Faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts are rallying around a Black biology student who is facing attempted murder charges after police say a White man taunted him with racial epithets, broke his nose and smashed his dormitory window.
About 200 people gathered on the steps of the student union Wednesday in support of Jason Vassell, 23, who authorities say stabbed two non-students after he was provoked into an argument at his dormitory around 5 a.m. on Feb. 3.
The two men, John Bowes, 20, of Hancock, N.H., and Jonathan Bosse, 19, of Milton, survived the stabbings and were not immediately charged in the fight — something supporters of Vassell note when they complain prosecutors were influenced by race in bringing the charges.
Vassell, who does not have a criminal or violent history, according to friends and faculty, was charged with two counts of armed assault with intent to murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Five days later, Bowes was summoned to court to face civil rights violations, as well as disorderly conduct and assault and battery charges. Bosse has not been charged.
“The behavior of the prosecutors would have been different if these two guys had been African-American,” said Michael Thelwell, an Afro-American studies professor at the flagship state university campus.
Assistant District Attorney Frank Flannery said the charges are brought “based on the evidence we have” and said he could not comment further on the pending case.
Bowes’ attorney, Alfred Chamberland in Easthampton, did not immediately return a call for comment, and a message left at the Bowes home in Hancock was not immediately returned.
A man who identified himself as Jonathan Bosse’s father said his son would not comment.
Supporters of Vassell have created a committee and a Web site to raise money for his defense, and they are staging rallies like the one Wednesday to try to keep up pressure on authorities to review the charges, which they say are excessive.
Vassell was reacting in self-defense, after Bowes and Bosse smashed his dorm-room window and called him racist names, according to Tracy Kelley, who is Vassell’s girlfriend and said she was in his room the night of the fight.
The altercation began when Vassell noticed the two men outside his ground-floor window. They began to taunt him, she said, and broke the window. Vassell, feeling threatened, called a friend from a neighboring dorm for help, and when he opened the lobby door, Bowes and Bosse entered and a fight ensued.
Vassell suffered a broken nose and was treated and released from a hospital. University police would not comment on why Bowes and Bosse were on campus.
Kelley said authorities are missing the big picture.
“When someone can threaten your well-being and safety and you can’t defend yourself, you’re skipping over something,” Kelley said.
At the rally, some students and faculty wore Justice for Jason T-shirts and buttons, and waved signs that called for justice and urged “No hate crimes.”
Graduate student Anthony Ratcliff, who spoke at the rally, said the incident was indicative of wider societal problems where Blacks are automatically assumed to be the perpetrators. He recalled the “Jena 6” case in which six Black Jena High School students initially charged with attempted murder after a 2006 assault on a White student. Charges were reduced, but the original counts caused complaints of harsh, racially motivated prosecution that led to 20,000 people marching in Jena, La.
“This is not isolated or out of the blue,” Ratcliff said. “There are similar incidents that happen all over the country,” he said.
University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said that while he could not comment on Vassell’s case specifically, the administration is “concerned with all episodes of violence on campus.”
Vassell is scheduled to appear in Eastern Hampshire District Court on Friday, where his lawyer, David Hoose, said he will ask the court to change the conditions of Vassell’s release.
Vassell, who has withdrawn from school, is living at his mother’s home in Boston with electronic monitoring and a curfew.
“Jason does not represent a danger or a threat to anyone,” Hoose said.
Hoose said since the fight, more information has come to light. He would not elaborate.
“Police made an initial decision on what they saw that morning, but now after talking to witnesses and seeing surveillance video, a fuller picture has emerged of what happened,” he said.
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