Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf assumed that five ropes found hanging from trees in a city park were “nooses” and therefore racially-charged symbols of terror — “hate crimes.” A local black man, however, claims he put up the ropes as exercise equipment a few months ago.
“We have to start with the assumption that these are hate crimes. We cannot take these actions lightly. These symbols are symbols of racial violence, and it’s incumbent on all of us to have that sensitivity, to have that knowledge,” Schaaf said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“For those of us that don’t feel complete fear and terror when we see a rope in a tree, that is a privilege that so many of our African American residents do not enjoy.”
Intentions do not matter. We will not tolerate symbols of hate in our city. The nooses found at Lake Merritt will be investigated as hate crimes. pic.twitter.com/B1f1SwZ4tK
— Libby Schaaf (@LibbySchaaf) June 18, 2020
Nicholas Williams, the city’s director of parks and recreation, argued that “the symbolism of the rope hanging in the tree is malicious regardless of intent. It’s evil, and it symbolizes hatred.”
Yet Oakland resident Victor Sengbe, who is black, told KGO-TV that the ropes were part of a rigging that he and his friends used for a larger swing system. He shared a video of the swing in use, the Associated Press reported.
Sengbe told KGO-TV it was “unfortunate that a genuine gesture of just wanting to have a good time got misinterpreted into something so heinous.”
Schaaf had already launched a hate crime investigation into the “nooses” on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Oakland police said a caller reported finding a “fake body hanging from a noose” in the area, which the caller had taken down. It appears someone may have been dead set on proving Schaaf right, or perhaps a true malefactor seized this public opportunity to terrorize the neighborhood.
On Twitter, Sengbe said Schaaf was right to remove the ropes. “Sightings of nooses should be taken as seriously as the mayor proposed,” he wrote. However, he added that “there are a lot of black folk at the park who know it’s a swing…”
The mayors actions are right… this is two parts…
1. Any story… sightings of nooses should be taken as seriously as the mayor proposed.
2. There are a lot of black folk at the park who know it’s a swing… we can’t just sit by and say nothing, while we are asking white folks
— Victor Anari Sengbe (@OWOMAhN) June 18, 2020
Even the police description of the ropes has shifted. On Wednesday, police said the officers went to Lake Merritt to investigate a social media post that “identified a rope as a noose,” but they later added that upon searching, they found “five ropes attached to various trees.” A rope in a tree is not necessarily the same thing as a noose.
Nooses indeed have a long and tragic history in the United States. As the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial reveals, thousands of black Americans were heinously murdered throughout the South, the West, and the Midwest between 1877 and 1950.
Despite this horrific history, Schaaf was wrong to assume that the ropes in trees were “hate crimes,” at least according to Sengbe.
As the saga of Jussie Smollett revealed, many noose-related “hate crimes” turn out to be hoaxes. In 2012, black students at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside reported death threats and a noose hanging from a dorm room door. A black student at the university later fessed up to sending the threats and planting the noose.
In this case, the ropes weren’t even a hate hoax. It seems likely, however, that the effigy is a hoax.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.