It would have been a new low in Fire Department race relations: the apparent mock lynching of a stuffed toy monkey in a city engine house last month.
Black firefighters called it a “terrible act of hate.” Racial tension in the department flared. City Hall requested a federal investigation.
After a two-week inquiry, the FBI concluded that happenstance, not hate, was the leading factor. The monkey, retrieved from a fire scene, had been draped from a coat rack to dry. The noose was actually an equipment strap around its neck. No racial bias was involved, the agency said.
Even so, the incident came amid an increase in noose complaints nationwide, possibly a reaction to the use of a noose in the “Jena 6” case in Louisiana. Missouri and other states are now considering legislation that targets the hangman’s noose.
But, experts say, such measures can be difficult to enforce and, as the firehouse episode demonstrates, fraught with ambiguities.
Potok says the noose, which is seen as an icon of racially-based lynching, has replaced the burning cross as the dominant symbol of racial intimidation in the nation.
The image has even worked its way into the world of golf: A television commentator’s remark that Tiger Woods’ competitors may want to “lynch” him led Golfweek magazine to put a noose on the cover of its current issue.
LINKS TO ‘JENA 6’
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes nationwide, finds fewer than a dozen noose reports in a typical year. But in the last four months, the center says, there have been between 60 and 70, including incidents at a Home Depot in New Jersey, a factory in Houston and at Columbia University in New York, where a noose was found hanging on the door of an African-American professor’s office.
Many trace the increase to events in Jena, La., where a noose display preceded the beating of a white student by black classmates. The incident led to criminal cases against six black students, which touched off a national outcry.
Though the local U.S. attorney has since said that the noose was not directly related to the altercation, there are calls for the passage of anti-noose laws.
Some, such as Potok, question whether those measures, which hinge on intangibles such as context and intent, can be effective. “I don’t believe for a second that hate crime penalty enhancement laws have reduced hate crime,” Potok said.
When the toy monkey was discovered, black city firefighters said they did not care that there was no actual rope.
“Whether it’s a rope or a shoe string, it’s a noose around the neck of a monkey,” said Abe Pruitt, a vice chair of the black firefighters’ group.
The FBI also looked into a later incident at an engine house across town—where a box of crackers was hung by a cord—but dismissed it as a prank between two minority firefighters.
Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University who has written extensively about hate crimes, says motivation is the key.
“You don’t have a hate crime just because the victim sees something,” Bell said. “You look to the perpetrator’s motivation.”