Imagery of America’s dark racial history sparks fear nationwide

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PALMDALE, Calif. — Some of the ugliest, most resonant symbols of the nation’s history of racial violence have returned after more than half a century to galvanize national demonstrations in recent weeks driven by the Black Lives Matter movement.

On both coasts, black men have been found hanging from tree branches, suspected suicides that have revived the images of lynchings. Cross burnings are under investigation in at least two Southern states. And nooses have been reported in places as varied as the Sonoma Raceway in California and a construction site in Portland, Ore.

In this high-desert city, Robert Fuller, a 24-year-old black man, was found hanging from a Chinese flame tree outside city hall in early June. Local authorities quickly ruled that he had taken his own life in the most public of ways. But Palmdale residents demanded an independent examination of Fuller’s death, in a sign of just how mistrusted many public institutions have become in the handling of matters of race.

The results of that death investigation could come any day, and the Antelope Valley, part of the Los Angeles metro area’s sprawl, is on edge.

“We just don’t know what’s really going on,” said Waunette Cullors, 54, a councilwoman in the nearby town of Littlerock. “We just can’t trust the sheriff, and nothing has been transparent. We don’t know if people are being picked off or executed.”

The public demands for the state attorney general to examine Fuller’s June 10 death reflect the increased scrutiny that local police departments have come under since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police. The FBI is tracking the review of the Fuller case.

The video of Floyd’s death set off demonstrations in cities big and small, and revealed a dearth of public trust in law enforcement. That credibility deficit is now a central feature of the politics in places such as Palmdale, where black and Latino residents make up the majority.

Even if Fuller’s death is confirmed to have been a suicide, its public manner has evoked the lynchings that were the most brutal hallmark of white resistance to black civil rights decades ago.

In Victorville, a city about 50 miles east of here, Malcolm Harsch hanged himself from a tree near a homeless camp on May 31. A review that turned up videotape of Harsch’s death confirmed that the 38-year-old had killed himself, a finding announced by his family to ensure public trust in it.

But skepticism — fueled by public fears about a resurgence of white-supremacist activity — fed beliefs that a disturbing trend was emerging, as several other black people were found publicly hanging in recent weeks, including incidents in New York and Texas — all reported as suspected suicides by authorities. Another came Tuesday, when police in Long Island, N.Y., said they had found an African American man hanging from a tree in a public park.

The agency said in a statement that the death appeared to be a suicide, based in part on “a letter left for his family in his home which describes his reasoning for his actions.” An autopsy is pending.

The Antelope Valley has its own history of racial violence and white nationalist groups, a legacy that fed the public’s demand for an outside investigation.

Many here are transplants, drawn from the crowded, expensive corridors of Los Angeles to open land, more-affordable housing and safer neighborhoods. But beneath the surface lurked a history of housing discrimination and overt racism that many African Americans here say has not entirely disappeared.

“When I moved here, my family told me, ‘Be careful because there are skinheads there,’ ” said Cullors, the councilwoman from Littlerock, who arrived in the 1990s. She worried most about her son, who was 6-foot-3 by the time he reached high school.AD

“He’s been stopped three to four times for nothing. That’s impactful to his adulthood,” Cullors said. “He told me at one point, ‘When I see a police officer behind me, I wonder, will I be killed?’ ”

In the 1940s, African Americans were essentially barred from living in Palmdale and the rest of the Antelope Valley, denied home financing by banks in a tactic known as redlining. Instead, they built homes themselves, trucking in raw materials from Los Angeles, relying on neighbors for labor and eventually creating a community on the city’s outskirts called Sun Village. For years, the community had no electricity or running water.

But in 1968, after federal legislation outlawed redlining, black residents began to move out of Sun Village into Palmdale.

“Whether they were accepted or not,” said James Brooks, 71, who is president of the Sun Village Park Association.AD

When Brooks first moved to Palmdale in the late ’80s, he recalled, a friend moved to Quartz Hill, a largely white community to the west. He soon woke up to a cross burned into his lawn.

Students at Quartz Hill High Schoolwere nicknamed “The Rebels.” Last week, the high school, which flew a Confederate flag, announced it was dropping the mascot.

Palmdale’s population has increased tenfold over the past several decades to more than 155,000 in 2019. Whites made up the large majority for much of the 20th century. Today, they represent about 20 percent of the population, according to census statistics. About 12.5 percent of residents are black and about 60 percent are Latino.

Nigel Holly, a black community activist, recalled a hot day in 2013 when he pulled off his shirt while driving to reveal a more breathable tank top. “I guess that caused me to look a certain way,” he said, because he was subsequently pulled over, handcuffed and placed in the back of a sheriff’s car.AD

It wasn’t until the officer came across documents in Holly’s car showing he was a member of a prominent community group, Palmdale’s Community Action League, that the officer let him go.

“He got very apologetic and insistent that it was just routine and just standard and wasn’t personal. But it felt like I was targeted,” said Holly, 44.

The racial conflict here has never really ceased.

Last fall, five Palmdale elementary school employees were fired after a photo posted on social media showed four teachers smiling and holding a noose. The school’s principal had taken the photo.

For the most part, black residents in Palmdale believe that Fuller did not kill himself.

He has been described as unassuming, with a bright smile, a love for Japanese anime and video games, dancing and basketball. His mother died when he was very young and his father had only a passing influence on his short life. His sisters were his primary family.AD

Friends have said he attended a Black Lives Matter rally in the days before his death. But there is little evidence he was active in the movement.

A little more than a week after Fuller’s body was found, police fatally shot his half brother, Terron Jammal Boone, in an exchange of gunfire in neighboring Kern County. Police had been pursuing Boone after accusing him of several acts of violence against his former girlfriend.

Part of the public suspicion surrounding Fuller’s death involves the essential facts of the case.

Police said there was no chair or stool found at the scene, and residents point to the relatively small tree that Fuller was found hanging from, suggesting it may not have been big enough to hold his weight. Two other shooting deaths in the Antelope Valley in the past few weeks by police have added to increased distrust.AD

“I have been getting calls for the last few years from beleaguered residents who have moved from south L.A. to the high-desert area seeking a better quality of life, only to discover they have essentially moved to an area reminiscent of Mississippi in the 1970s,” said Najee Ali, a Los Angeles-based community activist who helped organize the original protest for Fuller’s family in Palmdale.

“These white residents have resisted every inch of integration from day one for decades,” he said. “We believe that the leadership in Palmdale has similar views privately, that they could never express publicly.”

Instagram accounts, used by residents to spread the word about planned protests, are now also sharing warnings of neo-Nazi spottings.

A viral posting last Thursday told locals to be wary of a supposed Ku Klux Klan rally scheduled in neighboring Lancaster on Friday: “Y’all please be safe out there and avoid traveling alone. Don’t take this lightly,” the social media post read. It spurred a counterprotest by black citizens in the region and a sheriff’s investigation into the matter.

No rally emerged.

The Fuller and Harsch hangings came just weeks after white men in Georgia were arrested nearly three months after the shooting death Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black jogger whose death fueled nationwide calls for racial justice. Protesters accused local prosecutors of dragging their feet on arresting the men, who included a former police officer.

Against that backdrop, activists say, it is understandable that communities of color are feeling “under siege” and mistrustful of their public institutions.

“We didn’t just come up with this idea that maybe this was a lynching,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremist activity. “It comes up with the very real history of public lynchings. It’s real.”

Sean Joe, an expert on suicidal behavior among black men, said he had not come across a case like Fuller’s in his more than two decades working in the field.

“This particular case, in this particular historical moment, and using this item in the manner in which it was done, arouses a lot of suspicions,” said Joe, an associate dean at Washington University in St. Louis. “It flies against most of what I know and understand.”

Most suicides among black men involve firearms. Suicides by asphyxiation are not uncommon, but rarely are they so publicly visible, according to Joe. The fact that Fuller was found dead so close to city hall “defies explanation” without more publicly disclosed evidence, he said.

“When people engage in suicidal behavior, they do it to try to send a message,” he said, “and the pain that they’re dealing with is always very personal and often targeted at an individual, not society.”

Brooks said the SPLC’s research had not shown any connection between hate groups and the men’s hangings. But a legacy of white-supremacist activity in Los Angeles and the surrounding area compounded people’s suspicions that foul play may have been a factor, she said. Recent years have also brought a surge in hate crimes and the expansion of white-supremacist groups, according to the SPLC.

“The existence of hate groups anywhere, especially in a local context, underscores people’s base beliefs that they’re under attack, that there’s an organized effort to bring violence,” said Brooks, who previously worked as an educator in Los Angeles and ran a diversion program for white youths at risk of joining racist groups.

“Whether the investigations lead to a hate group,” she said, “there are very real fears in communities of color there. And it’s up to community leaders and community members to address that.”

White-supremacist gangs and racist groups have menaced the Antelope Valley for decades. Motorcycle gangs known for their violently racist views and overwhelmingly white membership have roamed in the region since the late 1960s.

Today, there are 88 active hate groups in California, according to the SPLC, with many clustered around the Los Angeles suburbs.

But Brooks said a tradition of heavy-handed policing has also contributed to the community’s long-standing mistrust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which handled the Fuller case.

“The department has never had a good reputation of being responsive to the needs, fears and concerns of the members of the black community,” Brooks said. “People need to accept that as fact. It’s an opportunity for law enforcement to engage differently with the community and proactively act on the fears that they hear from them.”

Green reported from Palmdale, Hawkins from Washington and Wilson from Santa Barbara, Calif.