Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Questions Surround Spike in Noose Hangings

By Jack Stripling
NYT Regional media group
GAINESVILLE - Last year, there was the schoolyard in Jena, La.

In September, a cultural center at the University of Maryland was targeted.

And just two weeks ago, a black Columbia University professor's office became one of the latest sites where a noose has been hung.

A symbol of racial bigotry that was tantamount to a death threat during the Jim Crow era, the hangman's noose still evokes a visceral response from most Americans. Many are questioning the meaning behind an apparent spike in intimidation techniques that harken back to some of the darkest days in U.S. history.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, said the frequency of these recent noose hanging incidents suggests there's still a subsection of American society that harbors a long-standing hatred of minorities.

"It's a small number (of incidents)," said Russell-Brown, who is writing a book about lynching. "But these things represent much larger constituencies, and that's what the concern is."

Russell-Brown, who is black, said she sees college campuses as a ripe place for the noose to make an unsavory return. Students who may have seldom wrestled with issues of race are going to encounter those topics in a university classroom, and a college campus may be the first place where some students see a black person in a figure of authority as a professor, she said.

"You're confronted with people who are different, professors who are different, professors who look different than you and issues you're not used to talking about," she said. "No surprise that tensions would come to the surface there."

The case of the so-called "Jena Six" in Jena, La., may well have been the catalyst for the more recent noose hangings. In that small Southern town, a noose was hung from a tree the morning after black students asked if they could sit under it. Some students described the tree as a favorite lunch spot where only white students traditionally ate.

Several months after the noose appeared in the tree, six black students were accused of beating a white classmate. The prosecution of the black students, and the lack of legal action taken against the suspected noose hangers, sparked a protest of some 10,000 people in September.

Since the Jena Six protest, noose incidents have received a great deal of national news media attention. Russell-Brown says that's a good thing.

"I think it's healthy," she said, "because here's the thing: What if we had nooses hanging up in different parts of the country and no one came? What does that signal?"

It's not just the news media that's following the noose incidents. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Jena Six case Tuesday, and some derided Department of Justice officials for not insisting the suspected hangers of the noose be prosecuted.

There is no specific federal law related to noose hangings, but it is against federal law to "intimidate" any person based on race, color, religion or national origin. While there have been federal prosecutions that involved the hanging of nooses, those cases focused on another accompanying crime, according to U.S. Department of Justice officials.

In Florida, hate crime laws allow for enhanced punishment in cases where it can be proven that a crime was motivated by bias against the victim's race. Speaking hypothetically, an act of noose hanging could be linked to a crime of criminal mischief or trespassing, and a person could face enhanced penalties for those crimes under state law, according to Spencer Mann, spokesman for the State Attorneys Office.

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