A Potent Symbol of Domestic Terror, the Noose Has Made a Comeback

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(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The noose — that all-too-familiar symbol of hate, violence and death for Black people in the United States — never left the American landscape, but it is certainly experiencing a surge in popularity. New reports of noose-related incidents are coming with alarmingly greater frequency. One of the most recent took place at the United States Mint in Philadelphia, where a white coin maker, hangman’s noose in hand, walked across the factory floor and left the noose at the workstation of a Black colleague, as The New York Times reported. 

“I don’t know if the intent was for him to see it or for everyone to see it or if it was a prank,” said Barry Nickson, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1023 told WHYY. “But coming into work the next day, a lot of employees were highly disturbed by what they witnessed.” Once Black employees informed Nickson about the incident, the U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general launched an internal investigation. “He was removed from the shop floor and was taken upstairs to the mint police and the mint superintendent for questioning,” Nickson said of the offending employee.  The white employee, who has not been identified, was placed on administrative leave.

In April in New York City, a butcher was accused of handing a Black deliveryman a noose. Joe Ottomanelli, of Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market, gave Victor Sheppard a noose made of yellow rope, according to the New York Daily News. “If you ever have any stress, just put it around your neck and pull it. I could even help you with it,” Sheppard, 36, said Ottomanelli told him.

Last week in New Orleans, a Black man resigned from his job after a coworker alerted him to a hangman’s noose after arriving at 7 a.m. “Disbelief. Amazement. Shock. Awe. Anger. Resentment. And then you start thinking about your ancestral history. And what they went through,” Jason Allen said, as reported by WWLTV. According to Allen, when he told the general manager, the man laughed and said someone has a “sick sense of humor.” Allen replied, “You’re laughing at a symbolic symbol that represents Black people being hung, intimidation and everything else that goes along with it.”

After his employer took no action to address the issue, Allen resigned the following day. “Our conscience is shocked and hearts are deeply saddened. We find it mortally reprehensible that anyone can find it acceptable to commit domestic terrorism in the workplace by hanging a noose. It is even more despicable that a supervisor trivialized it and found it laughable,” the NAACP-NOLA said in a statement.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem of noose hangings more evident than in Washington, D.C., the place from which racial hatred emanates since the rise of President Trump, who has facilitated an environment of racial violence. Nooses were found hanging from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall, and bananas were found hanging with nooses and racist messages at American University, where the first Black woman was elected president of the student government. A noose also was found hanging from a house under construction across from an elementary school in a residential neighborhood, and a length of rope was found at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, according to The Washington Post.

In states such as Florida, Maryland and North Carolina, nooses have been found hanging at middle schools, high schools and college fraternity houses, as The New York Times reported. This, as the Ku Klux Klan has made more public appearances throughout the country.

Black elected officials are not immune, including Aramis Ayala, Florida’s first Black state attorney and the chief prosecutor in Orlando. Someone mailed a noose to Ayala’s office. The prosecutor attracted attention and hostility from white reactionary politicians due to her opposition to the death penalty.

Nor has the U.S. military — with its long history of racial discrimination and hostility towards African-Americans — escaped the controversy. The Navy Times reported in June that in a Mississippi shipyard, a worker discovered a hangman’s noose on board the Norfolk-based destroyer Ramage as the Navy ship was undergoing an overhaul. Three months after the discovery, the incident remains a mystery to the command’s leadership.

Unknown photographer, 1906, Lynching of Dick Robinson & Thompson, Alabama (Source: Pinterest)

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 1,863 documented bias incidents from the day after Election Day to March 31. Of these, 292 were anti-Black incidents, which most commonly involved nooses.

“Perhaps no other symbol — even a burning cross — depicts the horrors of racial violence perpetrated against African-Americans and others more than the noxious hangman’s noose,” said the SPLC in its 2008 Winter Issue of the Intelligence Report. The report noted that that nooses show support for the days of segregation and subjugation, symbolizing not only racism, but serving as “the actual murder implement for the lynching of people” because of their skin color. “The hangman’s noose is a symbol of the racist, segregation-era violence enacted on Blacks. … [It is] an unmistakable symbol of violence and terror that whites used to demonstrate their hatred for Blacks,” the NAACP said in its 2007 State of Emergency report.

In addition to the proliferation of hangman’s nooses, there have been the threats of lynching, such as the University of Oklahoma student who created a “N-gger Lynching List” targeting Black University of Pennsylvania freshmen.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The backdrop to the hanging of nooses in the 21st century is a legacy of lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries, the scourge of white terror that brutalized Black bodies. The Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Ala., has found that 4,075 Black people were lynched between 1877 and 1950. Many were hanged from trees and telephone poles via the hangman’s noose as a means of oppression, intimidation and social control — and as a source of family entertainment for those whites who, along with their children, watched the gruesome spectacle over a picnic, took photographs and kept Black body parts as souvenirs.

Despite this horrid legacy of racial terror and genocide, or perhaps because of it, society has chosen to perpetuate the terrorist symbolism of the noose rather than seek to eradicate it. In the process, America signals to Black people that it is quite comfortable with this timeworn tool of racial terror, as the noose — this potent symbol of lynching and racial violence — remains an acceptable form of expression on the resurgence. This comes at a time when white political leaders — all the way up to the White House — openly espouse racial and political violence.

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