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Newsletter: Hanging deaths roil two high desert cities

A memorial to Robert Fuller
A memorial to Robert Fuller in a gazebo in Poncitlan Square next to Palmdale City Hall.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, June 18, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

On the morning of May 31, Malcolm Harsch was found hanging from a tree near the city library in Victorville. Ten days later and 50 miles away, Robert Fuller was found hanging from a tree near Palmdale City Hall. Both men were Black.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could see a slain Black body hanging from a tree and not immediately conjure one of the most vile repeated acts in American history. But in both cases, authorities were quick to say there were no indications of foul play.

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“Given that I’m an African American male, our first thought in our community when you see a Black man hanging in a tree is not a suicide,” an attorney for Fuller’s family told The Times. “Our first thought brings us back to a dark time in history where we see public lynchings to send a message.”

The hanging deaths have roiled both high desert cities, sparking protests, calls for investigations and community outrage about larger racial issues.

The Antelope Valley — which houses Palmdale and the neighboring city of Lancaster — has a substantial Black population, which has grown in recent decades as the cities’ demographics shifted. It also has a history of racial tension and conflict, as my colleagues Hailey Branson-Potts and Stephanie Lai explain in their story about Fuller’s death. In one example, Los Angeles County reached a settlement five years ago with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations that sheriff’s deputies had systematically harassed and discriminated against Black people and Latinos in Lancaster and Palmdale. Community trust has yet to be rebuilt.

[Read the story: “In the Antelope Valley, a history of racism fuels suspicions over Robert Fuller’s death” in the Los Angeles Times]

[See also: “‘Is my son next?’ Hanging death of Black man sparks outrage and suspicion in Victorville” in the Los Angeles Times]

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Although no chair or anything else that could have been climbed upon was found at the scene of Fuller’s death in Palmdale, authorities initially reported it as an apparent suicide.

“Maybe we should have said it was ‘an alleged suicide,’” Palmdale City Manager J.J. Murphy, who is white, acknowledged at a news briefing last Friday. Then he continued: “Can I also ask that we stop talking about lynchings?”

My colleagues report that the audience erupted with cries of “Hell, no!”

Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, thousands of Black men, women and children were lynched. Each murder — often committed in front of a mob, and sometimes associated with the trappings of a leisure activity — was an act of terror. But racial terror was also the point — the barbaric killings and mass trauma “created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 report, “Lynching in America.”

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Authorities announced Monday that Fuller’s official cause of death had been deferred pending further investigation, and that California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra would be sending in investigators to assist in determining whether he died by suicide or was a victim of foul play. The FBI has also announced that it will help monitor the Palmdale investigation, as well as the investigation of Harsch’s death in Victorville.

News broke late Wednesday evening that Fuller’s half brother, Terron Boone, was fatally shot by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in Kern County on Wednesday afternoon, according to law enforcement sources and an attorney for the family. Details about the shooting of Boone remain unclear, but law enforcement sources said deputies were investigating a kidnapping case when the shooting occurred. Boone had been charged Tuesday by Los Angeles County prosecutors with false imprisonment, criminal threats, domestic violence and assault, according to court records. Details about that case were also unclear as of late Wednesday night.

In a separate incident halfway across the state, Oakland launched a hate-crime investigation Wednesday after knotted ropes resembling nooses were found hanging from trees around a city lake, according to a statement from Mayor Libby Schaaf. The Oakland Police Department later issued a statement suggesting that the five apparent nooses discovered near Lake Merritt could be part of an exercise routine or equipment, although some neighbors expressed skepticism at the suggestion.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Orange and Ventura counties see an uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations amid reopening: Officials across Southern California are grappling with whether to temper reopening efforts in the face of rising coronavirus hospitalizations, a move that seems likely to spark public outcry. Los Angeles Times

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A Bankruptcy Court judge filed a written decision Wednesday saying he would approve PG&E’s reorganization plan. But as the embattled utility prepares for life after Chapter 11, it’s unclear there’s anything fundamentally different about the utility, which over the last decade has caused a deadly pipeline explosion, deadly fires and days-long power shut-offs affecting millions of people. Energy reporter Sammy Roth delves into the challenges ahead for the Northern California power giant. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Why must the Juneteenth menu be filled with red-colored food and drinks? “It’s a matter of symbolism. The red represents the blood shed by innumerable African Americans in the struggle for freedom.” Los Angeles Times

Phillips Bar-B-Que on Crenshaw
Phillips Bar-B-Que on Crenshaw will celebrate Juneteenth and the L.A. institution’s own 40th anniversary this weekend with a special menu.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Proms may have been cancelled across Southern California, but local students still flaunted their formalwear at the Times’ virtual prom. Los Angeles Times

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Hollywood power attorney Nina Shaw on being “the only Black person in the room” for 30-plus years. “Today I ask myself, ‘What would I say to an audience of white executives, agents, managers and lawyers?’ I would say many things, but chief among them would be: ‘How are you not mortified when your executive photo directory bears no semblance to the way the world actually looks? Is it OK for you to know this is not OK and to do nothing?’ ” The Hollywood Reporter

The Getty Foundation awarded $2 million in relief grants to 80 L.A. arts organizations. Plaza de la Raza, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, the ONE Archives Foundation and the Underground Museum are among the recipients of a first wave of relief grants. Los Angeles Times

Swimsuit-clad models with golden champagne bottles popped out of caskets at an L.A. club’s reopening brunch. Yes, they were wearing masks. Los Angeles Magazine

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Federal prosecutors are weighing whether to criminally charge John Bolton with disclosing classified information in his upcoming White House memoir, and the Justice Department late Wednesday ramped up its legal campaign by seeking a temporary restraining order to block publication of a book that is being billed as a scathing rebuke of President Trump, according to court documents and people familiar with the matter. Los Angeles Times

The federal $600 unemployment benefit ends July 31. But with the pandemic still in full force, lawmakers are debating what might come next. These are some of the several proposals on the table. Los Angeles Times

More than 1,500 trademark applications have been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for variations on COVID-19 and coronavirus. From trademarks for “Be Covidgilant” to “COVID Couture” and “It’s not just clean, it’s COVID clean,” the worst pandemic in modern memory has inspired a massive effort to harness intellectual property rights. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Actor Danny Masterson has been charged with three counts of rape involving incidents between 2001 and 2003, Los Angeles prosecutors said Wednesday. Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at San Quentin State Prison tripled in the last two weeks. “The rise in cases at San Quentin comes after state officials bungled a transfer of prisoners away from the deadly outbreak at the California Institution for Men in Chino (San Bernardino County), introducing the virus to a prison population that previously had no confirmed cases.” San Francisco Chronicle

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

The long history of systemic racism in Fresno: While protesters have raised concerns about police brutality locally, residents of Fresno’s historically Black neighborhoods say other forms of systemic racism have deep generational roots in California’s fifth largest city. Fresno Bee

1,300 under one roof: Thefts, screams at night and tedium are some of the challenges at the San Diego Convention Center, which now doubles as the city’s largest homeless shelter. Los Angeles Times

One in 13 San Francisco renters have broken their lease since the coronavirus stay-home orders went into place, an astonishing out-migration of tenants in the city that could lead to thousands of empty rental units and give renters the upper hand in negotiations. San Francisco Chronicle

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The best dad beers to be had in the East Bay for Father’s Day, according to dad brewers. Berkeleyside

A poem to start your Thursday: “Toast” by Leonard Nathan. The Writer’s Almanac

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 73. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: sunny, 78. San Jose: sunny, 96. Fresno: sunny, 98. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Rita Montes Martin:

Protesting in Los Angeles is not new. When I attended Berendo Jr. High in the 1930s, we protested. The school officials decided to have the boys and girls play in different schoolyards. The girls all brought their dolls to school, claiming if you treat us as babies we will act as babies. I am now 98 years old and we are still protesting conditions we do not agree with, our American right.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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