A national horror has come to the Eastern Shore, specifically in Greensboro, Maryland in Caroline County. For those who do not know, a 19-year-old African American named Anton Black died on September 15, 2018, in Greensboro in the presence of one on-duty police officer in addition to off-duty officers. Some, both black and white, are calling it a modern-day lynching, but those utterances are not making it into the news, not yet.
The details are still murky and unofficial. Four months after the day Anton yelled out for his mother’s help while she was helpless to protect him, the truth about what happened is far from widely known. Some details are out there – witness accounts, even a lengthy police body cam video, seen by only a few. At this writing, official police and medical reports such as toxicology have not been released, and the body cam video has not been released to the public.
But some close to the situation who were either witnesses or were permitted to view the video, are calling it a modern-day lynching at the hands of police. They cite chokeholds, tasering, and horrifying angry chases by a mob of policemen (if four can constitute a mob), leading some to say this was “like a lynching,” with others calling it just that, a lynching.
Due process for the family has been a struggle, and some unique circumstances have terrorized a community, just what lynchings historically were meant to do. It’s complicated and some readers may take strong exception to the term modern-day lynching, especially since the full story has not been revealed.
But reach back into history. When African Americans were being killed by lynching in America back in the first half of the 20th century, the term lynching was plain and simple and obvious, and used before full stories were ever revealed, if ever. And lynching by its nature deprives a person not only of due process but also their life. So, is it lynching even if we don’t know all the facts? It was back then, so today people can also call what they see as a lynching. America does not want to hear the word, they don’t believe it is applicable to today, not in the 21st century.
Well, let us think about that.
Just what is a lynching? Seems strange to be even considering this question in this day and age. Most everyone understands it means the killing of a person by a mob without our systems of law. And while lynching has long been a part of American history, the word lynching morphed into something different by the end of the 19th century to be attributed to the dizzying numbers of African Americans killed in this country. Though many people think of lynchings as hangings, scholars know lynchings are any form of murder.
Lynchings as hangings are what we typically remember because most people know about the spectacle lynchings, including huge crowds surrounding a core of perpetrators doing the killing. But lynchings could be far smaller, involving fewer people, different forms of death, from beatings, burnings, shootings, and more.
Most definitions are similar, fairly simple in wording. Wikipedia provides a slightly expanded definition, describing a lynching as a “premeditated extrajudicial killing by a group,” with the term extrajudicial killing defined as “the killing of a person by governmental authorities or individuals without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process.” The word “group” is less defined, left to interpretation. In the early 20th century, the mob of a lynching was characterized differently by various sources, but a mob could be as few as three participants. The interesting part of the Wikipedia definition is the inclusion of “governmental authorities” in the list of perpetrators, as if to remind us that anyone can be guilty of lynching.
There are some differences between today and then. The biggest difference is the issue of intent or premeditation. Back in the early 20th century, intent was clear. It was obvious the killing was intentional. Sometimes lynchings were a way of deflecting guilt or to vent an anger or threaten and warn African Americans. Today, intent is not so obvious and is questionable. Officers may say, “we did not intend for him to die, but merely to detain.” But the chase resembles the chases after African Americans back when lynchings were indeed intended.
Another difference is the involvement of law enforcement. In the early days, law enforcement typically gave at least an impression of trying to enforce the law and prevent lynchings. Some were even successful. Members of law enforcement certainly participated, and the appearances of protection and prevention were questionable. But those lynchings involved a wide range of community members. Today, in cases of law enforcement, in a world where there are both good and bad law enforcement, life is much more murky.
The circumstances of Anton’s death had other characteristics of lynchings, including the eerie silence in the aftermath of the death, and a false portrayal of normalcy. Following Anton’s death, the family was left feeling isolated for nearly four months. Few media covered the story, and what was reported was unverifiable. Community members felt an uneasy quiet in the streets of Greensboro, made considerably worse because community officials refused to put the police officer involved in the case on administrative leave pending investigation. The result was a real threat of danger, particularly since the officer in question was known virtually nationwide for brutality. For the African American residents of Greensboro and the environs, those four months must have felt like an earlier century and another place.
It took time for support and help to reach the family of Anton Black. For the family, the desperation of relief could be heard in their voices when assistance finally came to push for due process and justice for Anton. With considerable difficulty, the officer in question was finally placed on administrative leave near the end of that four-month struggle. But it was only one step in a steep and twisted staircase.
In this article, you won’t find the details you are likely looking for. That was by design. Instead, it is important to consider what it means for a family member to see their loved one die by what they see as a mob of law enforcement, for a family who cannot fathom why it was necessary that Anton die. They saw a modern-day lynching. Who among us are prepared to call it anything different?