‘Is my son next?’ Hanging death of Black man sparks outrage and suspicion in Victorville
The hanging death of a Black man in Victorville has sparked community outrage about larger racial issues in the high desert city and calls for a full investigation into whether Malcolm Harsch was the victim of foul play.
Harsch was found hanging from a tree on the morning of May 31 near the city’s library. Authorities have said there is no evidence of foul play, but the man’s family and others are skeptical and are demanding an independent investigation.
About 200 people turned out for a peaceful demonstration Tuesday afternoon in Victorville, calling for police accountability and the further investigation into Harsch’s death.
Demonstrators marched on the sidewalk along Civic Drive, holding signs that read, “Defund the Police” and “Is My Son Next?” They chanted, “No justice, no peace,” as cars drove by and honked.
Stevevonna Evans, 36, an organizer of the protest, said the group was calling for a transparent and independent investigation into the death — the first of two hanging deaths of Black men in Southern California in two weeks — and also would like the California attorney general to supervise the investigation.
“Unfortunately, we can’t leave this in the hands of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department,” Evans said. “We’re getting conflicting stories with what they’re saying took place and what witnesses say took place.”
Some demonstrators used chalk to write on the sidewalk the names of people killed by police, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They also wrote “Defund, Demilitarize, Deescalate.”
Standing nearby were deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which the city contracts for policing services.
The protest, organized by the grassroots group For the People, comes after the hanging deaths of Harsch, 38, and, in Palmdale, 24-year-old Robert Fuller.
After questions and protests, the FBI announced Monday it would examine both cases.
The Victorville Fire Department found Harsch’s body May 31 after receiving a dispatch call around 7 a.m., officials said.
On Monday, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department offered more details about what happened, saying deputies were called to a homeless encampment regarding Harsch.
“The caller said she and [her] boyfriend, later identified as Malcolm Harsch, had been together during the morning, but she had since returned to her tent for a short period of time. She was alerted by others in the encampment that Mr. Harsch was found hanging from a tree and cut down. People in the encampment were performing CPR, attempting to revive Mr. Harsch,” the statement said.
“Upon arrival, deputies immediately took over and continued CPR. Emergency medical personnel arrived on scene a short time later, and despite additional lifesaving efforts, pronounced Mr. Harsch deceased,” officials added.
An autopsy was conducted, and officials said they saw no signs of foul play. But the investigation continues with help from the FBI.
In the Antelope Valley, where there is a long history of racial tension, Black residents are skeptical of authorities’ claims that the death of Robert Fuller by hanging was a suicide.
In a statement sent to the Victor Valley News, Harsch’s family members in Ohio said they found it hard to accept that his death was a suicide. They said Harsch had recent conversations with his children about seeing them soon and that, to those who knew him, he didn’t seem to be depressed.
“The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible,” the family wrote. “There are many ways to die, but considering the current racial tension, a Black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn’t sit well with us right now.
“We want justice, not comfortable excuses,” they wrote.
During the demonstration outside Victorville City Hall, some protesters waited to address the City Council, which was holding its scheduled meeting.
Standing in line was Jessica Powell, 35, of Victorville. She held a sign that read, “We’re Not Anti-Police, We’re Anti-Police Brutality.”
Powell said she wanted officers to be held accountable when they killed people or when they used excessive force.
“We need change,” she said. “There needs to be some type of equality, some accountability.”
Powell said that last July her unarmed brother was shot and killed by police in Adelanto. She said her brother was struck in the back and chest.
She said for almost a year she had been trying to get her brother’s autopsy report but had yet to receive anything. She said police had made it difficult for her to obtain basic information about the shooting.
Eli West, 57, a community activist, said there was a lot that needed to be brought to light in Victorville. He said police in the town had racially profiled residents, including himself and his family, and there had been police killings that were questionable.
“It’s a perfect storm,” he said. “When the system is not right for everyone, then it needs to be changed.
“The Constitution says ‘justice for all,’” he added, “and if it’s not justice, then we need to redefine that word until we have the right meaning.”
Standing nearby, Barry Harris, 52, of Victorville, said he came to support the Black Lives Matter movement and call for police accountability.
“Police have been unfair to us for a long time now,” he said.
Harris wanted to attend the City Council meeting, but the chambers had reached capacity. He said if he’d had a chance to address the members, he would have called on them to hold police officers accountable.
Some demonstrators said they wanted Victorville to redirect policing funds for public health and social programs in the city.
The gathering was peaceful, but many took offense with the number of deputies standing nearby and a sheriff’s helicopter circling overheard, commanding that protesters stay on the sidewalk.
West said he didn’t like that.
“I don’t think it’s necessary. Everything is peaceful,” he said. “All it is is an act of containment to keep you in line.”
Later in the evening, a small group held up their signs as eight deputies kept watch from afar.
“Are you all waiting to put your knees in our neck?” one woman shouted at them. “Are you going to hold your officers accountable?”
The officers looked on.
“This is intimidation,” the woman yelled as she walked away.
Inside the City Council chambers, more than 50 members of the public spoke for nearly 2½ hours, and at times, the meeting became tense.
Victorville Mayor Gloria Garcia warned Councilwoman Blanca Gomez three times to put a sign down reading, “Justice for George Floyd.” At one point, Garcia walked over to Gomez as public comment was taking place and the two councilwomen spoke off-microphone in a brief but lively conversation.
While Garcia returned to her seat, Gomez again hoisted the sign, holding it aloft for most of the rest of the public comment period.
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