What the trials of Andre Dewdney and Jason Vassell say about race and class, prosecution and protest
“Would you like to see it?”
Andre Marcus Dewdney bends at the waist and pulls up the right leg of his jeans. A stiff plastic band secures a black box to his ankle. “How cool is that?” Dewdney says of the GPS unit. “Imagine having that on you all the time.”
He’s been wearing it for the year he’s spent under house arrest, waiting to find out whether he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.
I got in touch with Dewdney through a friend who mentioned him on a blog. I sent her a message asking if she could give him my contact information. She wrote back explaining that it’d been a tough year for Dewdney, that she wasn’t sure he’d feel like talking. But she promised to forward my email and phone number.
The next morning, my desk phone rang; two hours later, I pulled up outside a house in Springfield and found him in the yard raking leaves. In the bright November afternoon, the street looked like any suburb anywhere, with white and beige ranches punctuated by the occasional cape. Could we go inside to talk? He shook his head.
“My grandmother is pretty strict about visitors.”
Instead, Dewdney leaned against my truck. He lit a cigarette.
“So, what’s on your mind, man?”
The day before had been much colder, but that didn’t deter the crowd. Several hundred people gathered in Northampton’s Pulaski Park in preparation for a march down Main and Pleasant Streets, to the office of Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel, to deliver a petition with over 2,000 signatures requesting the dismissal of aggravated assault charges against former University of Massachusetts Amherst student Jason Vassell.
In the park, a student led the crowd through a series of chants: “We’re fired up / Can’t take no more!” and “Two, four, six, eight, stop the violence, stop the hate!” Reporters milled about. WFCR was there. WAMC was there. Ray Hershel and a camera crew from WGGB were there. Writers and photographers from The Republican and The Daily Hampshire Gazette were there. There were reporters from The Massachusetts Daily Collegian; bloggers; others I didn’t know or recognize scribbling notes or panning over the crowd with handicams. A photographer aimed his lens down the barrel of the bullhorn.
The Committee for Justice for Jason, which has organized and lobbied on Vassell’s behalf since February 2008, had blossomed into a 15-agency coalition. “Justice for Jason” had become a significant movement, drawing support from far beyond the Amherst campus. The run-up to Vassell’s trial, set to begin in March 2009, has spawned the advocacy website justiceforjason.org (along with an associated video blog); a Boston chapter (the Boston Coalition for Justice for Jason); candlelight vigils; a benefit auction featuring live Celtic harp music and the chance to buy blown glass by Josh Simpson; petitions; t-shirt sales; coverage by USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, FOX News, The International Herald Tribune, DailyKos, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and a TV station in Kansas, among others; pretrial hearings that push courtroom capacity to its limits; support from the ACLU; the support of Springfield State Rep. Ben Swan; and a protest song, “Justice for Jason,” written by Boston hip-hop artist Giddens, which opens with the line: “I don’t even know this man, I just feel it’s respect that I owe this man.”
Andre Dewdney doesn’t know Jason Vassell either, but he feels that he knows his struggle. The night Vassell’s life changed forever—February 3, 2008, when a racially charged fight in the MacKimmie dormitory at UMass ended in a stabbing and a potential 30-year prison sentence for the former biology major—came just a few months after the incident that led to Dewdney’s indictment on charges of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and negligent motor vehicle homicide. Dewdney was convicted of two lesser charges on February 27, 2009, and will serve a minimum of one year in the county jail.
“In a weird kind of way, I was actually relieved that it had happened,” Dewdney said of Vassell’s case when we first spoke in November 2008. “And not because anybody got hurt. But just because—to show people that it is out there. It happens. Shit like that happens, you know? And I was just hoping that now that that happened—and I knew they were going to have all kinds of rallies and protests and this and that—and I was just thinking that, ‘Well, maybe somebody will come knocking on my door, wanting to talk to me about this.’ That maybe there’d be some kind of connection.”
McCarthy’s Pub sits at the northeast corner of Belchertown’s long town common. The building dates to 1835, and was originally the site of the Belchertown Classical School. The pub serves pizza and wings, and sandwiches with names like “The Leprechaun Burger.” It supports the town’s annual “Halloween ‘n’ History” event and fundraisers for the library. It’s a popular stop for bikers out on Sunday rides.
Like any bar, the people you’ll find on any given night at McCarthy’s are regulars. It’s a tight crowd, “Where good friends… good times and hearty laughter are always welcome,” as the cover of the menu advertises.
Andre Dewdney was not one of the regulars. His family moved to Belchertown from Houston when he was in the fifth grade, and he’d always felt like an outsider.
“Honestly, it was horrible at first. It was quite a big culture shock,” Dewdney said of his early years in town. “There were maybe three other black families there. Nobody really understood anything about me; they didn’t care to understand. I was tormented walking home, on the bus lots of times. Lots of times. I ran into a lot of racial issues just being in that town.”
Racial harassment, he said, was frequent. “Kids would drive by the high school […] they would throw bottles at me as I’m walking down the road, you know, drive by and spit on me.”
At home, his parents encouraged him to ignore the incidents and focus on academics. “They’d tell me to stay positive, go to school and do what I have to do. You know, I’m not there to make friends; I’m there to get my education,” he said. Looking back, he agreed with their advice. “I like to think that’s what kind of molded me, gave me my little attitude that I have now. It didn’t affect me in a negative way; it just made me a better person. I just learned to ignore things like that, just brush it off my shoulder, keep moving.”
Denise Berkebile tended the bar at McCarthy’s for 12 years, working 5 p.m. to closing.
When she arrived for work on November 14, 2007, Joseph T. Mailhott was at the bar drinking Bud Light and shots of Jaeger. He’d been there since Gary Rugani arrived around 4 p.m. Like Mailhott, Rugani was a carpenter, and the two enjoyed talking shop.
Berkebile had known Mailhott for a long time. She called him a friend. He’d been out of town for a few years, but since returning a few months earlier he’d started coming around McCarthy’s again. A big guy—six-foot-three, 248 pounds—he was a boisterous presence at the bar. “He was always loud,” Berkebile recalled during her testimony at Dewdney’s trial.
The restaurant was busy that night. A youth sports team was holding a party. At some point, Mailhott took an order of wings to go. He returned to the bar around 8:30.
Veteran server Kathy Hodgen was handling six tables in the dining area. By 10 p.m. the crowd was thinning out. Dewdney and a friend, Jamie Gustafson, had been eating popcorn at a table in the dining room. As Hodgen began her end-of-the night cleaning routine, Dewdney and Gustafson headed to the deck for a smoke. They returned a few minutes later to pay their bill.
At the bar, Mailhott was sitting next to Rugani, who had spent most of the evening playing Keno and watching TV. Mailhott was enjoying himself. The bar’s security video shows him high-fiving a bartender and turning his camouflage cap backward over his wavy black hair. A few minutes later he clinked bottles with Rugani and spun around in his stool to face the dining room. Rugani slapped him on the back as Mailhott got up and approached Dewdney.
According to Hodgen, Mailhott shook Dewdney’s hand and said, “How’s it going, brother?”
Mailhott started muttering about Jamaica, Bob Marley, and marijuana. He was drunk; a toxicology report showed his blood alcohol content to be .17, over twice the legal limit to drive. For a few minutes, the conversation was cordial but confused. It appeared that Mailhott wanted to buy marijuana, or rolling papers, or both. At one point, Mailhott said he had weed, but wanted papers. Dewdney offered to drive him to a store. Soon, though, Mailhott was back to asking for weed. Dewdney explained that he didn’t have any. Mailhott took a wad of cash out of his pocket and started peeling off ones. “You want big bills or small bills,” he was saying.
Dewdney decided it was time to go. Mailhott got frustrated. He walked to the bar and announced: “Fucking nigger ripped me off nine dollars. I just got niggered out of nine dollars!”
Dewdney and Gustafson were headed through the bar, toward the exit near where they’d parked. Mailhott kept saying the words. Over and over. Louder. Witnesses testified that Dewdney was quiet throughout, and never appeared aggressive. Still, Berkebile put herself between the two men as Dewdney passed. Dewdney laughed, shook his head. He told Mailhott he was crazy.
“I told him I was very sorry and that he had to go,” Berkebile recalled telling Dewdney. “I knew Joe and figured I could keep him under control.”
Gustafson headed for the door; Dewdney hesitated. Gustafson returned and tugged on his sleeve. On the surveillance video, Dewdney appears to be smiling as he makes his way toward the exit.
Another regular, Al Clark, was standing at the end of the bar. As Dewdney passed, Clark offered his hand.
“Is that your friend,” Dewdney asked him. “No,” Clark told him, and he apologized for Mailhott’s behavior and language.
With Dewdney gone, Mailhott got louder. “I got niggered out of nine dollars! Fucking nigger stole nine dollars!” he kept saying. Clark told him to cool down. When Mailhott started yelling at Clark, Berkebile had finally heard enough. She began pushing Mailhott toward the side exit.
“Stop pushing me!” Mailhott said. “I know you’re not going to hit me Joe,” Berkebile replied. According to Berkebile, they looked at each other, laughed, and continued out the side door.
It had been two minutes since Dewdney and Gustafson left through the same exit. When Berkebile and Mailhott reached the landing at the top of the stairs to the parking lot, Dewdney and Gustafson were standing next to Dewdney’s Jeep, which was parked at the base of the stairs. They were hugging, saying good-bye, and talking about what had happened inside.
Mailhott charged them, yelling, “You niggered me out of nine dollars!” He pushed Dewdney, knocking his hat off; then, he landed a kick to the driver’s-side door of Dewdney’s Jeep that was hard enough to dent it. He followed with a head-butt to the window.
Gustafson was screaming about calling the police. “Please do,” said Berkebile, who was attempting to restrain Mailhott. Gustafson dialed. Dewdney yelled at her: “Just go! Just go!”
Paul Reyes liked to do crossword puzzles at McCarthy’s Pub. When the environmental engineer pulled into the parking lot at 10:04 p.m. on November 14, the first thing he remembers seeing was Gary Rugani, standing on the landing at the top of the stairs in light rain. Reyes parked to the right of Dewdney’s Jeep. As he got out of his car, he saw Berkebile trying to pin someone—a large man, as he described Mailhott—against the wall of McCarthy’s. She had her back to Mailhott, her arms out.
According to Reyes’ testimony, the Jeep backed all the way out of its space, then pulled back in quickly enough to prompt Berkebile to scream, “Don’t hit us!”
As Dewdney backed out a second time, Mailhott broke free from Berkebile, throwing her to the ground and charging after Dewdney’s Jeep. “So now Joe really freaks out and pushes me and goes after the kid. I saw him run up to the driver’s side of the Jeep,” Berkebile said in her initial statement to the police.
Berkebile got up, shook it off, and ran inside to hit the bar’s panic button.
With Mailhott at the driver’s side of his Jeep, pounding on the windows and hood, yelling, “Next time I’ll beat your ass, nigger,” Dewdney steered right, hitting Al Clark’s truck. (Clark later testified that he examined his truck with police officers after being told about the incident; he found no new damage.) According to Reyes, it appeared the Jeep was “trying to get away.”
Reyes recalled running toward the stairs as the Jeep backed out a third time. He turned around to see the Jeep begin to drive toward the exit, with Mailhott running toward it. Rugani, still watching from the top of the landing, said that Mailhott “[…] headed out right in front of it; he ran to meet it as it was leaving.”
“Joe put his hands on the front of the Jeep,” Reyes said. And then, “It looked like he got sucked under the Jeep.” Rugani offered similar testimony: “He got right in front of it, and the Jeep went right over him. At the last minute [Mailhott] put his hands up; I don’t know if it was to tell it to stop or to protect himself.”
“First thing on my mind was getting the fuck out of there,” Dewdney told State Police Sgt. Gary Gadreault later that night, as he was questioned about why he didn’t stay at the scene. “This guy wanted to wring my neck, and he’s yelling nigger this and nigger that. It was late, it was past my bedtime, I had to work in the morning. Go home. Just go the fuck home. That’s all I was thinking.”
Belchertown dispatcher David Squires took the first 911 call at 10:03 p.m. It was Jamie Gustafson. She requested a police officer at McCarthy’s, and told Squires there was a guy “acting out.” Squires asked how many parties were involved. “Just one,” Gustafson replied.
When Belchertown Police Sgt. William Panto arrived a few minutes later, Mailhott was face down in the parking lot. Patrons gathered around him. One EMT arrived on foot within seconds; her partner that night followed with the ambulance. Their request for a helicopter was denied due to the weather, so they loaded Mailhott onto a backboard and began the drive to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. In the ambulance, they intubated Mailhott and delivered a defibrillation shock. Mailhott flatlined as they passed the police station on Maple Street; he was pronounced dead within minutes of being turned over to Baystate’s trauma team.
Back at McCarthy’s, Sgt. Panto directed officer David Williams to begin taking witness statements.
Out on North Main Street, meanwhile, Dewdney spotted Gustafson at a stop light. He called her and told him to meet her in the parking lot of Checkers, a nearby general store. In his statement to Sgt. Gadreault, Dewdney said he was trying to figure out how to get home, and trying to figure out the right thing to do. Gustafson pointed him toward Route 21, to Ludlow, where he could take the Massachusetts Turnpike to his apartment in Palmer.
As Dewdney drove, he called his father. He called Gustafson. He called his girlfriend, Nadine Delisle, to ask for the number of the Belchertown police department. When he arrived in Palmer, Delisle met him in the parking lot of Superior Caulking, the company where he worked. On their way to his apartment, they stopped at an X-Tra Mart; Dewdney bought cigarettes, juice, and a package of M&Ms.
At 10:50 p.m., Dewdney called the Belchertown Police Department. Squires patched Dewdney through to Sgt. Panto, who was still on the scene. Dewdney told Panto that his friend had called to report an incident at McCarthy’s Pub. “I think I fucked up,” Dewdney told Panto. “I had a problem with a guy. I think I ran him over.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Dewdney continued. “I’m scared shitless.” Panto told Dewdney he’d struck Mailhott, and explained that he’d need to come to the station to make a statement. The sergeant said the witnesses all agreed Mailhott was the aggressor, and police had no intention of arresting him. Dewdney explained that he had to go to work in Amherst in the morning. He asked if he could stop by around 6 a.m. Panto said it was important to do it as soon as possible. Dewdney said he’d be there in 45 minutes.
As Dewdney left his apartment around 11:20 p.m., officers from the Palmer police department arrested him at gunpoint. Palmer police had responded to Belchertown’s request to be on the lookout for Dewdney’s vehicle. Belchertown hadn’t relayed the details of Panto’s conversation with Dewdney to the neighboring department.
Trooper Gadreault and Belchertown detective James Daniels retrieved Dewdney from Palmer around 2:00 a.m. On the way back to Belchertown, Dewdney rode shotgun in Gadreault’s unmarked car. At 2:35 a.m., in Daniels’ office, Dewdney began telling them his story. As Gadreault took notes, he told Dewdney his story was plausible, and that it seemed to be corroborated by the witness interviews.
“In all honesty,” Gadreault remarked, “this was probably a very tragic accident.”
“I hadn’t heard of it,” says Malcolm Chu, president of the UMass Student Government Association and one of the most visible members of the Committee for Justice for Jason.
The crowd outside the DA’s office in Northampton is dissipating into the cold twilight on November 19, 2008. Although the DA wasn’t there to receive the petition Chu and other Committee members delivered, the event’s turnout showcased the scope of the community’s support for the cause of justice for Jason Vassell.
To be fair, I’ve put Chu on the spot by asking him about Dewdney’s case. In terms of the local media’s coverage, the incident at McCarthy’s was a blip. A handful of newspaper articles ran after it happened. In a TV report, Mailhott’s extended family recalled him as someone who got along with everyone. “I’ve known Joey since he was born and he was always a loving person, I’ve never seen him judge anybody,” a cousin said. After that, articles on Dewdney’s pretrial bail hearings appeared in The Republican in January and March 2008. Only after the trial began in early 2009 did it start to receive daily coverage in both local newspapers—and only after a brief that mentioned both Dewdney and Vassell did the public start connecting the cases.
Vassell’s case, on the other hand, received significant attention from the outset, mostly owing to the swift mobilization of his campus community. The Committee for Justice for Jason issued its founding statement—an open letter signed by students and several faculty members—just 10 days after the fight at MacKimmie. A candlelight vigil a few weeks later drew roughly 40 students. The day before Vassell’s first pre-trial hearing in March 2008, 200 supporters turned out for a rally on the steps of the Student Union.
Vassell was an active member of the campus community. He participated in Student Bridges, an organization that partners with schools and community-based organizations in Hampden County. During the early stages of the Committee’s mobilization, many of the students working on Vassell’s behalf knew him. Chu was a friend of Vassell’s partner, who was the Committee’s executive secretary. Now, Chu says, “I believe there’s two of us who knew him prior to what was going on. So this is an outpouring of people who, you know, maybe didn’t know him personally but recognize that he’s a member of our community and is facing these really horrible charges.”
Each week, 25 to 30 volunteers meet to discuss the campaign and plan upcoming events. Some meetings bring the whole Committee together; others are subcommittee gatherings to discuss outreach, media, and logistics.
With few members left who have a personal connection to Vassell, Chu attributes the volunteers’ dedication to the nature of the case itself. “I think people are largely not questioning; people don’t doubt this,” he says. “People recognize the injustice here. People recognize that Jason was a victim in this case, and that the priorities of the prosecution are very, very twisted.”
And while many of the signs at the rally carried broad statements against prejudice—”Northern Racism Lives Here,” “Stop Racism In Our Courts In Our Homes”—the Committee’s mission, Chu explains, is very specific: “I don’t know if we’ll adopt other cases, at least while this is still going on. There’s certainly an awareness and a passion to fight a system of racism, both in the court system and in a society that continues to perpetuate these types of hate crimes. So, we recognize that it’s bigger than just this case. Our core mission right now is to secure justice for Jason, to get these charges dropped, to make sure that he’s able to live his life the way that he had imagined it.”
“Jason needs your help now!” Although the pretrial stage of Vassell’s case has dragged on for over a year—an eternity in the life of an undergrad—the calls to action on the Justice for Jason website convey irresistible immediacy to students looking to become more involved in their community. When the class of 2008 graduated, new volunteers responded to the campaign’s sense of urgency. Students Joe Mirkin and Evan Plofsky attended Justice for Jason events in spring 2008. Early in the fall semester, both decided it was time to explore how they could participate more formally. Now, Mirkin works on the media subcommittee; Plofsky works on outreach, recruiting new allies in other community-based and civil rights organizations throughout the region. We met in the office of UMass Sociology Professor Dan Clawson, one of the faculty members who signed the Committee’s founding statement.
Mirkin’s explanation of the Committee’s overarching goal was similar to Chu’s: “This campaign would not have come up if it were not for Jason suffering the way that he is right now. Suffering as the victim of institutional racism,” he said. “That is still the mission; if it wasn’t for Jason’s case, this campaign wouldn’t exist.”
But while that core mission has remained constant, the scope of the campaign has evolved. Initially, it seemed, much of the outrage was directed at the overt racism of Vassell’s attackers, Jonathan Bowes and Jonathan Bosse. As participation has expanded beyond the campus—and particularly as Vassell’s defense team has performed its legal maneuvers, filing a motion to dismiss “on the ground that the defendant has been selectively prosecuted because of his race”—concepts like institutional racism have become more embedded in the campaign.
“I know that for a while last year, using ‘racism’ and ‘institutional racism’ as terms synonymous with Justice for Jason was pretty much not OK with the people who were organizing the group,” Mirkin explained. “It was almost like forbidden language. For the reasons that … it creates a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. So, rather than being able to see Jason as the victim of a hate crime, people would see Jason as the pawn of a bunch of stupid, radical students.”
As Vassell’s lawyers attempt to prove that the UMass Police Department has shown racial bias in its investigations of campus crimes, and that the DA’s office has engaged in a pattern of selective prosecution, it becomes increasingly difficult to extract Vassell the person from Vassell the metaphor. “Even though this is about an individual, it’s still very emblematic and representative of a national trend that is no secret to most people who have studied the way that race figures into incarceration rates and criminalization of communities of color,” Mirkin explained. “And certainly the lawyers on their own have been able to craft a case that is doing just that—exposing that what’s happening to Jason is symptomatic of a larger trend of racism toward people of color.”
Plofsky agreed, adding: “This isn’t an isolated incident. There’s racism that occurs every day in the criminal justice system in this country, and that makes it really important that we’re doing work like this on this specific case. Because we don’t want to see Jason going to prison; we don’t want to see his life ruined due to the actions of the racists who attacked him.”
“Jason did not initiate the verbal or the physical violence. He didn’t initiate the attack on his property. He didn’t initiate any of the altercation. So, in that regard, it really was a case of self-defense, and it really was a case of self-defense against a racist verbal and physical attack.”
If you’ve attended any of the Justice for Jason events, you’ve probably heard language similar to the preceding statement, which Chu offered when we spoke at the November rally outside the DA’s office. Language is a critical part of the campaign; for the Committee for Justice for Jason, establishing a sympathetic narrative has been a tool for building support on campus and beyond. This is the account of the fight, as told on the Committee’s website:
Early on the morning of February 3, 2008, Jason, an African American student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was in his dormitory. Two intoxicated white men, Jonathan Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, approached Jason’s dormitory window repeatedly referring to him as a “nigger” and breaking in the window. They then forced their way into the dormitory lobby where they assaulted Jason, breaking his nose and giving him a concussion.
Under this continuing assault Jason was forced to defend himself with a pocketknife, injuring his assailants. As a result of defending himself against this unprovoked assault Jason, the victim of the attack, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon.
Committee members see establishing and maintaining a specific narrative as fundamental to the campaign. Referring to the types of criticism the Committee receives, Mirkin said, “When people make comments that are something to the effect of: Here are the facts—Jason stabbed these guys. He should go to jail. That is one way to look at it, for sure, but those aren’t all the facts. And that’s kind of what I see our role as—to fill in the rest of this huge blank area of what happened before in this incident, and what’s happened after.”
After his court dates, Dewdney told me, he always left immediately, avoiding contact with reporters at the few hearings that saw coverage. He acted on the advice of his public defender, Alan Rubin—who, like many attorneys, is understandably sensitive about what makes it into the press. It’s a different way of controlling the narrative. And when a case could potentially end in a life sentence, it’s obviously critical to avoid giving the prosecution additional ammunition. But it meant that, unlike Vassell, Dewdney had nobody telling his story in the press. Those details only emerged at his trial; and, as it turned out, that question of version control provided an interesting diversion of Dewdney’s and Vassell’s cases. While the defense and prosecution in Vassell’s case have drawn very opposite conclusions about what the surveillance video from the dorm lobby shows, Dewdney’s initial statement to the police was almost entirely corroborated by the prosecution’s witnesses.
Prior to a trial, though, reporters don’t have the luxury of quoting witnesses; instead, details are distilled from attorneys’ statements. In Dewdney’s case, early reporting relied heavily on accounts offered by Assistant District Attorney Melissa G. Doran. “Prosecutors say racist comments may have driven the suspect, Andre Dewdney of Palmer, to run over the victim, Joe Mailhott of Belchertown,” Springfield’s CBS3 reported on November 16, 2007.
The most sympathetic coverage Dewdney received in the year before his trial came from the local rock radio station Lazer 99.3. “One of my buddies, one of my co-workers, called me up and said, ‘They’re about to talk about you on the radio.’ They opened up the phone lines and had people weigh in with their opinions, and it seemed like they had good things to say,” Dewdney told me. In January 2009, I ran into Lazer’s morning host, Leslie, at the Hazard Grille in Enfield. She remembered calls pouring in to offer support to Dewdney when she mentioned him on her show—but, more than that, she remembered how Dewdney later called to thank her. According to Dewdney, it was the least he could do. “She didn’t know me; all she knew was what she read in the papers,” he said.
At the beginning of the interview, as I explained what I was writing about, Mirkin nodded as I mentioned Dewdney’s trial. As we wrapped up, I asked him how long Dewdney’s case had been on his radar. Like almost everyone else, he’d only started hearing about it recently. He’d clipped out the February 15 article in The Republican, “2 upcoming trials in Northampton have racial overtones,” which noted that both Dewdney and Vassell had court appearances in the coming week. Mirkin mentioned the article to another Committee member. “Did you know about this?” he asked. The member had. In fact, Mirkin told me, Dewdney had written to the Committee. “I was told that he contacted someone involved in Justice for Jason, just via email, saying it should really be a call for justice for all, more so than just justice for Jason,” he said.
The snowfall thickens.
It’s a long walk from the MacKimmie dorm to the UMass Police Department headquarters, giving news photographers time for an extra-innings game of leapfrog as they jockey for the best angles of the procession. It’s February 3, 2009. The one-year anniversary. The latest action in the campaign for Jason Vassell.
At the corner of Commonwealth Avenue, just downhill from the station, the new student Recreation Center is under construction. The groundbreaking took place in November 2007, and the center is due to open this spring. For now, it’s all I-beams and plywood and bright yellow insulation panels.
As the call-and-response chants from the megaphone and from the crowd bounce around the buildings, three workers step out onto the Recreation Center’s exposed catwalks and watch the scene. The mood of the march is a mix of anger and accomplishment. A year after the fight, Vassell’s future is still uncertain, but the commitment to the cause is not. The signs have been updated to reflect the latest revelations in the case: namely, that UMass Police Lt. Robert Thrasher appears to have made insensitive, if not outright racist, remarks about Vassell during the earliest stages of the investigation.
The crowd pools around the entrance to the police station’s parking lot. Speeches are about to start. The men watching from the catwalks melt back into their work.
In another life, Andre Dewdney could’ve been watching the protest from a half-built building. At the time of his arrest, Dewdney belonged to the Massachusetts / Vermont chapter of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, the union that represents the men and women who work as pointers, sealers, and caulkers. The “New Dirt” on the Amherst campus, as the university called it—44 construction and renovation projects—had given the company Dewdney worked for a steady flow of business. When I asked him whether he’d spent any time on campus, and whether he’d worked on any of the new buildings, Dewdney told me: “Every UMass job. About sixty-percent of the work my company does is at UMass. All those grants that they get for all those new buildings, all that new construction, all those rehabs, we do all that. All of that.” On the morning of his arrest, Dewdney was scheduled to work on the university’s new Integrated Sciences Building.
Like any workplace, Dewdney explained, a construction site becomes its own micro-community. “When you’re out there for eight hours on a cold-ass day you get to know somebody; you create little bonds with your co-workers. On job sites, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s hard work. It’s physically, mentally tough. So we’re all on the same page. We all have that common link,” he said. Referring to some of the work he’d done in Springfield and Hartford, he observed, “When you’re out there with someone for eight, nine hours a day, forty stories up, you get real tight with them.”
As a community, though, construction work is ephemeral. It’s not like a campus, where the community members eat, sleep, learn, and live in close quarters. At the end of the day, workers go home to whatever triumphs and troubles they’re facing in their personal lives. By the time Dewdney’s charges were upgraded from assault and battery with a dangerous weapon to second-degree murder and manslaughter, prosecutors were recommending bail of $250,000. Judge Judd J. Carhart set the amount at $15,000, with an additional $2,000 to be used for the GPS that would allow Dewdney to live under house arrest.
Dewdney was able to scrape it together, despite the fact that he didn’t have a wide network of friends who could afford to help. “It was family, mostly family,” Dewdney said. “I had a lot of friends that could offer one-hundred dollars, or say, ‘I can give you fifty dollars.’ Well, I appreciate it, but that’s not really gonna do anything. I mean, if I can get thirty friends with one-hundred dollars each, then, now we’re talking.”
Dewdney’s work community ultimately did come through: his boss contributed $5,000 toward his bail.
“A very large difference between the two young men is certainly their communities,” a friend of Dewdney’s family told me in an email. “Whereas Jason had the built-in kind of community environment that comes along with college and being amongst so many of your peers, Andre was just another anonymous worker bee with much less of a community available to support him, and certainly nowhere near the volume of people who could readily identify with him.”
The friend continued: “Also, as a UMass alumnus myself I can certainly characterize UMass as a politically charged campus just waiting for a cause to stand behind. I’m doubtful that the same could be said for the daily laborers that are Andre’s co-workers.”
When I asked Malcolm Chu about why he thought Vassell’s case had become such a cause, he talked about the closeness of the campus community. To many, the actions of Jonathan Bowes and Jonathan Bosse weren’t an attack on an individual. They were an attack on that community, and on the community’s collective sense of safety. While a person facing that type of violation alone might feel helpless, a community—particularly a campus community—is uniquely positioned to process the event as an opportunity for action. As Joe Mirkin observed, “I feel like when things happen on campus it’s an advantage that you have—and this campus in particular—a community of twenty-plus thousand people that are here every day, most of whom live on the campus. A large number of which don’t really have families to attend to or full-time jobs. They’re students. There’s a lot of time that they have to participate in other things. Not a hundred percent of their time is dominated by obligation. So I think in that respect it’s no surprise that there would be a higher chance of people to organize events about one thing or another, whether it be a political, racial injustice, or a concert.”
That type of human capital is largely what distinguishes a community like Vassell’s from a community like Dewdney’s. It’s not necessarily that the world of the day laborer is apolitical or anti-activist. These guys are union members, and there’s no shortage of courses in the UMass economics department exploring labor movements. But in its practical applications, activism in the building trades tends to be related to work; issues of wages, hours and safety. Beyond that, there’s just not a lot of time for other movements. “A lot of those kids—they go to school to be future doctors and lawyers and whatnot,” Dewdney said when I asked him about the contrasts between his community and a college campus. “And me, like I said, I’m just a construction worker. My community is just more nine to five—well, seven to three-thirty—type guys. We’re more middle class than the well-to-do UMass kids. And I’m not saying anything bad about them. But, a lot of them have the time and the resources to throw rallies and whatnot. My community? We gotta go to work. We don’t really have time for all that.”
That potential disparity isn’t necessarily lost on the members of the Committee. “Something I’ve heard brought up by critics of this campaign is that, ‘If something like this happened in Springfield, none of you would be doing anything about it’,” Mirkin said. “And, I don’t live in Springfield. I’m not from there. I can’t actually say well, this is what would happen in Springfield. But, certainly there’s a difference in the community that exists in parts of Springfield and the community that exists here. And the community that exists in a rural area. Should something like this have happened in Laramie, Wyoming, there’s a difference in the way that people have the resources and the opportunity to create a campaign and to organize around something.”
And in Plofsky’s eyes, the campaign supporting Vassell has come to encompass more than just campus activists. “I don’t think [they’re] typical activist people,” he said, continuing with a reference to the district attorney’s office. “It’s a lot of people who are in the community, who have become outraged that their elected officials, who represent them, who are paid with their tax money, are doing things that they think are racist, and that don’t align with their values.”
Maintaining off-campus involvement will, of course, be important for the Committee’s long-term ambitions. “We have no intention of just ending if we win,” Chu told me in November. “We will continue to build. In terms of adopting other cases, I think that remains to be seen. And it remains to grow. But we will continue to grow, to make it bigger, and to recognize the bigger issues.”
Dewdney also spoke about the “bigger issues” when I asked him whether he felt a strong connection to Vassell’s case, and to the people at the rallies. Did he feel like they were speaking on his behalf, even if they weren’t aware of his situation? “Definitely. Definitely,” he said. “It was just hard, from the beginning, but I’ve just stayed positive. I wish him the best of luck. And if him getting off, even I don’t necessarily get off that easily—if that sheds some light on the actual real issues at hand, that’s fine. Job well done.”
The real issues at hand, as Dewdney saw them: “Racism in America. And it’s not just for black people. It’s for all people. For all people, man. It’s a real sad situation. A real sad situation. […] So I feel it for anybody. Whether it’s racial, sexual, religious—anything. Anything. Any kind of discrimination is not tolerable. There’s just nothing cool about it.”
Mirkin’s mention of Dewdney’s emailed to the Committee was surprising, because his summary of that message so closely echoed something Dewdney said to me during our conversation months earlier: “In my eyes, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than me being a union member. It’s bigger than him being a college student. It should just be justice for—for people. Not necessarily Jason, you know?”
The first time Jeff Hatfield took Andre Dewdney ice fishing, they brought a Crock-Pot full of venison to Little Alum Pond in Brimfield. Now, they joke that the trip was more of a cookout. They didn’t pull a single fish through the ice that day.
Dewdney calls the red-haired Hatfield his “brother from another mother.” They met in 2005, when Dewdney spotted Hatfield, a mechanic, washing a jacked-up Jeep in the parking lot of a Palmer tire shop. Dewdney waved. Hatfield waved back. Dewdney stopped to talk. He’d outfitted his own Jeep with a 4.5″ lift kit and 33″ tires; Hatfield’s had 33″ tires, too. They made plans to go four-wheeling in the woods of Wales that Saturday night.
“He’s this black kid. He’s real nice,” Hatfield told his wife when she asked him about his new friend.
Dewdney and Hatfield are gearheads. They’re the type of guys who spend a lot of time fixing up their trucks and then taking them out in the woods to see if they can break them. Then, they go back to the garage to figure out what they could’ve done better. The hobby spills into the more philosophical edges of their friendship. Hatfield mentioned that he and Dewdney shared similar views on life. “I’d say, more or less, thinking of the most positive outcome of a situation, and just striving to do better,” he explained.
When Dewdney was arrested, Hatfield hadn’t known him all that long. But over the next year-plus, as some of Dewdney’s friends lost touch, or couldn’t make time for a guy who couldn’t leave home, Hatfield became a constant. Being there was his way of reciprocating the support he’d come to appreciate from Dewdney. “He would have that sense of compassion, where you could tell him almost anything you needed to say or get off your shoulders,” Hatfield said. In the early stages of his relationship with his wife, Hatfield told me, “I was always upset or mad or just bent out of shape. I’d go over and hang out with Andre and he’d be like, ‘Dude, it’s not worth it, man. It takes a better man to actually refrain from flipping out.’ I’ll never forget when he said that to me. It triggered something in my head, and it kind of helped me calm myself down, and try to find myself a little bit more.”
For fourteen months, as Dewdney wrestled with the uncertainty of his future, Hatfield did the things he knew how to do. He went grocery shopping for Dewdney; gave him rides to court dates; sent him cards; made time to just hang out and talk. Some days they’d talk about cars, and about Hatfield’s work. Other days, Hatfield liked to ask Dewdney about religion. “I try to broaden my horizons and my mind with anything,” Hatfield said, and he described Dewdney as a good teacher.
Dewdney, in turn, liked to hear Hatfield’s stories about a world that suddenly seemed impossibly huge and far away. “What are you crazy people up to now?” Dewdney would ask during Hatfield’s visits.
Hatfield owns a small parcel of land in upstate New York. There’s a little cabin where he and Dewdney stayed shortly before the arrest. Later that winter, Hatfield built an igloo on the property, and he slept in it for a whole night. He told Dewdney about the adventure during one of their visits.
It was a small story, but it was something to look forward to.
In the weak morning sun on February 18, 2009, Gothic Street in Northampton is clogged with cars. Families are dropping off kids for daycare at the People’s Institute. Trial Court vans idle outside the Hampshire County Courthouse. Andre Dewdney, wearing a taupe suit, black shirt, and black-patterned tie, emerges from a white sedan.
A major roof renovation is in progress at the courthouse. On his way in, Dewdney stops to talk with a guy he knows. They used to be coworkers. Today, he’s working on the building’s windows.
I’m standing outside Superior Court 2, on the third floor of the courthouse, when Dewdney appears.
“What are you doing here?” he says. He sounds surprised to see me.
The final details of jury selection for Dewdney’s trial will take up most of the morning, and opening statements will run until 1 p.m. Jason Vassell’s hearing, when his counsel will present their motion to dismiss, is slated for 2 p.m. The Committee for Justice for Jason has rallied attendance for Vassell’s date.
I ask Dewdney whether his girlfriend has given birth. She was pregnant when we spoke in November. He lights up, telling me that his daughter was born on December 12.
“You got kids?” he asks me.
“No,” I tell him.
“Man, what are you waiting for?”
“I guess I’m waiting for it to feel like the right time.”
Dewdney lets out a long sigh. “You’ll be waiting forever. And. A. Day.”
In the courtroom, three college interns are wearing shirts and ties. One is reading The New York Times; another is reading James Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. There’s also a guy with a crew cut, and that’s it for an audience. Dewdney sits across the aisle, alone. Eventually, a court officer motions for him to join his lawyers.
“They told me to hang back for a bit,” Dewdney says.
“You’re the only game in town,” the officer tells him.
A number of jurors were impaneled on the first day of the trial. When the new pool enters and fills the gallery, only one of them is Black. Scanning the pool, one intern whispers to another: “This is, like, the whitest part of Massachusetts.”
By 12:19 p.m., the jury of six men and eight women is sworn in. The prosecution and defense offer their statements, and Judge Carhart sends court into recess at 1 p.m.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, a worker is overhead, scraping caulk from the curving solarium windows. The windows are yellowing and patterned like parchment. The man is a shadow against a darkening sky.
Thirty minutes later, Jason Vassell, wearing a black pea coat over a gray suit, makes his way down Gothic Street, trailed by his mother, his father, and UMass Afro-American Studies Professor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell.
Soon, Malcolm Chu is out on the sidewalk. I ask him what he’s expecting for a crowd. He tells me there’s a carpool on its way, and that, overall, momentum is continuing to build. Today’s strategy, he tells me, will be to picket outside the courthouse, rather than trying to crowd the courtroom.
A Smith College student introduces herself to Chu, and says a group on campus is beginning to organize. A woman in her fifties in a parka shows up and hugs Malcolm. She mentions a recent Valley Advocate cover story on Vassell’s case. “We got some good publicity,” she tells him.
Like each of the two previous Justice for Jason events I’ve attended, all the details are in place, including a “point person” stationed inside to talk to reporters.
At 1:52 p.m., Superior Court 2 is at full capacity, and supporters spill out into the hallway.
“It seems to be a miscarriage of justice,” one woman tells Daily Collegian editor S.P. Sullivan when he asks her what brought her out for the hearing. She’s there with her son, who’d taken Sociology 106, “Race, Gender and Ethnicity,” with Professor Clawson the previous semester. The son learned about Vassell’s case when the Committee for Justice for Jason made a presentation to the class.
Out on the sidewalk, a guy in a Red Sox hat arrives carrying an armful of picket signs that read “DROP THE CHARGES NOW.” He starts distributing the signs to the people who’ve gathered outside the courthouse; Chu dispatches a small platoon to the corner of Gothic and Main streets. A young woman in the hallway encourages supporters to go outside. “We have signs,” she says. A woman hands out salmon-colored handbills advertising an upcoming silent auction. (“Shop for Justice! Shop for Jason!” the event website says; the event ends up raising $6,000 for Vassell’s defense fund.)
Just after 3 p.m., when court lets out, TV cameras are set up on the first floor. Over at the First Church, a line snakes up the Center Street sidewalk, many of the people holding the signs that had been handed out earlier. At a press conference inside the church, the Coalition for Justice for Jason will announce its next steps.
Two days later, the Committee issues a press release about the hearing. It was a critical moment in the campaign, it says, and the coalition is growing nationally. The Committee “…remains steadfast in their efforts to build a grassroots movement to demand that District Attorney Scheibel end the selective prosecution of Jason.”
On February 18, as they have for a year, Jason Vassell’s community took a stand with signs and a well-organized media campaign, and by standing behind him in court. Just a few hours earlier, as Andre Dewdney sat listening to a prosecutor’s opening statement in a case that could have send him to prison for life, the one person at the courthouse he recognized as a member of his community was a guy who was standing on the roof.
This story was originally published on MassLive.com on March 8, 2009.