Column: All the stupid excuses for not investigating hangings of Black men in the high desert
The only sign of life in this place of death were the girls shrieking. All around them, clothes were strewn about and a portable toilet smelled as if it hadn’t been emptied in weeks, but the girls giggled with glee as they slid down a grassy hill on pieces of cardboard, sheltered from the Tuesday afternoon high desert sun by the shade of trees.
Malcolm Harsch was found dangling from one of these trees.
On the last morning of May, San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies were summoned to a homeless encampment outside Victorville’s library. Harsch had been strung up, his girlfriend said. The 38-year-old Black man died at the scene.
Now, I’d like to believe that most Americans, knowing there have been nonstop protests over police brutality in recent weeks, would think: “You know, that seems an awful lot like a lynching. Perhaps we should investigate.”
But not our local law enforcement agencies.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department initially wrote Harsch’s death off as a suicide, saying that foul play was not suspected. It’s the same story the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department offered about Robert Fuller, yet another Black man, who was found hanging from yet another tree — this one mere steps from Palmdale City Hall.
“A suicide in public, or a hanging in a public place, is not, uhm, unheard of. They do occur,” L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas insisted at a news conference on Monday morning.
“And, uhm, I think initially, [long pause] there wasn’t any evidence, uhh, or information that led, uhh, us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide, but that that was, uhh, that change very — I should say we, we felt better that we should look, uhm, into a little more deeply and carefully just considering all the circumstances at play.”
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva doubled down on that during a “community conversation” on Monday afternoon.
“We’re not going to jump to a conclusion or act on a rumor,” he said, pivoting to spread rumors and offer unfounded conclusions about Fuller’s mental health. “The facts that we have today don’t point to anything other than a suicide.”
Do they really believe this?
It’s the sort of explanation that I’d expect from a sheriff’s department in Indiana, not California. For during my decade of Hoosier cosplay, I was often unsure whether some of the people I met were genuinely ignorant or whether they were racist and merely feigning ignorance about something that seemed obvious — e.g., yes, Black people do get sunburned and, no, it’s not OK to use the word “colored” anymore. Yes, for real.
So I wanted to hear what residents of Victorville and Palmdale had to say. Why, I asked in an anonymous informal poll, do you think local law enforcement agencies tried to classify these cases as suicides rather than homicides?
The answers were predictable and yet somehow still surprising.
In Victorville, I talked to a white woman who grew up in the city at a time when racial tensions were rising because Black people were moving in from L.A. She theorized that it was easier for police to say it was a suicide than to “do the paper work” of investigating a homicide.
“The more the protesters show up, the more it will push the cops to investigate and do something,” she said, as people lined up to speak at a City Council meeting, a few miles from the library where Harsh died.
A group of teenagers, all of them Black, agreed that the official response was designed to avoid calling attention to the hanging of a Black man at a time when protests are happening nationwide over racial injustice.
“They don’t like it when we stand up for ourselves,” one said, recounting how he had been recently harassed by police. Glancing at the half-dozen Victorville officers glowering at us from across the parking lot, I couldn’t help but agree.
An older Black woman admitted she thinks what happened to Harsch might have been a suicide, though his family has released a statement saying otherwise. Her question was why the Sheriff’s Department and Victorville officials weren’t more forthcoming about what happened, given the national reckoning that’s underway on racism.
“It is suspicious because no one heard about it until after the hanging in Palmdale,” she said. “Where’s the transparency?”
At a protest some 50 miles away in Palmdale, a white woman speculated that, with Fuller’s death, maybe the deputies were trying to hide something — a Nazi flag or some other symbol denoting white supremacy. As we spoke, Black person after Black person got up to vent about the city’s entrenched racism, the Confederate flags and racial slurs.
“Even if it was true what they’re saying,” she said of Villanueva and his deputies, “why would anyone out here believe them?” And this was before deputies killed Fuller’s half-brother, Terron Boone, during a shootout on Wednesday afternoon in Rosamond, another high desert community about 20 miles north of Palmdale.
On Tuesday, a young Black man told me he wasn’t at all surprised about how the department had handled Fuller’s death. His friend agreed.
“The cops thought they could just sweep it under the rug like Malcolm,” he said. “They didn’t think anyone would notice.”
I asked whether it was possible the deputies might not have made the connection to lynching. I brought up — admittedly halfheartedly — the four teachers at Summerwind Elementary School who were put on leave last year after a photo of them smiling and holding a noose surfaced on social media. An official investigation found they had no knowledge of the racial hatred a noose symbolizes.
“They knew,” the friends said almost in unison.
In the end, the general public will probably never know for sure why both sheriff’s departments of San Bernardino and Los Angeles tried to close both cases as suicides — even with parallel investigations by the FBI and State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office. But what is abundantly clear is that it doesn’t really matter.
There are huge problems in California’s high desert, ones that rival those in parts of the Midwest and Deep South.
It was only five years ago, for example, that Los Angeles County settled with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations that deputies systematically harassed and discriminated against Black people and Latinos in Palmdale, including with military-style sweeps of federally subsidized Section 8 housing.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to traffic stops, racial profiling is also a thing, which — and I’m just spitballing here — might be one reason so few Black men and women want to become deputies and patrol the high desert. Villanueva was complaining about this very thing on Monday, when a Palmdale resident called into the community conversation to press him about the lack of diversity on his force.
It’s an awful cycle of systemic racism that has led to where we are today.
Either the departments, if the sheriffs are to be believed, have deputies who are so ignorant that they can’t see why a Black man hanging from a tree would be evidence enough to start a homicide investigation.
Or, if we are to believe residents, we have deputies who believe Black lives are expendable. And since no one will notice when they are gone, why spend money and energy investigating a possible murder that will only rile up Black people and possibly shine a light on longstanding racist practices?
No wonder people at Tuesday’s protest were calling Palmdale a “sundown town” — something else I haven’t heard since my days in Indiana.
“My brothers and sisters, do not be outside after dark,” a Black woman pleaded into the microphone across from City Hall. “We are in a war zone.”
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