Indiana authorities are investigating a report by a Black man who said he was pinned to a tree by a group of white men, an attack he likened to an “attempted lynching.”
Parts of the incident were captured on video by one of the man’s friends.
In a post to Facebook, Vauhxx Booker wrote, “I don’t want to recount this, but I was almost the victim of an attempted lynching.” He went on: “On July 4th evening others and me were victims of what I would describe as a hate crime. I was attacked by five white men [with Confederate flags] who literally threatened to lynch me in front of numerous witnesses.” Booker said he and his friends were visiting a public beach on Lake Monroe outside Bloomington, Ind., to join a gathering when a group of white men said they were on private property and began following them.
Some of the men became belligerent, he said. When he approached “sober seeming group members” to “see if we could smooth things over a bit,” the confrontation escalated. Video posted to social media shows a group of white men holding Booker to a tree as his friends plead with them to release him. In the video, one man shouts at the camera, “You happy about this, you nappy-headed bitch? You and your five white friends?” As Booker’s friends leave, one of the men follows, shouting, “Those Black boys want to start it all.”
In his Facebook post, Booker claimed there were shouts of “get a noose” and “white power.”
He said he was released after several white strangers intervened and suffered bruises, abrasions and a “minor concussion” in the incident.
There had been no arrests as of Monday afternoon, but Katharine Liell, a Bloomington attorney representing Booker, told Yahoo News she expected some to come. She criticized officers of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who responded to the scene but declined to interview witnesses who offered to share video of Booker being held against the tree. Liell said she was concerned that the officers had not relayed the full picture to prosecutors.
“I believe those DNR officers were in the prosecutor’s office by 8:45 this morning, and I’m sure there were some tough questions that they had to ask those officers,” said Liell. “What we’re trying to do is coordinate with them to make sure they have the information necessary to make a good charging decision.”
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said he has personally known Booker, a resident of his city, for at least five years. Booker is active in the community, he says, and a member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission. Hamilton concedes that even in his relatively liberal city, home to Indiana University, racism persists within and around the community.
“We’re a very progressive city,” Hamilton told Yahoo News in a video chat interview. “We believe in inclusion, but in our community we know we have hate incidents every year. We know there’s racism in our community and around our community, and we can’t pretend that’s not the case.”
Indiana has a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, serving as a stronghold for the group in the early 20th century, all the way up to Gov. Governor Edward L. Jackson, who worked closely with Klan leaders in the 1920s.
Liell, Booker’s lawyer, described him as a “very prominent member” of the community.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t know if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time,’” said Liell. “‘Why you had to go through this, of all people.’ He’s much admired in our community for his work on civil rights, for his work on waking white people up to the struggles of racism. Vauhxx and I have known each other for quite some time, he’s a friend first and a client second.”
In an automated response to an email inquiry, prosecutor Erika Oliphant stated, “I met with Indiana Conservation Officers this morning [Monday, July 6] regarding this case. They are actively and thoroughly investigating the events that took place on Saturday. Once my office has received the completed investigation and all associated media, we will review those materials and make charging decisions.”
DNR issued a statement saying they were still investigating the incident.
“DNR is investigating after a 911 call was transferred to Indiana Conservation Officer Central Dispatch,” a spokesperson told Yahoo News in an emailed statement late Monday afternoon. “Additional investigation and interviews are underway. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Law Enforcement Division is working diligently with the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office to ensure a lawful resolution. This matter remains under investigation and no further information will be released at this time.”
Social media posts gave what were purportedly the names of the white men in the video, and the company where two of them were said to be employed was deluged with negative online reviews over the course of Monday.
Booker’s allegations come after a recent series of Black men found hanging in public areas amid the Black Lives Matters protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Some of the hangings were ruled suicides but are being investigated further to see if there was any evidence pointing toward murder.
On Monday, the Young Democratic Socialists of America Bloomington chapter tweeted out a photo hanging in the city that reads, “A Man Was Almost Lynched Yesterday.” The banner harks back to the 1920s when the NAACP headquarters flew a “Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag every time a Black man was lynched in the South.
From 1920-1938, the @NAACP headquarters flew a “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag every time a black man was lynched in the south. Today, a similar banner was seen over Walnut St. in Bloomington, IN. A man was almost lynched. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/6uvVlTKa0l
— 𝗬𝗗𝗦𝗔 𝗕𝗹𝗼𝗼𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘁𝗼𝗻 (@YDSABloomington) July 6, 2020
One of the biggest differences from then to now is the existence of video and social media. Mayor Hamilton thinks the presence of someone recording the event may have helped avert a worse tragedy.
“I don’t know what would have happened in the woods around Lake Monroe if there hadn’t been other individuals there and if there hadn’t been a video taken,” Mayor Hamilton said. “It’s incredibly important that we as a country, and then me and my community, that we make clear that has no place in our community, and we want to root it out.”
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