JOHNSON CITY, Tennessee — Hours after leaving jail on $10,000 bail, Tristan Rettke—the 19-year-old student who allegedly donned a gorilla mask while handing out noose-tied bananas to Black Lives Matter demonstrators on his East Tennessee State University campus—tried to offer some amends, at least to his friends.
In a text message sent Thursday and retrieved exclusively by The Daily Beast, he wrote, “I’m going to be withdrawing from school,” and “I also want to say to everyone thanks for being my friend and letting me into your group, and I’m sorry if I betrayed everyone’s friendship.”
He added: “Kinda unsure where the future is gonna take me now but things are going to be tough.”
The note came a day after he allegedly disrupted an 11 a.m. campus rally in which about a dozen ETSU students had gathered in Borchuck Plaza to sound off about police-involved shootings of unarmed black men. The plaza is a main artery connecting many of the university’s dorms and academic buildings, and serves as a hub where people feel free to speak without fear of reprisal from the administration.
Some of the demonstrators raised prefab mirrors with the names of Michael Brown and others slain by the police affixed on top. On the bottom of the mirrors was the question: “What if this were you?” The demonstrators stood in a circle around the fountain in the middle of the plaza, with their mirrors facing outward at passers-by.
Thirty minutes later, the barefoot spectacle that was Rettke joined them. He’d learned about the event on the social media app Yik Yak, according to the ETSU police report.
The night before, Rettke had recruited a female friend to go with him to Wal-Mart to grab the gorilla mask, rope, and bananas, which Rettke apparently told her were “for a school project.”
“She had no idea what was happening,” one of Rettke’s friends said. “She felt so guilty that it had happened because she thought it was part of her responsibility.”
During the protest, Rettke crept out from the direction of the library wearing the gorilla mask and brandishing a burlap sack embroidered with a marijuana leaf and a Confederate flag in what the police report calls “an attempt to provoke the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters.”
Clad in a pair of overalls, Rettke unspooled a rope and attached a banana to the end, dangling it in front of the stunned students.
“I identify as a gorilla,” Rettke snickered in a muffled tone to one of the protesters.
He proceeded to shuffle around, baiting protesters one banana at a time. Bystanders stopped in their tracks to stare at him.
Then Rettke, clutching his cellphone and evidently recording his instigating antics, began gliding around holding a sheet of white paper with the handwritten words “Lives Matter.”
“Not all white people are like that,” said one student, who, like many in the affronted crowd, showed remarkable restraint.
Rettke kept going for about five minutes before a protester smacked one banana out of his hand.
Jaylen Grimes, who was holding his own sign reading “Black Lives Matter =/= White Lives Matter,” could be seen calming the miffed student.
When he was then offered a banana, Grimes played along and took it. And when Rettke held out another banana, he took it again.
“A lot of us didn’t take it,” Grimes said, “but I just took it as a sign of peace offering and to show him that, just because he’s being disrespectful towards me, I won’t be disrespectful towards him.”
Gradually, the crowd swelled, with more students chiming in and documenting Rettke’s behavior.
An ETSU public safety officer then weaved through the throng of gawkers and grabbed Rettke’s arm, parking him at a bench near the plaza perimeter. The officer’s report noted that the masked man “was causing a problem.”
Students cheered when Rettke was removed. “You left your rope,” shouted one protester, picking the forsaken hemp off the ground.
As Rettke sat on the bench, students formed a semicircle around it and held up their phones in the hopes that the man beneath the gorilla mask would be exposed.
And they got their wish. Rettke removed his mask and then shielded his face with his hands before he was eventually escorted to a campus police car parked nearby.
The cop who’d initially removed Rettke later returned. “No matter what anyone’s opinion is, that’s beyond opinion,” the officer told Grimes. “That’s bullshit, and we’re not going to tolerate it.”
The youth was taken back to the college’s public-safety office and ultimately booked for civil-rights intimidation, a class D felony, and given an “interim suspension” by the college.
“The actions of this one individual go against the values of our university, where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect,” a university spokesman said in a statement that praised other students’ “restraint, thoughtfulness, and strength in the face of inappropriate and offensive behavior.”
A childhood friend and hockey teammate from Rettke’s hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee, told The Daily Beast that he couldn’t remember any instance where the teen athlete had acted out against minorities.
“It was a little surprising,” the friend said. “I would probably guess he did it thinking there was nothing wrong with it and didn’t expect to get this kind of attention. I’m sure he thought of it as a joke and then realized what he had got himself into when the cops showed up.”
The friend added, “It was definitely wrong, though.”
“We’re sorting everything out,” Roger Rettke, Tristan’s father, told The Daily Beast. “We don’t know what the final determination is going to be on all of this.”
His friends on campus, where Rettke played on the men’s intramural kickball team and in ultimate frisbee matches, told The Daily Beast that while Rettke had a tendency to take jokes a bit too far, he was a smart student whom they didn’t see as a bigot.
“He just didn’t know how to interact,” one said. “And he didn’t always pick up on the social cues.”
“The only thing that I kept thinking was that this was just a joke that was taken way, way, way too far,” one of the students said. “How he interacts with other people, there’s no indication that he would do anything like this. That’s why the first thing that popped into my head was, ‘Oh, he’s just playing a really, really bad joke. A crude joke.’”
Rettke would often debate on Yik Yak, where he expressed fervent support for Donald Trump. However, he could be demure whenever politics came up in person.
“I remember one day the subject of Trump was brought up and he said, ‘Oh, well, I support Trump. I’m not going to vocalize that to you guys. I don’t want to make anybody upset,’” one student recalled.