Law enforcement authorities, including the Justice Department, are expressing concern over a recent spate of noose sightings that have occurred in the aftermath of events in Jena, the small Louisiana lumber town that has been engulfed by racial strife and was the scene of a recent civil rights demonstration.
Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland, knotted to the end of stage ropes at a suburban Memphis theater, slung on the doorknob of a black professor’s office at Columbia University in New York, tossed in a janitor’s closet at a Long Island police station, stuffed in the duffel bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard an historic ship, and even draped around the neck of a black Barbie doll in a Pittsburgh suburb.
The hangman’s rope is so prolific, some say, that it threatens to replace the Nazi swastika and the Ku Klux Klan cross as the nation’s reigning symbol of hate.
“I think the noose is replacing the burning cross in the minds of many white people as the primary symbol of the Klan,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a magazine that examines hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Last week, the Justice Department called the placing of nooses “shameful” and deplored the sense of fear and intimidation they are meant to convey. But the Justice Department could not point to any recent arrests.
The noose’s status as an emblem of terror is well known. It became infamous during a half century of lynching that started in the late 19th century. More than 2,500 blacks lost their lives, often by hanging.
“A noose is a symbol of America’s oldest form of domestic terrorism,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington office. “It was held up as an example to show that whoever you are, you could be taken this way.”
In most places where hangman’s nooses were recently planted, white and black public and corporate officials acted decisively, repudiating the displays and vowing to hunt down the perpetrators.
Locally, police have not had any reports of nooses or any other kind of hate crime.
Allen County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Stone said he couldn’t remember the last time he heard of any hate crime being committed in the county, and Fort Wayne Police Department spokesman John Chambers said the city hasn’t had any recent reports of hate crimes.
In Muncie last week, a sanitation worker was suspended for 30 days after nooses were found hanging from the rearview mirror of his truck, The Associated Press reported.
During the years of widespread lynching between 1882 and 1930, Congress rebuffed appeals by civil rights groups to pass an anti-lynching law. Meanwhile, thousands of black people, mainly men, were killed for offenses such as stealing, assault and murder to “voted for the wrong party,” “argued with a white man,” “demanded respect,” “lived with a white woman,” “tried to vote” and “sued a white man,” according to the book, “A Festival of Violence,” a history of lynching written by a pair of university professors.
Last year in June, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for not taking action by passing anti-lynching legislation that could have helped to quell the violence. And yet, said Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairwoman Naomi Earp, the noose is still being used to intimidate blacks.
Earp said the number of racial harassment cases filed at the EEOC since 2000 has already surpassed the total number of all cases filed in the 1990s.
Harassment cases often involve nooses, but the commission does not track specific allegations unless they are settled or prosecuted in courts.
Since 2001, the commission has filed two dozen lawsuits for racial harassment cases involving nooses. In one case, white employees in Texas placed a rope around a black worker’s neck and choked him.
“It’s time for corporate America to be more proactive in preventing and eliminating racist behavior in the workplace,” Earp said. “The EEOC intends to make clear that race and color discrimination in the workplace, whether verbal or behavioral, is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Not everyone agrees.
When the Greensboro News and Observer ran a story about the nooses at the school in High Point, a young white writer posted an angry comment on the newspaper’s Web page.
“Once again ... over reaction to a childish prank,” wrote the anonymous scribe, who described himself as a student who’s afraid of black students who wear gangsta rap-type hoodies. “ ... With the over reaction will probably come more copycats.”
The LaSalle Parish schools superintendent had similar thoughts about when nooses were hung at Jena High School.
Abby Slutsky of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.