Monday, July 24, 2017

On Modern-Day Lynching

I read about 20-30 pages of non-fiction every morning, something that has nothing to do with what I'm writing about. Here is a page from Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns:

"[N]ewspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff's deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view. 
"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, 'Burn, burn, burn!' as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it. 
"'My son can't learn too young,' the father said. 
"Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as 'stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks' or 'trying to act like a white person.' Sixty-six were killed after being accused of 'insult to a white person.' One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents. 
"Like the cotton growing in the field, violence had become so much a part of hte landscape that 'perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,' wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. 'All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.'"
I don't like the term "Know your history!" The people who scream it aren't asking you to know history as much as "your heritage," a fixed story that offers clear direction for how you should and shouldn't behave in the present. We should listen to Jefferson, the heritage-mongers say, and try to work against naked partisanship and honor our farmers. We should remember the Holocaust, other heritage-mongers say, and treat every human rights violation as a possible genocide. Heritage leaves inconvenient truths out. History acknowledges the complications.

And I write this because I have always been put off by the term "modern-day lynching" as it is used to describe the police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. I know the lineage these sloganeers are referencing. Fox News focused on everything "wrong" about Trayvon Martin after his death. He had smoked marijuana. He wore a hoodie. His "crimes" were even more absurd than "stealing seventy-five cents." And as George Zimmerman, like so many other shooters, was not successfully prosecuted, it does start to look like the murder of Jesse Washington.

But it's just as important to see the differences. The video of Eric Garner's death may not have worked in court. But was there really an equivalent of fathers forcing their sons to watch Garner's murder? Of all the high-profile deaths of the last ten years, have any of them occassioned, via the video filter, anything like the grotesque spectacle of Jesse Washington's lyching? We can see monstrous comments on news stories about these shootings, but the commenters are cowards. They don't leave their names. They don't want to be seen, because they know they will face public condemnation. They are not the same as that father, hoisting his son on his shoulders.

I write this post not to diminish the terror of these police and vigilante killings, but to say that if we are honest with ourselves, we may want a different word, something other than lynching. The lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 was not the same as a brutal execution of a slave in 1816, which is also not the same as the shooting death of Philandro Castile in 2016. We live in a different world with different media and different murders.

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