Last week, the Baltimore police union president, Gene Ryan, compared those protesting the death of Freddie Gray to a “lynch mob.”
Freddie Gray was the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of grave, mysterious injuries after being taken into police custody. Gray’s family, citizens of Baltimore and indeed those of the nation have questions. And, yes, there is a palpable frustration and fatigue that yet another young person of color has died after an encounter with police officers.
So, there have been protests. But protests are not the same as a lynch mob, and to conflate the two diminishes the painful history of this country and unfairly slanders the citizens who have taken to the streets. Maybe Ryan is unaware not only of the history of lynching and lynch mobs in America overall, but also in Maryland itself.
For instance, according to the Maryland Historical Society Library: “Mary Denston, the elderly wife of a Somerset County farmer, was returning to her home in Princess Anne on the morning of October 17, 1933 when she was attacked by an assailant. A manhunt quickly began for the alleged perpetrator, 22-year-old African-American George Armwood. He was soon arrested and charged with felonious assault. By 5:00 pm, an angry mob of local white residents had gathered outside the Salisbury jail where the suspect had been taken. In order to protect Armwood from the increasingly hostile crowd, state police transferred him to Baltimore. But just as quickly he was returned to Somerset County. After assuring Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood’s safety would be guaranteed, Somerset County officials transferred Armwood to the jail house in Princess Anne, with tragic consequences.”
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The report continued: “Sources are conflicting regarding many of the details ... but what is certain is that on the evening of October 18 a mob of a thousand or more people stormed into the Princess Anne jail house and hauled Armwood from his cell down to the street below. Before he was hung from a tree some distance away, Armwood was dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed, and had one ear hacked off. Armwood’s lifeless body was then paraded through the town, finally ending up near the town’s courthouse, where the mob doused the corpse with gasoline and set it on fire.”
As Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper reported at the time, in addition to Armwood’s blackened skin, mutilated face and missing ear, his tongue was “clenched between his teeth,” giving “evidence of his great agony before death.” It continued: “There is no adequate description of the mute evidence of gloating on the part of whites who gathered to watch the effect upon our people.”
Additionally, according to the historical society, there were 32 lynchings in Maryland between 1882 and 1931.
Perhaps Ryan had never heard the haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, with its plaintive lyrics shining light on the depravity of lynchings:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
Maybe Ryan does not appreciate the irony that it was not the officers’ bodies that video showed being dragged limp and screaming through the street, but that of Gray. Maybe Ryan does not register coincidence that actual lynching often damages or cuts the spinal cord, and according to a statement by the Gray family’s attorney, Gray’s spine was “80 percent severed.”
And this is not the first protest of the killing of people of color where “lynch mobs” have been invoked.
Fox News’ Howard Kurtz accused “some liberal outlets” of “creating almost a lynch mob mentality” in Ferguson.
Possible presidential candidate Mike Huckabee also compared Ferguson protesters to lynch mobs, as did Laura Ingraham, FrontPage magazine and an opinion piece on The Daily Caller.
In 2013, after almost completely peaceful protests the weekend after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Newt Gingrich said that protesters were “prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob.”
These “lynch mob” invocations are an incredible misuse of language, in which the lexicon of slaughter, subjugation and suffering is reduced to mere colloquialism and therefore bleached of the blood in which it was originally written and used against the people who were historically victims of the atrocities.
“Lynch mob” is the same ghastly rhetorical overreach that is often bandied about in political discussions – including in this column I wrote seven years ago. It was a too-extreme comparison then, and it’s a too-extreme comparison now.
Nothing that political partisans or protesters have done – nothing! – comes remotely close to the barbarism executed by the lynch mobs that stain this country’s history.
The New York Times