Against the backdrop of mass global protests decrying racism and U.S. police brutality toward blacks, another story is coming to light.
Since the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, the bodies of five blacks and one Latinx have been found hanging from trees in California, New York, Oregon and Texas. Law-enforcement officers in each jurisdiction have said the deaths were suicides, but activists and family members of the deceased are dubious. As the body count mounts, fears are rising that a new wave of lynching is roiling across America.
The police slayings of blacks today, particularly unarmed blacks who pose no deadly threat, are frequently decried as modern lynchings. In 2019, blacks accounted for 24 percent of all people killed by law enforcement, despite comprising only 13 percent of the population, according to the project Mapping Police Violence.
But now, with crowds of people demanding racial justice, there is suddenly a spate of what appear to be literal lynchings. Some activists view that situation as sinister, especially since all of the recent deaths were quickly determined to be suicides by local law enforcement, without much — if any —investigation. Historically, suicide was the official cause of death given for blacks who were lynched.
One of the recent hanging deaths has been confirmed a suicide, but questions remain surrounding the others.
The hanging of Malcolm Harsch, a black man in Victorville, California, was confirmed to have been self-inflicted after a video of his death was found on a security camera. There were also witnesses in his case.
But there are lingering questions concerning the other hangings.
Police found the body of Otis/Titi Gulley, a homeless black transgender person, hanging from a tree in a Portland, Oregon, park. Portland police ruled the death a suicide, but Gulley’s family questions the finding. Her mother believes she might have been targeted due to her gender identity.
The death of Robert Fuller, who was found hanging from a tree near city hall in Palmdale, California, was initially called a suicide. But less than a week later, Fuller’s brother was shot and killed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in a shootout north of Palmdale.
Los Angeles Times reports that coincidence prompted state and federal investigators to be called in to investigate.
A black 17-year-old was found hanged outside an elementary school in Houston, just two days after a Hispanic man was discovered hanged outside a store also in Harris County. Both deaths were called suicides by law-enforcement involved in the cases.
Two days ago, more than 100 protesters gathered in a Manhattan park where Dominique Alexander, a black man, was found hanging from a tree. Organizers of the protest called for an investigation into the death, which was called a suicide by the medical examiner’s office.
As Stacey Patton writes in today’s Washington Post, suicides are uncommon among young black men and suicides by hanging are even more uncommon.
Patton cites the American Association of Suicidology, which reports that firearms are the predominant method of suicide for everyone, including African Americans, followed by suffocation by plastic bags or gas inhalation.
Jacqueline Olive, director of Always in Season, a documentary that examines the history of lynchings, told Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman that there have been dozens of unresolved cases of black men found hanging since 1995.
“There’s a CDC report that I’ve been looking at that says that there have been 79 unsolved hangings of blacks, and that they’ve all been males … 79 hangings that are unsolved between 2000 and 2016,” Olive said.
The recent hangings “deserve a full investigation," Olive said, "and given the context of this history … we (should) look at them more than three days, and (look at them) as a whole."
Last September, a University of Illinois student was charged with a felony hate crime for leaving a noose inside a campus residence hall elevator. The hate crime charge was dropped in May, but the former student will have to attend a year of court supervision, 50 hours of community service and pay a $75 fine.
The seriousness of nooses as a racist symbol reflects the chilling barbarity of the history of black lynching in America.
Prior to the Civil War, runaway slaves were often punished by being hanged from trees in conspicuous places, such as town centers. Their bodies were left dangling to intimidate other would-be escapees.
Lynchings became a public spectacle cheered on by white mobs in the South during the post-Civil War years, when freedmen gained the right to vote and hold office. Blacks in the South outnumbered whites, who feared losing political and legal control to their former slaves. Police and white paramilitary groups, such as the extant Ku Klux Klan, intimidated blacks to keep them from voting, and lynchings were a favored way of accomplishing that.
There are records of 4,743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, primarily in the South, and blacks accounted for 72.7 percent of them. Whites also were lynched for assisting or defending blacks. The NAACP reports that many more lynchings were never recorded.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, author Isabel Wilkerson writes about Southern planters who lynched blacks planning to leave their jobs as share-croppers in the first half of the 20th century, even though blacks were legally free. During those decades, black men were lynched for such “crimes” as not getting off the sidewalks fast enough to let whites pass them or for looking at a white woman in a way she perceived as disrespectful.
“I think that (the recent spate of hangings) deserve a full investigation, and that they — and given the context of this history and given what people in communities understand about the racial divisions in these communities and the families’ concern — that we look at them more than three days, (and) that they are … looked at as a whole; because whether or not these are lynchings or whether or not they’re suicides, the question’s around: Is there this new trend for black people to hang themselves publicly?
“If these are suicides, then that’s information that’s really important to understand, in addition to understanding what are the issues around structural racism that can increase depression and increase anxiety and the suicide rate for black people. Those are all really important to understand.”