St. Cloud State University (SCSU) student Douglas Tanner is scheduled to appear Thursday, January 8, in Stearns County District Court in downtown St. Cloud. His case raises a number of serious questions about Black athletes in St. Cloud and race relations on and off campus that we will examine in the stories that comprise this series.
Arguments will be made January 8 on whether Tanner can withdraw an earlier guilty plea agreed upon last October. He changed his mind about the plea during a December sentencing hearing. If convicted of first degree assault, Tanner could be sentenced to up to four years in prison.
According to him, he was advised to plea guilty. “Every lawyer I spoke to said they didn’t think I could get an impartial jury in St. Cloud,” said Tanner. “The jury of [my] peers would be predominately White; most of them would be older than 35.” Tanner is 28.
“My lawyer [Amy Chantry] kept telling me that I have all these strikes against me,” Tanner said. “I’m Black, I’m in St. Cloud, [and] I’m going to have an all-White jury. She was telling me that I didn’t have any funds to hire specialists to come in to testify. She said I didn’t have the money to hire a private investigator. That’s how she looked at it.”
Although Tanner authorized his attorney to speak to us about the case, our calls to Chantry, who also works as a St. Cloud State student legal advisor, were not returned.
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Tanner said, “I didn’t come to college right out of high school.”
After working as a nursing aide, he began looking at a medical career but also still wanted to play football. His high school coach helped him find a junior college in California where Tanner earned his associate degree.
“I found out about St. Cloud because [the University of Minnesota at] Duluth had flown me out here on a recruiting visit, and they were playing St. Cloud [State].”
Tanner instead chose a school in New York, but after he could not afford the tuition there, he went back home to Louisville. “I started looking at different schools,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere that is going to help me in the long run, and that is how I came here [to SCSU].”
Now, Tanner is seriously looking at his third strike. The first strike came back in late 2006 when, as he puts it, he got in trouble just by trying to be a Good Samaritan.
“I was at an off-campus party, and I saw this White male bleeding out the side of his head,” recalled Tanner. “I thought I could help him — he said he fell down some steps.” After helping the injured person to the SCSU public safety office a couple of blocks away, the young man suddenly became agitated with police officers.
When Tanner asked what was wrong, “The public safety officer looked straight at me and told me to ‘get the f**k away,’ and if I didn’t he was going to arrest me for disorderly conduct. I wasn’t acting disorderly at all.”
He later contacted school authorities on how he was treated, beginning with his football coach.
“[The coach] instructed me to contact Student Life and Development,” said Tanner. “I [later] got an email that I had to meet with Student Life and Development and might possibly face sanctions. I was facing charges, and I was the guy who helped [the injured young man] out. I was the one who was treated wrong.”
Tanner was told that the officers reported him as being intoxicated and later “made harassing phone calls to them,” he recalled. “What reason did I have to act irate to public safety? Not a single reason. But I had a reason once this guy [the officer] started getting irate with me, like I hurt the kid.”
Two weeks later, Tanner was told that the matter was closed. “They didn’t have enough evidence to charge me, but if they get any more information in the future, they might revisit the situation,” he recalled being told.
Tanner took his case to the school’s athletic director, but to no avail. “I felt I was treated unfairly and discriminated against,” he said. “He [the AD] did nothing.”
A few weeks later, Tanner attended a St. Patrick’s Day off-campus party. “As soon as I walked into the party, this White girl walked up on me and started grilling me about [another girl],” Tanner said. “I didn’t know her [or the other girl].”
He left the party, but later returned. “This girl is still heckling me,” he continued. “I walked off into the kitchen and I’m talking to a girl that she happens to be friends with.”
According to Tanner, the girl then bumped him. “I said, ‘Don’t put your hands on me,” and I lost my cool and threw my Gatorade on her. She threw her drink on me. At least a half-hour went by before this girl comes in [a room where dancing was taking place], pushes people out of the way and kicks me in my groin. I pushed her back. Then I walked outside and I walked home.”
However, the girl later reported Tanner to school officials, saying that she got a black eye as a result of the incident. Strike two.
Tanner said, “I never struck her — I don’t know how she got the black eye. I gave [a school official] 20-plus names that he could ask about what happened. He interviewed not one of those people.”
Tanner did, however, sign a document admitting his actions, eventually leading the school’s student court to find Tanner guilty. He was dismissed from the SCSU football team. He later appealed and eventually was reinstated by SCSU President Earl Potter.
Then came the fateful Fourth of July weekend last summer.
“Four of my friends and two of my ex-friends asked me to drive them to the bar and be their designated driver,” said Tanner of that incident. “Everybody around here knows that I don’t drink.”
The bar personnel later asked Tanner and his friends to leave because of back-and-forth arguing between them and White patrons. “Then we came back to the apartment complex, and I was going to leave.”
But first he stopped to talk with a White male, along with a White female, when a White male from an apartment across the street yelled, “Why you guys f***ing with n***gers?”
“It takes a lot more than the n-word to get me going,” said Tanner, “so I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t have anything to do with your conversation when you throw the n-word in it.’ He said, ‘If you have a problem with it, come down here and make something out of it.’
“By this time, [the White male] crosses the street to where our apartment building is. Then Freddy [a Black teammate] comes out the door and starts fighting the kid. He’s beating the kid pretty bad, knocking him down a couple of times. It’s like a good old showdown — salt and pepper, Blacks versus Whites.
“I don’t want somebody to sucker punch me because it is dark, so I am looking around. Then this one [White] guy comes and grabs me. I push him off and [say], ‘Get off me.’ Then Fred clocked him.”
Tanner then grabbed Fred, but “he takes off running out of my arms and goes back after the kid, and they [resume] fighting some more,” said Tanner. “Then I pushed [the young man] just as hard as I did Fred [to separate them], and he stumbled back, his head hit the ground, and that’s how he got hurt.”
Tanner truly believes that what he did does not constitute first-degree assault. “I never misrepresented myself to police officers. When I pushed that kid, he hit his head on the ground. I never denied that. But that is not first degree assault,” he insisted.
Of his initial guilty plea, Tanner said, “I felt that I didn’t make an informed decision. The prosecutors gave me nothing to make an informed decision. When I went to court on the day I pled guilty, the prosecutor told the judge that if I didn’t take the deal today, they were going to take it off the table.”
Why wasn’t Tanner’s teammate, who was considered a ‘star’ football player, similarly charged? Is Tanner a scapegoat in all this? And what does all this suggest about race relations on and off the SCSU campus?
next week on Tanner’s case and other Black athletes’ experiences in St. Cloud.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.