton

A rally for Jason Vassell was held on August 6 in Northampton following an evidentiary hearing related to a Motion to Dismiss filed by Vassell’s attorneys at the county courthouse there. The former UMass student was involved in an altercation with two non-UMass students in the Southwest dormitory complex on February 3, 2008. The rally was in support of the motion filed on Vassell’s behalf and to hear further information regarding recent court finagling over the defense’s discovery process.

The top photo is of Jason Vassell (at right) outside the county courthouse during the press conference. The bottom photo shows rally participants on Main St. in Northampton. photos by Darren Lone Fight

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On February 3, 2008, Jason Vassell and two female friends were in his ground-floor dormitory room in the Southwest complexes on the UMass campus when two non-UMass students, John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, both of Milton, Mass., allegedly began harassing Vassell using racial epithets. Bosse and Bowes had both been drinking alcohol at an earlier off-campus party, and the confrontation escalated as Vassell told the two men to leave and reportedly closed his window blind. Shortly after Vassell closed the window blind, one of the two men allegedly broke Vassell’s dormitory window. After calling a friend, Vassell went to the entrance of the dormitory to let his friend in when Bosse and Bowes entered the lobby of the building. A fight ensued, and in the melee Vassell’s nose was broken. At some point during the altercation Vassell used a pocketknife and struck the two men with it before retreating behind a locked door.

According to the Motion to Dismiss filed by Vassell’s attorney, the on-call Lieutenant, Robert Thrasher, was told by an officer on the scene that “it looks like a drug deal…this guy [Vassell] was waiting in the hallway for these other two guys to come,” despite several claims from residents in the dormitory to the contrary. Thrasher continued to forward the theory that this altercation stemmed from a drug deal, saying that Vassell was being harassed by “a couple of white kids,” but he wasn’t sure where to lay blame because he “think[s Vassell] is a drug dealer.”

Because of the nature of the events and response by police officers, a “grassroots campaign for racial justice” was started shortly after the events transpired. Called the Committee for Justice for Jason www.justiceforjason.org the stated goal of this campaign is to see all charges against Vassell dropped due to the alleged racial tone of the initial confrontation, and the possible profiling implications by the UMPD. Kate Traub, one of the organizers of the event, told the Valley Post that the organization was started because friends and students who knew Jason “wanted to know ‘what can we do?’” Justice for Jason has organized a rally at every hearing regarding this case and has also organized community study groups to discuss questions of bias in the prosecution and sentencing of minorities in the commonwealth and numerous other informational events. Further information on these and other events can be found on the Justice for Jason website.

Holding signs that read “Justice for Jason,” “Institutional racism is alive and well in the Valley,” and “drop the charges now,” the two dozen or so participants in the August 6 rally chanted slogans aimed at both the DA and the legal system in general. “We’re trying to focus most on getting the charges dropped” said Traub. “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.”

The rally participants echoed Traub’s sentiments. “I’m here to help defend Jason and fight to let people know how unjust this situation is” said Chiino Rios, a rally participant. “The DA is making this difficult for no reason. People came onto a college campus and got away with nothing [no jail time], and they’re trying to give 30 years to Jason.”

Supporters leveled criticisms at the legal system in general, and supported a long-term commitment to Vassell’s attempt to get the case dismissed. “Until the charges are dropped there will be people out supporting Jason,” Natalia Tylium, another rally participant, told the Valley Post. “Unfortunately [this case] lays bare the racism inherent in the justice system in this country.” The systemic criticism of both the police and legal system by the rally participants shares a rationale with the defense’s argument; the Motion to Dismiss is founded largely on the alleged racial bias of the police response and the racial tone of the violent confrontation.

David P. Hoose, Vassell’s attorney, gave a short press conference after the proceedings in the atrium of the county courthouse. “Our position is that the case should not go ahead because it is inflected with discriminatory intent” said Hoose. Explaining the process up to now, Hoose explained that the District Attorney prosecuting the case, Elizabeth Dunphy, had raised issues of authenticity regarding some of the statements presented in the Motion to Dismiss. “We’ll be back on September 2 and see which attachments are disputed,” said Hoose. When queried as to how this is an authenticity issue, he replied, “I don’t think it is.”

Currently, Vassell faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. John Bowes was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges in March of this year related to his actions outside of Vassell’s window. Jonathan Bosse was never charged for his role in the altercation.

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Darren Lone Fight can be reached at darrenlonefight@gmail.com. Please put “Valley Post” in the subject line.

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