Strange fruits are hanging from the trees in America. These are the black bodies of the men whose deaths were ruled as a suicide in the wake of protests over police brutality.
In every one of those cases, police have rushed to declare that the men simply killed themselves. And perhaps they did.
The problem is the families of the men, the local communities and some scholars of anti-black violence in most of those cases, aren’t so sure.
The fact that these hangings are occurring in the wake of widespread rioting and racial violence has only served to ignite further suspicion. Tree hangings evoke traumatic memories of America’s grisly history of unpunished lynchings of thousands of black adults and children between 1880 and 1968.
In June, the body of a black teen was found hanged in a school parking lot. Based on a tweet sent by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, officials believe the teen’s death to have been a suicide.
His death came just days after another black person, 24-year old Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree.
Fuller’s family insisted that he wasn’t suicidal. Days before he died, he attended a Black Lives Matter protest, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Fuller’s sister Diamond Alexander said in a media statement: “He didn’t seem to be depressed to anyone who truly knew him. Everyone who knew our brother was shocked to hear that he allegedly hung himself and don’t believe it to be true as well as the people who were there when his body was discovered. We’ve been hearing one thing. Then we hear another. And we just want to know the truth.”
In Fuller’s case, the Los Angeles County’s chief medical examiner-coroner withdrew his initial ruling of suicide, pending an ongoing investigation.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Terron Jammal Boone, Robert Fuller’s half-brother, was killed in a shoot-out with LA County Sheriff Deputies, one week later.
But the litany of deaths do not end there. Another black man, 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch, was also found dead in similar circumstances on May 31, also in California.
Harsch’s family said in a statement issued to local US media outlets that they were suspicious about a possible suicide ruling “amidst the current racial tension.”
“A Black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn’t sit well with us right now,” the family said. “We want justice, not comfortable excuses.”
While vigils took place for the black men mentioned above, nearly 3,000 miles away in the New York borough of Manhattan, 27-year-old Dominique Alexander was found hanging from a tree at Fort Tryon Park on June 9.
The state medical examiner has ruled his death a suicide.This is despite the fact that ropes shaped like nooses were placed anonymously in several places around the country prior to his death.
The nooses are used as a terrorizing symbol of lynchings commonly carried out in the Jim Crow era.
Meanwhile, the body of a Latino/Caucasian man was found hanging from a tree in Houston, Texas. In this case, his family conceded his death was suicidal.
Is There More To His Story?
The most recent tragedy was that of Amani Kildea, 20, whose body was found hanging in Lewis Morris Park. His death was declared a suicide and his adoptive father, Tom Kildea said he had a “challenging” home life.
Kidea was born in Ethiopia and was adopted by American couple, Tom and Janice Kildea in 2005.
The real tragedy is that he was adopted from Ethiopia to find a better life and instead found death.
Amani dreamed of a career with the FBI or CIA. His proudest moment came in February, when he graduated from basic training as a Military Policeman in the Army Reserves.
He was active in bringing child predators to justice in his community and was a member of PedoGotCaught — a group of young men who run sting operations similar to the former TV show, To Catch a Predator.
The group claims it has outed 32 predators, including the son of a mayor. Washington Township Police Chief Jeffrey Almer said his officers have forwarded information provided by PedoGotCaught to the Morris County Prosecutor in the past.
Some believe that this was the real reason Amani was targeted.
Nearly 25,000 people have signed an online petition demanding a full investigation into his death.
Activists have demanded an independent autopsy report and answers to the following questions:
Were the persons targeted by PedoGotCaught questioned, and their alibis vetted? Was Amani in the process of outing another suspected pedophile before his death? Why was he in Lewis Morris Park? How did he arrive there? From what, and with what, was he hanged? Was it tied like a noose?
In addition to his adoptive parents, Amani is survived by his birth mother, Genet, in Ethiopia; and many aunts, uncles and cousins.
Can’t Suicides Just Be Suicides?
So why all of this suspicion when all of these deaths have been ruled a suicide?
After all, it’s not like black men don’t kill themselves. Anyone can commit suicide, regardless of race. According to the AFSP, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the 16th cause of death among African-American men.
Separate figures by the US Department of Health and Human Services revealed the overall suicide rate for African Americans is 60 percent lower than that of the non-Hispanic white population. Furthermore, in black American culture, suicide is widely regarded as a shameful act; when it happens, it’s generally private, and hanging is not a preferred method.
So why have these public hangings evoked such a high level of distrust and suspicion?
Part of it is due to the timing. The death of George Floyd has sparked riots and protests all over the country. However, the upheaval has also resulted in a resurgence of far-right violence and counter-protests. During this time, more than 6 black men were found hanging from trees.
This reminded many of the ways black men were routinely lynched in the civil rights era back in the 1960s.
At the time, few people were brought to account and the deaths were also dismissed as suicides, until further information came to light during the post-civil rights era.
Furthermore, given the documented acts of police brutality against minorities that are circulated almost daily, it is easy to understand why these apparent suicides are viewed with suspicion.
But what happens if one of these black men were to survive a lynching attempt? And what if, even then, it was downplayed or trivialised by the very same police?
Botched Lynching Goes Viral
At the time of writing, a disturbing video was making the rounds. Vauhxx Booker was attacked, beaten and pinned to a tree by five white people in a secluded wooded area. The participants declared their intention to hang him using a noose and threatened to break his arms — in broad daylight and in front of a crowd.
The only reason they didn’t succeed is that another crowd of people came to his defence. Had this attempted lynching been successful, the murder would have been marked as yet another “suicide”.
Why do I assert this so boldly? Well, this is partly due to the equally disturbing, nonchalant and apathetic reaction of the police.
Vauhxx Booker reported that he and his friends contacted 911 and police turned up. When the police turned up, they ignored Vauhxx and his friends and instead went straight over to talk to the men who tried to lynch him.
Even once the police did eventually get around to talking to him, he, along with his friends and the crowd of good samaritans explained what happened.
However, in the original Facebook post where he documented the attack, he said: “Yet DNR refused to arrest any of these individuals, even with multiple witnesses — several who filmed the event and collaborated our accounts. Instead the officers stated they contacted the Prosecutor’s office who relayed there was no immediate need to arrest anyone, and that the officers would simply file a report.
“To reiterate, this attack occurred on public land and was recorded by numerous individuals who made statements against the attackers for assaulting them and me. I’m gravely concerned that if any other people of color who were to cross their path they could be killed.”
Both the police and the prosecution office refused to act. They were simply not interested, and downplayed the botched lynching as a misunderstanding and minor altercation.
It was only once the video went viral, that the police sluggishly decided they may try and look into it after all.
The botched lynching is one of many racist assaults that have recently taken place in Bloomington, America. In another incident, a 66 year old woman Christi Bennett, was arrested after driving her car into a group of protesters.
But I can’t help but wonder: if there had been no witnesses, no cameras and the man had not lived to explain what happened, would this has simply have been categorised as another suicide? The reluctance of the police to act certainly indicates that.
Given the long history of police brutality, it is easy to see why many activists distrust their findings.
How Many More?
Prior to these well publicised cases, another person Otis “Titi” Gulley, 31, a homeless black person who identified as a woman, was found hanging from a tree in Rocky Butte Park, in Portland, 2019.
Gulley’s death has been ruled a suicide, but family members said they were not convinced. Kenya Robinson, the mother of Titi says Portland police didn’t ask any questions about Gulley’s death and have treated her concerns with indifference.
But he was far from the only “suicided” black man to be found swinging from the trees of America in recent years.
He was joined by Brandon Rivers of Harrisburg Pennsylvania who was found hanging from a tree in Perry County, 2019. Subsequent hanging deaths (all black men) have occured in Delaware between 2010–2012, Ohio 2012 and North Carolina 2014.
History of Lynching
Historians have long struggled to count the number of Black Americans who were lynched.
A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, documented 6,500 lynchings between 1865 and 1950, including 2,000 attacks during Reconstruction that weren’t tallied in the organization’s previous reports.
Jeffrey Littlejohn, professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas said in an interview with the Courier newspaper: “After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, lynching became a way that whites enforced white supremacy through racial violence.”
Raymond Winbush, is a psychologist who has treated hundreds of black men and boys. He is also the director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research. He said: “It is very uncommon for young black men to commit suicide, let alone by hanging.”
The American Association of Suicidology reports that firearms are the predominant method of suicide among African Americans (as they are for the nation overall), regardless of sex or age, followed by suffocation by plastic bags or gas inhalation.
Jim Crow And His Fake Suicides
During the Jim Crow era, it was not uncommon for the deaths of black men to be ruled as suicides to cover up murders by white mobs and police officers.
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, based at Northeastern University, has been compiling a database of lynchings and other forms of anti-black murder.
Jay Driskell, a consulting historian for the project, says the trend of declaring black lynchings to be ‘suicides’ stretches back to the 1930s.
He added: “there’s a whole world of rumors of lynchings that are hard to dispel because so many of them occurred well beyond the range of news reporters or police records. Lynchings were a shared communal terror that got passed down from generation to generation like a bruise on a memory.”
So far, in all of the cases he’s personally looked at between 1930 to 1956; a public figure, police officer, coroner or jury deemed the deaths to be ‘suicides’ and not lynchings or extralegal murders.
This includes the death of Ab Young, a farm laborer from Slayden, Mississippi who died after being accused of killing a state highway worker 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.
Despite the fact that his lynching was publicly advertised in advance, and he was sprayed with bullets, which he couldn’t have shot alone, his death at the time was still declared as a suicde.
Prior to that in 1932, another black man by the name of Shadrack Thompson was found hanging after being accused of attacking a white farmer and his wife. Thompson vanished, and his body was found two months later. He was burned; dismembered body parts had been distributed to members of the community as celebratory souvenirs.
And as bone-chilling as it was, his head was put on display 25 miles away, in Warrenton.
The official verdict: why, suicide, of course.
These are just two out of thousands of cases whereby clear and cut murders are reinterpreted as suicides. Now it seems that once again, strange fruits are hanging on the trees of America.
The Legality of Lynching
Good news: congress finally moved to make lynching a Federal crime in America in 2020.
The bad news: it hasn’t been formally passed yet due to opposition from Republican senator Rand Paul. The other bad news: why has it not been made a federal crime already?
From 1882 to 1986, Congress failed to pass anti-lynching legislation 200 times. The bills were consistently blocked, shelved or ignored.
Last year, Kamala Harris tried to pass anti-lynching legislation. She was unsuccessful.
When such a law would have had the most explicit effect, was during the Jim Crow era when thousands of black people were lynched across the country. Even then, Southern senators succeeded in repeatedly blocking its passage.
So do you really trust the verdict of a system which consistently refused to accept that lynching should be illegal?
However, what makes this 2020 Bill so significant is the fact that it is one of the only ones that had unanimous support from Democrats and almost-unanimous support from Republicans. Almost.
Rand Paul had previously supported the Bill, but then suddenly did a U-turn when the Bill was renamed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act.
Now Rand Paul is claiming that the wording of the Bill is “too broad” despite the fact that the only wording that changed was the Bill’s name, which changed from the Anti-lynching Act to the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act.
Democratic congressman Bobby Rush, who proposed the House legislation, tweeted: “The language of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is IDENTICAL to the bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate. The only conclusion I can draw from Rand Paul’s sudden opposition is he has an issue with the House bill being named after Emmett Till.”
This led to speculation that Rand Paul’s real objection was over the fact that the Bill was named after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and killed by racists in 1955 in Mississippi.
Mr. Paul has such influence because senators are trying to pass the bill by unanimous consent, rather than through a traditional recorded vote, meaning any one senator can grind the Bill to a halt.
The Senate passed a version of the Bill last year.
Once the bills are formally reconciled, the legislation can be sent to the Oval Office, where President Trump would be expected to sign it into law.
If passed, lynching would be classified as a conspiracy by two or more people to cause bodily harm in connection with a hate crime, with penalties up to life in prison if convicted.
Early Attempts To Criminalize Lynching
One of the earliest anti-lynching bills was proposed by the only black member of Congress George Henry White, a Republican who resided in North Carolina.
In a speech given on the House floor, he said: “I tremble with horror for the future of our nation when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence and law once permitted to reign supreme.”
Although his speech received a round of applause — his Bill was voted down by the same people that applauded him. But he was far from the only person that tried to bring an end to lynching throughout history.
In 1892, the journalist Ida B. Wells, who fought fiercely to end lynching, wrote: “the strong arm of the law must be brought to bear upon lynchers in severe punishment, but this cannot and will not be done unless a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.”
Her famous words are cold comfort 128 years later when lynching still either goes unpunished and has not formerly been recognised under federal law.
Conclusion: Did Lynching Ever Stop?
The short answer is no.
The recent case of Ahmaud Arbery who was lynched after being accused of trespassing in an abandoned building is a case in point. Once again, the fact that there was a video of the incident which resulted in national and international outrage was the only reason his murderers were apprehended.
Prior to the video going viral two months after the incident, the police hesitated to arrest the men.
So the latest deaths of black men who were found hanging from trees is more than a little suspicious. Of course, there will be people who will claim that it is all just a big coincidence.
Nobody was murdered, they will argue. No lynchings ever took place.
But for those who do not have the privilege of cavalierly dismissing the deaths of their fellow humans, the current deaths which bear the same signature as historical lynchings are more than a little unsettling.
In many of these deaths no cameras were present, so public outrage can easily be swept under the tree leaves.
Moreover it is difficult to trust the police investigations into these deaths, given their lethargic reactions, even in the cases where the murders are caught on camera.
So without the harsh light of exposure, these private hangings in public places continue to challenge the notion of freedom, liberty and justice for all.
After all, there’s been thousands of such “suicides” since the first slave landed on American soil. Uncanny.