“For African-Americans in America, hanging from a tree is a lynching. Why was this cavalierly dismissed as a suicide and not investigated as a murder?”
Content warning: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence.
In the three weeks since Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, the United States has been rocked by civil unrest on a scale not seen since the 1960s. Against that backdrop, a disturbing new trend has emerged: Four Black men have been found hanging from trees in less than three weeks.
Malcolm Harsch, 38, was found hanging from a tree near the homeless encampment he was living in in Victorville, California, on May 31. Ten days later and 50 miles away, 24-year-old Robert Fuller was found in a similar manner across the street from City Hall in Palmdale, California. Across the country, 27-year-old Bronx resident Dominique Alexander was found hanging from a tree in a Manhattan park on June 9. And on Tuesday in Houston, Texas, an unidentified Black teenager was found hanged to death outside of an elementary school.
That four Black men have been discovered to have died so brutally in such a short time has alarmed many activists. The hangings, they say, bring to mind something far more grim: lynchings. Authorities, however, have shied away from addressing that possibility.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday said the teen’s death appears to have been a suicide. “Based on security video, witnesses and other evidence, preliminary indications are the male hanged himself. There are currently no signs of foul play. Cause of death is pending autopsy,” the sheriff’s office wrote in a series of tweets.
Tuesday’s hanging death represents the second in two days in Houston; on Monday, the body of a Latino man was discovered in what is also being described as a suicide. A Houston Police Department spokesperson told COURIER that the victim had been described as suicidal by his family members and that foul play was not suspected. The department is awaiting autopsy results.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s case has been ruled a suicide by the New York City Medical Examiner, though an NYPD spokesperson told COURIER that the investigation was ongoing. Fuller’s death was initially declared a suicide, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has since walked that back and committed to a full investigation.
Harsch’s death is also being investigated as a suicide.
‘Suicide Does Not Seem Plausible’
The immediacy with which law enforcement moved toward investigating the California cases as self-inflicted has drawn significant backlash from Fuller and Harsch’s family members, friends, and the general public. They want the hangings investigated for any signs of foul play.
Diamond Alexander, Fuller’s sister, said that the initial ruling by officials that her brother hanged himself didn’t make sense to her. “Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right,” she said Saturday at a rally in Palmdale. “We’ve been hearing one thing. Then we hear another. And we just want to know the truth.”
“My brother was not suicidal,” Alexander added. “He wasn’t.”
Harsch’s family members expressed their suspicions about his death to the Victor Valley News, telling the paper that Harsch had recently had conversations with his children about seeing them soon and didn’t seem depressed to those who knew him.
“The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible,” the Harsch family told the Victor Valley News. “There are many ways to die but considering the current racial tension, a black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn’t sit well with us right now. We want justice not comfortable excuses.”
An autopsy was conducted on June 12, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department told COURIER. “Although there remains no sign of foul play, the forensic pathologist is waiting for toxicology results before assigning the cause and manner of death,” the spokesperson said.
Harsch’s sister, Harmonie Harsch, has begun an investigation of her own. “It has been stressful,” she told the New York Times. “It doesn’t sound right.”
Fuller’s family is also requesting an independent autopsy, according to their attorney Jamon Hicks, who criticized the sheriff’s department’s rush to declare Fuller’s death a suicide without conducting a comprehensive investigation.
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“The lack of investigation and dismissal of this as a potential murder or hate crime has enraged Mr. Fuller’s family,” attorney Jamon R. Hicks with Douglas/Hicks Law told ABC 7. “To rush to the conclusion that this was a suicide and not a homicide is extremely disturbing.”
Many Questions, Few Answers
As outrage built over the weekend, the city of Palmdale issued a statement in support of an independent investigation Saturday, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger called on California’s attorney general Xavier Beccera to investigate Fuller’s death. Beccera announced Monday that his office was sending independent investigators to Palmdale to review the investigation and possibly conduct its own. He did not say whether his office would also investigate Harsch’s.
During a press conference on Monday, several reporters questioned members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Medical Examiner’s office about why Fuller’s death was initially ruled a suicide.
Capt. Kent Wegener of the LA County Sheriff’s Department said there were no signs of foul play at the scene. “There was nothing. There was nothing else found at the scene other than the rope, which was used to hang the victim, and the contents of his pocket, as well as a backpack he was wearing,” Wegener said.
“He was hanging and there was no other information to suggest that there was foul play at the time. Further investigation is ongoing, but that’s why we were thinking in that direction early on,” said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the chief medical examiner/coroner for Los Angeles County.
Lucas also announced an autopsy had been conducted and that his office was awaiting toxicology results.
Both cases are now being monitored by the FBI and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, an FBI spokesperson told the LA Times on Monday.
The family of Dominique Alexander, whose body was discovered in a Manhattan park, has been silent on the circumstances surrounding his death, instead focusing on mourning their loss. “We are just trying to grieve,” Alexander’s brother, Keats Alexander, told the New York Daily News. “He was definitely loved by his family and his community. It’s just so much.”
Although authorities have refrained from addressing the possibility that the men were lynched, that scenario represents the very evident elephant in the room. “For African-Americans in America, hanging from a tree is a lynching,” Hicks told ABC 7. “Why was this cavalierly dismissed as a suicide and not investigated as a murder?”
Activists, civil rights groups, and concerned citizens have expressed similar frustrations online
A History of Lynchings
That the victim’s families are wary of the police version of accounts isn’t surprising to Michael J. Pfeifer, professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.
“Given the history of lynching in America—and the painful, searing imagery of African American men hanged from trees in lynching iconography—it’s easy to understand the skepticism of family members of Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch,” Pfeifer told COURIER.
Historians have long struggled to count the number of Black Americans who were lynched. According to Tuskegee University, which houses the nation’s most complete record of lynchings occurring in the U.S., at least 3,446 Black Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative, meanwhile, documented 6,500 lynchings between 1865 and 1950, including 2,000 attacks during Reconstruction that weren’t tallied in the organization’s previous reports.
Regardless of the exact number, what’s not up for debate is the devastating impact it had on generations of Black Americans.
“After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, lynching became a way that whites enforced white supremacy through racial violence,” said Jeffrey L. Littlejohn, professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
Littlejohn, who oversaw an effort to document lynchings that occurred in Texas between 1882 and 1945, said that while people might want to believe lynchings are a thing of the past, they remain present.
He cited the 1998 killing of James Byrd Jr. near Jasper, Texas, in which an avowed white supremacist chained Byrd, a 49-year-old Black man, to the back of his truck and dragged his body for nearly three miles along a secluded road outside the city.
“I would categorize that as a lynching. It was public, it was racially motivated, it was done to promote hatred. It was a racial hate crime,” Littlejohn said. He also pointed to the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery, as a racial hate crime that was the modern-day equivalent of a lynching. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was pursued and gunned down by three men in Southern Georgia in February.
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Even if all four cases are determined to be suicides, that doesn’t mean racial violence wasn’t a factor, Littlejohn said. He mentioned the death of Sandra Bland as an example of a reported suicide driven by racial violence.
Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was arrested during a traffic stop in July 2015 and found hanged in a Waller County, Texas jail cell three days later. Her death, ruled a suicide, led to widespread protests against her arrest. Activists also questioned her cause of death and claimed she was the victim of racial violence. In a video released shortly after her death, Bland can be heard saying that Texas state trooper Brian Encinia slammed her head against the ground.
In 2019, additional video of the traffic stop was released, in which Encinia can be seen ordering Bland out of the car and saying, “I am going to drag you out of here,” before he pulls out what appears to be a stun gun and shouts, “I will light you up.” The Waller County Jail also failed to adhere to its own policies, including performing time checks on inmates and ensuring that employees had completed required mental health training.
“I think it was a suicide, but the point is the suicide was caused fundamentally by the acts of racial violence that were committed against her. It caused her to, I would say, psychologically break down and just lose all hope,” Littlejohn said. “Some of these events in the present may actually be suicides—in fact they all may be, the investigations are going to show us, I think—but at the same time, just because they’re suicides does not mean they are not caused by racial acts of violence and hatred.”
That lynchings continue to this very day may prove shocking to some, who thought such gruesome acts would be confined to the past, but even today, in 2020, lynching is still not a federal crime. The House passed a bill criminalizing lynching at the federal level in February, and Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey along with Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina introduced a Senate version, which would make lynching a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The bill, however, has been held up single-handedly by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said the current language of the bill is too broad.
On Tuesday, Harris commented publicly on the recent spate of hangings, calling for an investigation. “Black men found dead hanging by rope are painful reminders of America’s history of lynchings,” she wrote in a tweet.
Pfeifer, the professor of history at the City of University of New York, also said the recent hangings merited investigations given the nature of the deaths.
“Given the searing repressive power of imagery of African American bodies hanged from trees in American culture, this current spate of cases merits full inquiry, not least because of the persistence of racism and racial violence in the United States,” he said.
Ultimately, what the series of hangings show, Littlejohn said, is that people are hurting. “They are losing hope that the country and their fellow citizens will address the racial violence being perpetuated against people of color,” he said.
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But he also saw hope in the scope of the protests following Floyd’s killing, saying it might be an inflection point that brought about change. “People are now focusing on the violence of police departments and vigilantes who are motivated by racial hate to commit acts of racial violence and people are just disgusted with this.”