In Depth

Why the FBI is investigating a spate of hangings

Recent deaths of six African-American and Hispanic people spark fears of lynchings

A sudden spate of hanging deaths involving African-American and Hispanic people is being investigated by the US authorities as racial tensions continue to simmer across the country.

Activists have voiced lynching fears following six hangings in public places over the past month, with campaigners warning of “a backlash by white supremacists against the Black Lives Matter movement”, The New York Times reports.

What has happened?

Since 27 May, one woman, four men and a teenage boy have been found dead in separate hangings in Southern California, New York City, Portland and Houston. All of the victims were African-American or Hispanic.

Officials ruled all of the cases to be suicides, “but each of the incidents have fuelled fears and suspicions about the possibility of lynchings” amid the ongoing unrest triggered by George Floyd’s death in Minnesota last month, says the Daily Mail.

US federal authorities opened reviews into two of the deaths, of 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch and 24-year-old Robert Fuller, who were found hanging from trees in California ten days and 50 miles (80 km) apart.

The investigations were prompted by a public outcry that has seen more than 530,000 people sign an online petition demanding a full investigation into Fuller’s death.

Separately, authorities in Oakland, California, are investigating the discovery last week of nooses strung up on at least five separate trees. Two days later, a “fake body hanging from a noose” was found in the same part of the Lake Merritt area, according to CNN.

Were any of the six deaths definitely suicides?

Over the weekend, a spokesperson for Harsch’s family said they believed that he had “died of suicide and not a lynching, after they were shown ‘video evidence’ of the lead-up to his death”, the Daily Mail reports. 

However, the other five cases are still under review.

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What is the significance of lynchings in the US? 

“The image of a black man hanging from a tree is seared into the American psyche as the embodiment of racism in all its ugliness and cruelty,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“Lynchings of African-Americans through the civil rights era of the 1960s challenged the nation’s perception of itself as the land of liberty, justice, equality and rule of law, and we have seen to our horror that even today, racial hatred can still descend to murder.”

Even if homicide is ruled out in all of the outstanding cases, the growing number of suicides in the African-American community should not be ignored, the paper adds.

“If we conclude that it could not have been murder but must have been suicide, we must recognise that our work is not done. We will have to ask ourselves: Why would a young black man in the 21st century United States kill himself?

“Suicide in the black community was historically low but is on the rise, especially among teenagers and young adults. Where did we go wrong? And, whether it be murder or suicide, how do we prevent such a thing from happening again?”

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