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'He was no angel': The rallying cry of the lynching bee

In George Floyd's murder and scores of other cases, the conservative instinct is to protect the white killer while sullying the representation of the Black victim
Artwork carrying messages of peace as seen in this mural in Madison, Wisconsin, by Daniella Echeverria on 7 June (Reuters)

“As their car crossed the clearing, he looked around. There seemed to be millions, there were certainly hundreds of people in the clearing … Beyond the shifting curtain of fire and smoke, he made out first only a length of gleaming chain, attached to a great limb of the tree; then he saw that this chain bound two black hands together at the wrist, dirty yellow palm facing dirty yellow palm … The flames leapt up … 

"Then the crowd rushed forward, tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing … Someone stepped forward and drenched the body with kerosene. Where the man had been, a great sheet of flame appeared.” 

- James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man

When we think of lynching today, we tend to think of Derek Chauvin’s hands in his pockets and the expression on his face as he killed George Floyd. We think of Travis McMichael flinging the N-word down at Ahmaud Arbery's dying body. We think of the Sandra Blands and the Trayvon Martins, American racism, police violence and anti-Black culture. But for every lynching, there is another actor just as central, and perhaps more important: the crowd. 

The crowd desecrating the memory of the Black and lynched never disbands. Much of the colony is a lynching bee

Some lynchings are conducted for the pleasure of the crowd. Traditionally, scores of men and women dressed up and carried packed lunches to a clearing to watch a Black person be tortured, humiliated and killed. These “lynching bees” were grand parties centred on the spectacle of hanging and burning a Black person in full view of a crowd, which would often further desecrate the body by carrying parts of it off or destroying the corpse in a white rage. 

Other lynchings are done in the still of the night, but even here, the crowd exists. It showed up for jury duty to exonerate Emmett Till’s and Medgar Evers’ killers and to pay their legal expenses. It shows up today in the comment sections of Black social media posts, at Trump rallies, on Craigslist rants and raves, at George Zimmerman’s gun auction, on GoFundMe pages for white people who kill Black people. 

It defends lynchers on white nationalist news networks and in their publications. The crowd desecrating the memory of the Black and lynched never disbands. Much of the colony is a lynching bee.

'He should not have run'

Immediately after Floyd’s death, conservatives frisked his body for a crime. Anger over his death is inappropriate, they argued, because “he used a counterfeit $20 bill and used drugs”. Standing over Arbery’s body, they asked what he was doing at a construction site. For Rayshard Brooks, they protested: “But he should not have run and fired a taser.” 

For Walter Scott, he should not have run. For Eric Garner, he should have been more healthy and not resisted arrest. For Trayvon Martin, he should not have worn a hoodie. For Renisha McBride, she should not have been intoxicated and should have been less aggressive. For Philando Castile, he should not have smoked marijuana. 

Tamir Rice should not have had a toy gun in public. Breonna Taylor should not have quit her job. It is not enough for white supremacy to take a life; it must also stone the corpse.

A ground mural depicts Breonna Taylor in Annapolis, Maryland, on 5 July (AFP)
A ground mural depicts Breonna Taylor in Annapolis, Maryland, on 5 July (AFP)

“Black crime” is more criminal than crime. It is uniquely evil, whereas white crime can be the stuff of outlaw legend. No one expects a novel like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the non-unarmed Black men, the Tony McDades - to say nothing of a Micah Xavier Johnson or a Robert Charles. Instead, the refrain is always the same: “They were no angel.” 

The conservative instinct is to protect the white killer and to tar the representation of the Black person killed. It does not matter if that white person is a police officer or civilian; it does not matter if the Black person is armed or unarmed. The armed white person represents freedom and patriotism. The armed Black person has, in every case, signed their own death warrant. Unarmed and supine is the Black person’s proper position. The conservative instinct remains the instinct of the lynching bee.

Segregated innocence

“He was no angel”: the argument is a scam. If the murder of a Black person can be forgiven because that person was no angel, then all murders of Black people can be forgiven. There is no such thing as a person for whom some fact about their life history cannot be made to suit the purpose of their criminalisation. 

It also does not follow that one’s status as “not an angel” should temper the anger over one’s murder. We have not consented to the spree killing of non-angels. It does not follow that one’s decision to leave one’s job, or to wear a hoodie while Black in a neighbourhood understood to be white, should help humanise and render innocent one’s murderer.

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To the understanding of all Black people killed as non-angels, there is, of course, the correlative of white innocence. Whiteness is given the benefit of the doubt to the point of absurdity. The president didn’t hear “white power” screamed in the video he retweeted, nor did he know the origin of the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. No pattern is detected, despite the fact that all of his previous “mistakes” - and all of his policies - further the cause of Nazism. 

Gallant police officers were in fear of their lives, despite saying “I got him” and kicking the dying body of a man who was running away from them. Black people using counterfeit dollars are “no angels”, while the Brock Turners of the world have their terrorism tempered by being sufferers of “affluenza”, “boys will be boys” and youthful indiscretions. No one is justified in lynching the mischievous, freckle-faced Tom Sawyers of the white nationalist imagining of boyhood. Trayvon Martin, however, was “no angel”.

Licence to kill

The right’s argument - as betrayed by their defence of every lyncher, be they police officer or civilian - is that white people have a licence to kill Black suspects. Because articulating opinions such as “the [negro] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” has fallen out of fashion, and because Black people cannot be thrown from slave ships for insurance money, and because conservatives are no longer guaranteed impunity for beating enslaved Black people to death, the white right to Negrophobic murder must find new language. 

“He was no angel” and its variations solve this problem. It works to justify every lynching and to protect and defend the lynchers, at a time when the open celebration of lynchings and calls for genocide are increasingly punished.

The charge of being a non-angel is meant to dehumanise Black people. But they would lynch angels

The men and women who would only a century ago put on their Sunday best to watch a man hang forincendiarism”, or man the concentration camps, have relocated to social media and white nationalist radio and TV.

But their work remains the same: the desecration of the names and memories of Black people killed by racists. The charge of being a non-angel is meant to dehumanise Black people. But they would lynch angels.

The lynching bee will never disband. The desire to see the Negro burn is its defining characteristic. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Yannick Giovanni Marshall
Yannick Giovanni Marshall writes and teaches in Black Studies. Follow on Twitter @furtherblack.