Two Suspicious Deaths by Hangings of Black Men in California

Robert Fuller, a twenty-four-year old black man, was found on June 10th, hanging from a tree near City Hall in Palmdale, California. With very little investigation, the local police quickly declared his death to be an apparent suicide, a response that Fuller’s family and friends flatly disputed. There was little evidence to support such a conclusion, they argued, and denied that Fuller was suicidal.

Josie Huang/AP

Just two weeks earlier, on May 31st, some 50 miles east of Palmdale, another black man, Malcolm Harsch, was found hanging from a tree outside the city public library. As with Fuller, the local police were quick to label Harsch’s death a suicide.

Harsch’s family, most of whom live in Ohio, expressed skepticism that his death was a suicide. They say Harsch had just spoken with his children and was looking forward to seeing them. And they found it odd that the police said no foul play was suspected when blood was allegedly found on his shirt.

The quick label of suicide is not standard policing procedure.

Police are trained to investigate all deaths as suspicious unless and until an investigation proves others. As one leading police manual explains: “[a]ll death inquiries should be conducted as homicide investigations until the facts prove differently. The resolution of the mode of death as Suicide is based on a series of factors which eliminate Homicide, Accident and Natural Causes of death.” In other words, the conclusion that a death was by suicide should only occur once other causes of death are ruled out. In these cases, where both families denied the men were suicidal and where no note or other indications of suicide were evident, why would the police so quickly dismiss other possible explanations?

In a time when millions of people have taken to the streets to demand that black lives be valued and seen, and in an area with more than its fair share of racist allegations, why were the police so dismissive of these unusual hanging deaths in public arenas?

Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

The Message of a Hanged Black Body

The image of a black body hanging in a public space has significant and disturbing historical significance. Blacks in the south were routinely lynched. Lynchings occurred for minor social transgressions, for perceived but not proven criminal actions, or for no explicit reason at all other than that the victims were black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Equal Justice Initiative has identified more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings — almost all of whom were black men — that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950 in twelve southern states. The perpetrators were almost never brought to justice.

The impact of lynchings was pervasive. Entire black communities understood that these racially-inspired murders were meant to reinforce the narratives of white supremacy and black inferiority. They were meant to send a message that black lives do not matter.

Today, a noose remains a symbol of deep racial antipathy. Some states have made it illegal to display a noose because it is so clearly an instrument designed to intimidate and harass people of color.

A Call for Action

Southern California, where these deaths took place, has seen an increase in white supremacist activity in the last few years. In Palmdale, where Fuller was found dead, KKK flyers were distributed in 2007. Neo-Nazi groups have been active in the area. And the Department of Justice sued the city of Palmdale for engaging in racist — and illegal — practices designed to keep poor black residents out of particular neighborhoods.

Given the known racial animus that existed in the community, why would local police ever rush to declare that the hanging deaths of Fuller and Harsch were suicides? Why wouldn’t the police undertake the painstaking and careful investigations they should have done given the suspicious circumstances of these deaths? Why wouldn’t the specter of black men hanging in public squares merit urgent action and attention?

The FBI and Department of Justice have announced they will be reviewing the investigations, and the California Attorney General’s Office is now involved in the case.

Perhaps a full and fair investigation will reveal that the deaths were not suspicious after all. Or perhaps we will learn that something violent and sinister happened. But until such an investigation is complete, we need to demand an accounting.

*cross-posted on Medium at https://medium.com/@jhenryjustice/two-suspicious-deaths-by-hangings-of-black-men-in-california-2c5ed0d7e347

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