As protests against police brutality and racist violence have rocked the country over the past month, the deaths of four Black men by hanging has put Black Americans on edge, raising ugly reminders of the lynchings that terrorized African-Americans during Jim Crow and the civil rights era.
Robert Fuller, 24, was found hanging from a tree in a public square in the early morning of June 10 in Palmdale, Calif., a city 60 miles north of Los Angeles with a population of 156,000. His death was initially ruled a suicide by county officials, but the investigation has been reopened in response to demands by hundreds of protesters.
“We want to find out the truth of what really happened. Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right,” Diamond Alexander, Fuller’s sister, told the Los Angeles Times. “My brother was not suicidal. My brother was a survivor.”
Last week, officials announced that the finding of suicide had been rescinded.
“Initially, there wasn’t any evidence or information that led us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide,” said Jonathan Lucas, the chief medical examiner-coroner for Los Angeles County. “But that changed, or, I should say, we felt better that we should look into it a little bit more deeply and carefully, just considering all the circumstances at play.”
“Robert Fuller was a young man in the prime of his life and his death is obviously very painful to many people,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. “It is in our interest to make sure we leave no rock unturned.”
Suspicion about Fuller’s death was heightened when his half-brother, Terron Boone, was killed by sheriffs’ deputies in what police described as a wild shootout exactly one week later. Authorities have not established a connection between the two incidents. In addition to the local investigation, federal authorities and the state attorney general’s office also announced they would be looking into Fuller’s death.
But Fuller isn’t the only Black man who’s been found hanging in a public place in the past few weeks. A Black teenager in Texas and a 27-year-old Black man in a New York City park were also found hanging this month.
The body of 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch was found hanging on May 31 approximately 50 miles from Palmdale. His family said after reviewing surveillance footage that they believed Harsch had taken his own life.
There is a long history of investigations into the deaths of Black Americans being peremptorily closed by findings of suicide and never properly investigated. Writing in the Washington Post, author Stacey Patton noted a number of examples, including the case of Ab Young, a Mississippi man who was lynched in 1935.
“He fled to Tennessee and was captured by a mob that dragged him back to Mississippi, where he was hanged in a schoolyard, his body peppered with bullets,” wrote Patton. “Though his lynching was advertised in advance, a reporter and photographer showed up to document the event and nearly 50 people were involved, a coroner’s jury ruled that Young’s death was a suicide.”
Kirk Burkhalter, a now retired 20-year-veteran NYPD detective and professor of law at New York Law School, says coroners and law enforcement need to look beyond the bare forensic facts of a case and take the social and political context into account in their investigations.
“Coroners’ reports are ruling these deaths suicide [based on] the medical evidence available,” Burkhalter told Yahoo News. “However, I think that the law enforcement community has a responsibility to take in the totality of … this moment and all the racial tensions behind what we've seen in the videos of police misconduct. I think it’s rather quick at this particular point in time, here in June 2020, to rule these deaths so quickly as a suicide without further investigation.”
There have also been investigations launched into the appearance of nooses across the country. On Sunday evening, one was discovered in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver in the top tier of the NASCAR circuit. Wallace has been photographed in an “I can’t breathe” shirt and has driven a car with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme. Earlier this month, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its racetracks. The U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division were reviewing the situation involving the noose at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
“As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you,’” Wallace wrote in a statement on Twitter. “This will not break me, I will not give in nor will I back down. I will continue to proudly stand for what I believe in.”
On Tuesday, authorities announced that the rope, which may have been used to pull the garage door shut, had been there since at least last fall, long before Wallace was assigned that particular stall. But that evening, Wallace told CNN’s Don Lemon that as far as he was concerned, “it was a noose. Whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose. So it wasn’t directed at me, but somebody tied a noose. That’s what I’m saying.”
Nooses were also discovered in Oakland and Harlem this month. After Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf ordered a hate crime investigation into the nooses, an effigy was found hanging in the same area. Schaaf called it “a deliberate and vile attempt to traumatize and divide Oaklanders.”
The incidents renewed speculation that followed the deaths of a number of activists who were involved with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo. Two men were found shot in burned-out cars, three died of apparent suicides and one died of an overdose. Danye Jones, the 24-year-old son of organizer Melissa McKinnies, was found hanging from a tree in her yard in the fall of 2018. While a medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, McKinnies posted to Facebook that “they lynched my baby” and has maintained that her son was murdered.
“My husband, who is ex-military, and my brother both carefully examined the knots in the sheet, which they described as ‘intricate Navy knots,’ something Danye would never have known how to tie since he was never in the military or even the Boy Scouts,” McKinnies said last year. “If you were going to kill yourself, would you create these challenging knots? Plus, it was not a sheet from our home.”
Black leaders and organizations have called into question the legitimacy of suicide determinations by law enforcement before. In 2014, the North Carolina branch of the NAACP questioned the suicide ruling in the death of Lennon Lacy, a Black 17-year-old who was found hanging from a swing set in a largely white trailer park. The chapter handed the federal prosecutor a letter formally asking the FBI to join the investigation, raising questions about “quick call” suicides in which “suspicious deaths of black men are quickly classified as ‘suicides.’”
Nicholas Creary, associate director of the Center for Diversity & Enrichment at the University of Iowa, questions law enforcement’s recent suicide declarations, as the incidents suggest examples of modern-day lynchings.
“This does not seem like anything new,” Creary told Yahoo News. “It’s sort of a contemporary twist on a very old tradition of lynching.”
Creary added that through his previous research following lynchings in the past, there would be a formal inquest to determine the cause of death, which almost inevitably ended with the finding of suicide, or “this person met his death at the hands of parties unknown.” The most recent hangings align with these findings.
The family of a transgender woman, Titi Gulley, also believes that Portland, Ore., police dismissed her death because they saw little value in the body of a Black, queer, homeless person. Her body was found hanging from a tree in Rocky Butte Park on the afternoon of May 27, 2019. The Portland Police Bureau ruled the death of Gulley, 31, a suicide. Her family insists the police never considered any other possibility.
“[The police] didn’t ask any questions,” Kenya Robinson, the mother of the victim, who was named Otis Gulley at birth, told the Portland Mercury. “You saw a Black man in a tree who was in a homeless camp, and you wrote him off as being a transient homeless, and wrote it off as a suicide.”
This case has now been reopened after Gulley’s family presented evidence they collected showing that there may have been foul play involved.
This was the 27th violent killing of trans and non-gender-conforming people in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Human Rights Campaign, with the majority being Black trans women. In 2020 there have already been 15 deaths of trans and non-gender-conforming people.
While Black people do commit suicide, data shows that it’s at a much lower rate than other races. Data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in 2018 shows Black people commit suicide about 60 percent less often than white people, a rate of 7.03 per 100,000 population, compared with 16.84 per 100,000. For those within the Black community who do commit suicide, firearms are the most common method.
Experts say hanging is an unlikely option. “It is very uncommon for young Black men to commit suicide, let alone by hanging,” said Raymond Winbush, a psychologist since 1976 who has treated hundreds of Black men and boys and is the director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research.
The number of hanging deaths by Black men doesn’t quite add up for Burkhalter.
“I’ll be frank, Black people very rarely go out and hang themselves publicly,” he said, adding: “That’s not to say Black people don’t commit suicide. Black people are people just like everyone else.”
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