History as Hangman

Time does not heal all wounds. That's what Andy Sheldon learned when his firm helped federal prosecutors try James Ford Seale earlier this year for a 43-year-old crime.

Seale, a one-time Ku Klux Klan goon and sheriff's deputy, was finally being tried for torturing and assassinating two Mississippi civil rights organizers -- he had violently extracted (false) information, anchored one man to an engine block and the other to some loose railroad tracks, and then dumped both men into the Old Mississippi River. A generation later, Seale's macabre crime still rubbed the community so raw Sheldon could barely seat a jury. "I had people in their 60s who had known people who were lynched," Sheldon explains. "It's not that far off in the past."

That’s become an unavoidable truth in recent months, as the singular symbol of racist vigilantism -- the hangman's noose -- has made an ominous resurgence in the public square. Police and media in places as disparate as New York City and Anniston, Alabama, have tracked a shocking number of incidents in which nooses have been left as presumed warnings to African Americans, swinging as modern cross-burnings from office doors and police lockers. "It's pretty clear that there's something going on," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crime. "We might see half a dozen noose incidents in a year typically; we've seen at least a dozen [this year]."

The incidents have spurred renewed energy for aggressive prosecutions of hate crimes, and civil rights advocates have begun demanding police action at both the local and federal level. But few of those caught in the noose maelstrom have stopped to ask a fundamental question: Is criminal justice alone equipped to deal with the problem?

It’s unclear what sparked the recent noose mania, but Potok and others believe it began with the events in Jena, the now-infamous Louisiana town in which a local prosecutor charged six black high schoolers with attempted murder following a racially charged fistfight. The case began in August 2006 when a group of white high school kids hung nooses from a tree in order to deter black students from sitting there. The superintendent dismissed their terrorism as a "prank" and a series of race fights ensued. One Monday morning last December, a white student taunted a black classmate who had been beaten up over the weekend, and six black kids retaliated by beating up the white kid. Prosecutor Reed Walters threw the book at the black students, now known as the "Jena 6," charging them with various felonies and pushing for them to be tried as adults.

In September, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the tiny town to protest the still ongoing legal fight between Walters and the Jena 6 families. After the rally, a teen in a neighboring county drove by a group of protestors with a noose hanging off his pickup truck. Somebody took a picture; it appeared on CNN.

But by then, 2007 had already become the summer of the noose: A Coast Guard cadet found one in his bag in July while serving aboard the Eagle; black student groups at University of Maryland found one hanging from a tree outside their building in September. More recently, a Columbia University professor found one on her door -- one of three noose incidents in the New York area in just the last couple of weeks. A white nationalist Web site even compiled a "noose on the loose" list chronicling and celebrating each incident, but the site's editor -- a celebrity in the online hate-group world -- removed the list after federal officials vowed to investigate online incitements to violence in Jena.

Congress is already gearing up a response. The House Judiciary Committee held hearings this week on how the feds can intervene in school-level hate crime; Al Sharpton urged a more aggressive law enforcement stance toward hate crimes in general. And that's how most observers have reacted to the noose epidemic -- as a criminal justice fight. To Walters and many whites, the nooses are merely childish, if mean-spirited jokes best left out of the courts; to Sharpton and the thousands who marched on Jena, they are a chilling precursor to Seale's brand of terrorism. Sympathetic prosecutors are determined these hate crimes will not go unpunished as long as Seale's did.

But neither black activists nor white apologists have stepped outside of the narrow debates of individualized crime and punishment. And some scholars argue that limited framework dooms any effort to fix the problem. "Prosecution is what you do once these things have happened," says University of Maryland law professor and civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill. "The question is how do you prevent them from happening."

Ifill's recent book, On the Courthouse Lawn, explores the dynamic relationship between decades-old lynchings and today's race relations. What's significant, she argues, is how little Americans -- as individuals or as communities -- have examined the ways in which the estimated 5,000 lynchings that mar our history also shape the world we live in today.

America's historical avoidance is a particularly acute concern, she says, because attacks like Seale's were not singular, but rather required the participation of entire communities. In extreme cases, lynchings were public spectacles that hundreds of white families would attend, carnival-style. In others, scores of people, from town leaders down to bystanders, concealed their knowledge of the events for decades. "My research shows that white families are reluctant to talk about that," Ifill says, "particularly in terms of their family's complicity."

A criminal justice approach to confronting racism entices because it does nothing to challenge this reluctance. It allows the broader society to continue avoiding its complicity in racist vigilantism, from yesterday's lynchings to today's nooses.

Following the civil rights movement's turmoil, conservative thinkers began whittling away at the definition of racism, and have now successfully limited it to, as one researcher puts it, "individual acts of meanness." So Don Imus is a racist. Michael Richards is racist. People who hang nooses on trees are clearly racists. These rogue individuals and their discrete injustices can be condemned and punished without dirtying everyone else.

But what about the laws that swept across 40 states in the early to mid-1990s allowing prosecutors like Walters to easily shove kids like the Jena 6 into adult courts? Is that racist? The outcome seems to be: Today, an estimated 200,000 kids are herded into adult court every year. Studies have repeatedly shown them to be overwhelmingly people of color -- in one late 1990s Justice Department study (the most recent to date), 77 percent of kids sent to adult prisons were minorities. A disparity that striking can't be the result of a series of individual decisions, racist or otherwise.

Ifill and Sheldon, who both support strong hate crime laws, are among the national leaders in a movement to widen the conversation about racism and connect past nightmares with present realities. Both work with the Alliance for Truth and Racial Reconciliation, a coalition of human rights advocates and litigators in the South who are trying to get communities talking about their own histories with racial terrorism. The Alliance helps local advocates do things like create lynching memorials and find other opportunities to force long-avoided conversations about specific events of racial violence in their city’s history.

The ultimate goal is to set up a series of truth and reconciliation commissions, like the one South Africa established following apartheid. Ifill has stressed it’s important that these look-backs include a mechanism for prosecuting crimes that are uncovered, where possible. But in all of American history, according to Sheldon, only one community -- Greensboro, North Carolina -- has taken that sort of structured look at its past. Prosecuting crimes past and present is important, he offers, but it gets you nowhere without a broader conversation. "Once you bring it up, people go, 'Oooh yeah.' And they have all these stories to tell," says Sheldon, noting at least one community, which he wouldn't name, is preparing to launch its own commission.

"The country never completed the discussion on race," sums Potok. "As soon as it got to be something white people felt they could put behind them, they did." And for many, that coping mechanism works -- until some kid hangs a noose from a schoolyard tree as a "prank."

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