By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
George Floyd was a victim of lynching two years ago. The mass murder of African Americans in Buffalo, N.Y., was also a lynching, says Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, professor of constitutional law at John Jay College (CUNY). Our nation must accept that lynching continues and use the new Emmett Till Antilynching Act to prosecute the alleged shooter, Payton Gendron, she argues.
We must talk about lynching. George Floyd’s murder, two years ago today on May 25, 2020, was a lynching. The mass murder allegedly perpetrated by Payton Gendron in Buffalo, N.Y., should be considered a mass lynching, too.
The murder of 10 innocent African Americans by a domestic terrorist on May 14 is a clarion call. America must focus inwards and face the ugly truth. Those murders were a mass lynching.
President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law in March, making lynching a federal hate crime. It needs to be more than a photo op. The act should be applied to the massacre in Buffalo.
It is easy to turn away. The protests have dimmed. The aftermath of the pandemic has left this country reeling. Russia invaded Ukraine and public attention turned to Eastern Europe. The momentum to address racial conflicts and discrimination slowed. It’s happened before.
In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a similar phenomenon when the nation’s attention turned from civil rights to the Vietnam War. In a television interview with Sander Vanocur of NBC, King said he found it difficult to arouse the consciousness of America to address even the most vicious of racial attacks. He was assassinated the next year.
Lynching is Meant to Create Fear, Intimidation
Lynching is murder, usually brutal, levied against a victim or victims as punishment for some alleged crime or indiscretion. It is extrajudicial punishment where there is no judge or jury. But there is an execution.
Nearly 6,500 men, women, and children have been lynched in America, according to the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The number rises as more bodies are found and the truth comes forward.
Charles Lynch, a local Virginia judge and slaveholder, is considered the namesake of this barbarity. Lynch was allegedly given this ignoble title because he persecuted suspected British loyalists by meting out harsh punishments, with and without trial, as retribution for their beliefs.
He invited neighbors to take out their rage on suspects. At its inception, lynching was meant to send a message that death awaits anyone who did not capitulate. It remains a tool to create widespread fear and intimidation; murder as a twisted brand of vigilante justice based on lies, rumors, paranoia, and power.
In Buffalo, Gendron’s posting in social media clearly show his intent was to send a racial message of hate to the African American community. In killing 10 people, in broad daylight, at a grocery store, Gendron echoes 150 years of terror carried out through racist laws and violence.
The economic, social, and political rise of African Americans is viewed by some as a threat to replace White people. Gendron wanted to tell Black people that they must be bow to White privilege and the illusion of White superiority.
Lynch mobs are based on cowardice, relying on greater numbers or fire power to overwhelm their victims. Grown men overwhelmed Emmett Till.
Gendron’s high-powered weaponry gave him the malignant power of a lynch mob. It is this ability to overwhelm the victims that should be considered in elevating a racial attack to that of a lynching.
Lynchings are also spectacle. Photos of women hanged, men castrated, and bodies burned alive, were later turned into postcards. Gendron wanted that public spectacle. He livestreamed his attack. His narcissism is no different than the White people smiling beneath hanging bodies, burned corpses and the mutilated remains of lynching victims.
The way a lynching is carried out can change over time. But, the medium is the message. Not all victims of lynching were hanged.
Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. This 14-year-old African American boy was kidnapped, beaten, and shot in Mississippi. Harry T. and Harriette Moore were victims of a bomb placed under their home on Christmas Day in 1951. In 1998, James Byrd was dragged behind a car until dismembered in Jasper, Texas. George Floyd was asphyxiated by Derek Chauvin in 2020.
Shooting, hanging, even drowning—there is no limit to the horror and there should be no artificial definition as to how a lynching can be committed. Nor should the number of victims remove this mass murder from being called a lynching.
We Must Seek Justice Under the New Federal Law
For many years, America refused to accept that the barbarity of lynching is part of American history. Now, the nation must accept that lynching is part of our present day, too. If not, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was a mere symbol and not legislation meant to be applied to cases of modern-day lynching.
As George Floyd’s death is commemorated, we must consolidate what little progress we made, relative to the problem, and use the laws that were enacted in the aftermath of his death and public outcry We cannot give up now. In his argument against slavery, Frederick Douglass said that “power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.”We must realize is an old fight with new weapons and assess the tools at hand to use in this most recent battle for racial justice.
The murders in Buffalo were a mass lynching. Let the Emmett Till Antilynching Act be the tool we use to seek justice.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a writer, professor of constitutional law at John Jay College, civil rights attorney, author of the book “She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power,” and playwright whose recent stage play is “CROSSROADS” is about a young White supremacist and the American Dream.
This piece originally ran in Bloomberg Law.