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Why a Noose Isn't a Prank

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Elizabeth Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, the high school students who integrated Little Rock High Schools in 1957.  Here is a picture of some of the 250 white folks at her heels hollering, “lynch her, lynch her”  “no n-word b*tch is going to get in our school!” “Lynch her, send that n-word back to the jungle.”  During the following school year she was hit, punched, kicked, knocked flat, shoved, spat upon, had a soda bottle, rock filled snow balls, an egg and a tomato thrown at her. 

None of it was a prank. Elizabeth Eckford as every African American, many Mexican Americans and other minorities can tell you is that a noose is the supreme definition of the words “terroristic threat." There is a lot of talk on the right that tells folks how political correctness is just limiting someone else’s freedom to say how they feel.   Talk radio does it all the time, recently on 1440 KEYS, Michael Savage in his national broadcast called for rounding all of the Muslims in America up and placing them in detention camps like we did with the Japanese Americans in WWII.  One must question the morals and motives of an owner who would allow such paranoid, hysterical, hateful ranting that certainly has the ability to stir some nutcase to acts like the recent shooting at a local mosque.

Preying on fear and uncertainty, that is what powerful elites do to pit one group against the other, divide and conquer.  While the poor, working and middle classes are all fighting each other over race, religion, well-groomed, politically correct upstanding citizens and politicians pick all of their pockets by off-shoring jobs, shifting the tax burden and promoting credit card and mortgage debt. The noose is a particularly egregious threat.  It has come to represent lynching.  In early times lynching not only defined illegal hanging but tar and feathering, running someone out of town an a rail, whipping and other forms of torture and vigilante abuse.

As a nation we have a long history of using lynching and the threat of lynching to keep people afraid to demand their rights.  One of the most common uses of lynching in the old West was for large ranchers to hire mercenaries who would act as accuser, judge, jury and hangman of smaller farmers who were “rustlers."  There were lynchings in the North but the South was where terror ruled.  From 1868-71 over 1300 blacks were killed in the South for trying to register to vote. From 1871-76 recorded lynchings were 50-100 per year.  The second most common group to be lynched surprisingly was Italian Americans with a record mass lynching of 11 in New Orleans after a jury acquitted them of murder.  Chinese, East Indians, Native Americans and Mexicans were also targeted.

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Texas of course has its own unique history not only with African Americans but also Mexican Americans.  It is estimated that between 1848 -1930 at least 597 were lynched.  The period right after the Texas Rebellion was particularly hostile towards Mexican Americans when they were lynched at a rate of 473 per 100,000 from 1848-1879.  This doesn’t count the use by local whites of Pancho Villa’s 1915 cross border raids as an excuse in the Rio Grand Valley to kill hundreds of local Mexican Americans and steal their land.

Particularly brutal have been Texas lynchings.  People took their children and they had a circus like atmosphere complete with food vendors and postcard makers. One such man was Henry Smith who in 1893 was lynched in Paris, Texas after being accused of raping a girl.  He was tortured for fifty minutes with red-hot pokers, and then burned alive while over 10,000 spectators cheered.  

In 1916 one such postcard showed Jesse Washington of Waco, a 17 year old mentally handicapped farm hand accused of rape and murder, shown after he was castrated, mutilated beaten with shovels and bricks, his ears cut off then burned alive.  Still alive when the burning started, he tried to climb up the chain that attached him to the tree.  Enraged torturers cut off his fingers.

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Another such postcard is of Liege Daniels a 16-year-old boy hung in Center, Texas in 1920 who was accused of murder.  After the civil rights era lynching became rare but the threat was always there. In 1981 after a black man was acquitted of killing a police officer, KKK members in Alabama randomly picked out 19-year-old Michael Donald and hanged him to pay for the crime.  Texas again showed their ability to lynch someone in 1998 when James Byrde, Jr. 49 year old father of three accepted a ride and was beaten, stripped and dragged behind a pickup truck for almost three miles alive until his body hit a culvert severing his head and right arm.


 Capital Punishment, Modern Day Lynching? 

            Regardless of ones position on the death penalty, when the statistics regarding its application are considered you must arrive at the position that racial lynching has not ended but been codified.  In Texas, while non-Hispanic white persons constitute 83.2% of the population they are only 31% of the inmates on death row,  (following is a fragment)while African Americans who constitute only 11.7% of the population make up 41% of our current death row population.  Hispanics who constitute of 35% of the population constitute only 15% of the population of those executed.  That is changing however, perhaps in response to anti-immigrant feelings as the percentage of Hispanics on death row has risen to 27%. (U.S. Census Bureau & www.deathpenalty.org as of January 1, 2007)

            The issue becomes more strikingly obvious when you look at the breakdown of victims.  A Cornell study on the death penalty in 2004 showed  chances of getting the death penalty very high for black defendants & white victims, with white defendant/white victim following, then white defendant/black victim, and black defendant/black victim having the lowest rate of death penalty prosecution.  A study by the ACLU in 2004 states that half of all murder victims are white, but 80% of murder cases where the death penalty is pursued involve white victims.


Criminalizing Poverty: Race & Economics 

            Lynching, the death penalty and the manipulation of the law are the modern forms legalized vigilante violence against people to maintain economic advantage.  The traditional way of restricting access to the legal economy is for the economic elites to pit one group of working class people against another, usually under the cry of law and order.  If unsuccessful, the police, National Guard or even the army has been brought in to “re-establish order”.  It has a history going back to the beginning of this country.  At times Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, women have all felt that discrimination and many still do.  The Klu Klux Klan was formed by rich whites but carried out by poor ones.  Yet when white workers went on strike, desperate African-American or other excluded minority strikebreakers were used against them.

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Some on the right say that minority crime is an inability to lift one’s self up to meet the challenges of life.  Easy to say if your skin color, sex or birth family gives you advantages you don’t even think about because you take them for granted.  But let’s get realistic; there is prejudice out there against many groups that have real life consequences in getting access to educational opportunity, employment, healthcare and financial services.  When those avenues are cut off for people, they are marginalized resulting in the desperation and hopelessness that leads to alcoholism, drug addiction and/or entry into the illegal economy.  Higher crime rates within demographic groups are a symptom of discrimination not the source of it. 

One example of this at work is the immigration war.  Most Mexican illegal immigrants came to this country seeking work because NAFTA created massive unemployment and lower wages in their own country.  In many cases their family depends on their money sent home.   Not able to gain legal admission they crossed the border illegally, now they have already broken the law.  Far away from home and family, basically on the run from federal agents and when they are exploited by your illegal U.S. employer, getting a fake id seems like a small step and an acceptable risk. Another crime has now been committed. Each step brings that person in contact with people who are already invested in the illegal economy and the people and commerce that is part of it.  Given an easier path to the illegal economy then the legal one it is a matter of economic survival and hope. 

Another example of the denying access to the legal economy happens daily.  A simple marijuana bust when you are 17 can cost the loss of government loans and scholarships for college, denial of entrance into many careers and you might even have problems getting credit, a job or an apartment.  But that only happens to the working class. And it happens to thousands of people each day. The Soviet Union was a perfect example of what happens when you restrict most businesses to certain groups, in their case party members; an ever-growing black market corrupts officials, destruction of the criminal justice system, and finally a meltdown of society itself into economic anarchy and gansterism.  When access to legal economic progress is restricted there are no boundaries. 

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John Kelley is the Managing Editor of a monthly progressive newsmagazine, "We the People News", in Corpus Christi, Texas

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