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The Lynching of Tyre King
OPINION: An essay for my white readers in Ohio
Tyre King was 13 years old, following the lead of older Black teens who stopped a man on the street to rob him of his wallet containing $10 cash. As a mother, my heart immediately empathized with his mother’s struggle to parent a young teen who was influenced by older youths who lacked opportunities to help them find positive, productive paths out of adolescence.
As the police arrived in the Ohio Avenue neighborhood on that partly sunny Wednesday evening in September 2016, Tyre and the others ran. Eyewitness accounts differ as to where his BB gun was when Officer Bryan Mason shot him three times and killed him, but Mason said he was scared. Our lynching case law currently holds that when a sworn member of the lynch mob feels threatened, a lynching can legally occur.
Lynching is historically defined as a murder (often a hanging) by a mob of people outside of the law. We Ohioans are not reminded often enough that this wasn't only a Southern terrorist tactic. These heinous displays of white supremacy happened here too.
And still are.
The current lynch mob perpetuating white supremacy in our city is no longer a mob of angry residents, carrying torches while marching through the streets or into the woods. Instead, it is the taxpayers and voters of Columbus, Franklin County, and the rest of the (Federal) Southern District of Ohio--of which I am one.
And it is no longer outside the law (if it ever truly was.) We have slowly, steadily, amassed legislated laws, case laws, police policies, court procedures, union contracts, jailing procedures, and the accompanying cultural support of each of these institutions to legalize lynching.
We hire police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, marshals, juries, union reps, and jailers to carry out these lynchings. We have crafted our laws and judicial system to surgically maintain white supremacy through systems so siloed that everyone working within the system can plausibly deny any responsibility.
Ida B. Wells was a young Memphis school teacher who turned journalist for the expressed purpose of exposing lynchings in the south at the turn of the 20th century. She discovered that lynchings most often occurred in populated areas with mature policing and judicial systems. She learned that the courts and police were often facilitating these murders.
She would not be surprised at what happened to Tyre Nichols in her town earlier this month. She would be outraged that most of us have forgotten Tyre King's name if we ever knew it.
The day our Tyre was lynched, I was uncharacteristically watching the local nightly news. I had been conditioned to avoid the evening news because it was so depressing--only covering car wrecks and crime. But that night it was worse. I gasped and screamed, "They killed a baby! Our police killed a baby! They work for us! That is not okay!"
I wondered how to support his mother. I suspected that she didn't need another white woman telling her she was so sorry for her loss. So, instead, I started looking for the lynch mob that killed him. What I found was so much more than I could or still can imagine.
It was all of us.
My journey in that search came full circle this week. I visited the courthouse while the jury was deliberating and met his mother for the first time. She was as beautiful and broken as I imagined. I was humbled by her presence.
The defense attorneys paid to defend the city against a civil rights lawsuit brought by Tyre’s grandmother discredited each witness who could testify that Tyre had not threatened the officer. I imagined that in Wells' day, anyone who testified as a witness to a lynching would likely be next. The city attorneys also added the other youths present at the scene (who the police hadn't killed) to the lawsuit as defendants. This tactic ensured that if the jury decided for Tyre's family, these children/now adults would also be liable for the judgment along with the city.
After the jurors returned a decision against Tyre's family, they were escorted out of the courthouse by US Marshals. All but one of them and their escorts were white. They had been summoned to serve from the 48 counties in the Southern District of Ohio, half of which have fewer than 1000 Black residents. I had this sense that they were the last battalion of the lynch mob, called in six years later to make sure he was really dead and no one would be held accountable.
As I watched them walk away down the sidewalk, I felt the weight of that moment and took a picture of their backs to memorialize the end of hope for the family and the community. My mind flashed to the pictures of "strange fruit" and the white crowds gathered to watch the lynchings that photographers took to memorialize the terror perpetrated on Black people in Well's time.
Almost immediately a marshal told me that the judge wanted to see me. The lynch mob was reconvening to make sure I deleted that picture to protect their members who had anonymously tightened the noose on this mother's baby. The city attorneys, well on their way to their victory rituals, were called back to the courtroom.
What I did was legal (according to the attorneys at the ACLU who pay attention to our civil rights)--taking a picture of people in an outdoor public space. But it disturbed the marshals enough that the judge bullied me with kindness to persuade me to erase any evidence of their participation in this lynching. He reminded me that they were coerced into this service.
I got as close as I will likely ever get to be the focus of an angry lynch mob. As I sat quietly in the courtroom with no fear that anything truly bad was about to happen, it hit me that this is the constant lived experience of Black people today. At any moment, a member of the lynch mob can coerce them into believing they have no civil rights and demand submission while they pray to God, hope for justice, and call out to their mother. They have to decide whether to submit or stand up for themselves, risking escalated violence including death.
It will take me a while to figure out which would have been better….acquiesce to the mob to minimize additional trauma to the family, or stand up to the mob as a show of solidarity with the family.
I decided to acquiesce at that moment and fight back later, understanding that my civil rights are real and no lynch mob will treat me with disrespect to prove me wrong.
That, my white friends, is living in our privilege.