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 Reconstruction and the civil rights era. Former NYPD detective and New York Law School professor Kirk Burkhalter and Nicholas Creary, PhD, associate director, Center for Diversity and Enrichment at the University of Iowa, discuss what may be the causes of the hangings and whom to hold accountable.
- If you can suggest suicide, I can suggest a lynching.
- Yeah. That's right.
- Although the investigation is ongoing, it appears that Mr. Fuller has tragically died by suicide.
- (CROWD CHANTING) Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!
KIRK BURKHALTER: My name is Kirk Burkhalter. I'm currently a professor of law at New York Law School. And I'm also retired from the New York City Police Department. I served 20 years. And I retired as a detective first grade.
So over the past few months or so, you've had this proliferation of finding black men literally hanging from trees in public areas-- parks and so forth. And this is particularly disturbing based on a couple of reasons. One is, these hangings have been ruled suicides-- most-- in part.
The other is, needless to say, this country has a history of lynching of black men-- certainly, back in the 1930s. Billie Holiday even recorded a song entitled "Strange Fruit." And the fruit she spoke of was the black men hanging from trees in the south.
So why is this particularly disturbing? So one issue is, the coroner's reports are ruling these deaths a suicide. And very well, from the medical evidence available, yes, a hanging might be something that we would deem a suicide. However, I think that the law enforcement community has a responsibility to take in the totality of the information.
So if you think about everything that's going on in society at this moment, all the racial tensions, police misconduct, and so forth, 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.
NICHOLAS CREARY: My name is Nicholas Creary. And I'm the Associate Director for the Center for Diversity and Enrichment at the University of Iowa. Sadly and disturbingly, this does not seem like anything new. I mean, it's-- if anything, it's sort of a contemporary twist on a very old tradition, if you will, of lynching.
I mean, in most of your lynching cases-- in fact, all of them in the state of Maryland, where I've done my research-- after the lynching, there was always a formal inquest to determine the cause of death. And inevitably, after every one of them, the verdict was, this person met his death at the hands of parties unknown.
And to hear this number of black men who are being found hanged and it being deemed a suicide, I mean, this, to me, sounds like declaring these things suicides before there is any extensive investigation done. I mean, this is just the modern version of, you know, they died at the hands of parties unknown, because realistically, if these things are not suicides, that means somebody is killing them and then placing those bodies.
- (CROWD CHANTING) Fuller!
- Say his name!
- (CROWD CHANTING) Robert Fuller!
- Say his name!
- (CROWD CHANTING) Robert Fuller!
KIRK BURKHALTER: I'll be frank. Black people very rarely go out and hang themselves publicly. That's not to say black people don't commit suicide. Black people are people just like everyone else. However, it's something that is rare. And I think, you know, when you investigate these cases, once again, it's looking at all the circumstances. So where did you find this person?
Now, in addition to what might have caused them-- you know, the root causes of suicide-- we all know there are many. There are many. And sometimes it's mental health issues, sometimes tragedy in the person's life.
NICHOLAS CREARY: What this tells me, again, is that the oppression doesn't end. It-- it just adapts. It adapts to the current situation. It may have been, you know, lynch mobs happening at night 150 years ago.
Over the course of time, you know, about 100 years ago, when lynching starts to decline, that's when you have a significant increase in the number of state sanctioned executions of black men. That's when that takes off.
KIRK BURKHALTER: We live in a society where we have yet to resolve the issues that we have been dealing with over the last couple of hundred years-- the enslaving of African-Americans and the vestiges of slavery and the civil rights dream, so to speak, that has yet to be realized.
So when we look at the relationship between the police and Black Americans, what we're really looking at is the relationship between Black Americans and America. And that's where the healing and repair has to start. And the starting point is the rights of Black Americans.
NICHOLAS CREARY: Trust has to be earned. I mean, Missouri is the Show-Me state. You know? Don't just tell me. You know? Show me. Give me reason to trust you. You know, absent that, why should I trust you, given this extremely long history that has engendered nothing but mistrust?
You know, the police want the black communities to trust them? You know, it's on the police to show that we should trust them.