Eliza Craig: In this episode Noura and I speak to Dr. Rasul Mowatt, Professor of Geography and American studies. Professor Mowatt will you please introduce yourself?
Dr. Russell Mowatt: Rasul Mowatt. I'm a professor focusing on areas of violence, specifically racial violence in public space. That also includes then emphasis of looking at lynching history, as well as what's labeled as race riots. Additionally, I teach courses around a range of things because of that topic. So, the legacy of lynching, I teach a course on social movements, then I also teach a course on finding the wire with its discussion looking at policing within American cities.
Eliza Craig: *Content Warning* This episode covers a very difficult but necessary topic; the role of racial violence in United States Democracy. It is important to note this episode includes mentions of horrible acts and violence. As Dr. Mowatt says…
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: This will not be a very hopeful conversation. There's a lot of content and histories that we have to wrestle with and accept that comes with this sort of topic. I break down this sense of racial violence as a part of white supremacy into 11 categories. Think of it also as a continuum from one end to another, but also think of it as not necessarily what's tolerable, but where we can begin and to what is horrendous to even think could be conceived. So, we’ll try to go through them, but we have time.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: First there’s coups. A coup is when there’s an overturn of government. There have been racially motivated coups within the United States. We'd oftentimes don't think about coups happening in the United States. We think about them elsewhere, but they happen. And so two of which were that are most noted as 1898, the Wilmington race massacre and the 1906 Atlanta race riots. Both resulted in a complete flipping of elected official seats and the entire representation in the political spectrum as well as in the media. So they ran people out of office that were either black and in power or people who are white that were supportive of that power. In this case, we're talking about the overturn of a government at a city level.
Wilmington is important because not only is it a port city, it's one of the dominant cities in the South. The 1898 Wilmington race massacre was a product of the hatred and anger that many dispossessed white populations, some of which were Democrats, were feeling because there was a fusion party of radical Republicans, populous party, and the black farmers Alliance, they created a unified party system that took over all elected positions from the governor's office down to the city council. And so all of a sudden in Wilmington, you saw public schools, you saw black businesses, you saw black newspapers, and this was enough. And so in six days they burned down the newspaper and killed hundreds of people. But of course we have no sort of record of truly how many. So there's an under count. Ran many of the people straight out into the Cape Fear River, and took over all those seats. If that never happened, the fusion party thing would have taken over most of the South and our understanding of the South would be drastically Inspired by the Wilmington race riot to prevent that same fusion idea from happening, you have then the 1906 Atlanta race riot.
Eliza Craig: I've heard about the reconstruction and then the white response to reconstruction in pulling troops out of the South as the end of this period of black advancement. I've never heard of this other period that was then shut down by the race riot.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Think of reconstruction and the Wilmington race riot as two bookends of a bookshelf. So the failure of reconstruction not being achieved and in the Wilmington race riot closes the door, right? So despite the failures of reconstruction, there were still cities and States that were making the best of it, trying to do the radical change at a local level. We saw this, if you look at history and Wilmington, it was remarkable, you know, free public education for all, and particularly pushed by some of the black educated class, but fully endorsed by the city, and Wilmington thrived under this fusion party concept. It's important to also note too, that,with Wilmington, it was done by an unofficial military arm of the democratic party called the Red Shirts. And one of the members was Ben Tillman, who would later become a Senator for South Carolina who threatened Theodroe Roosevelt in 1901 after Theordore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner saying that “now we're going to have to kill thousands of these n-words to get them back into their places.” Right. And then of course, the 1906 Atlanta race riot happens.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: So that’s just coups. Number two is racial massacres and race riots. So think of these as widespread killings and property damage just to scare a population. So, let’s get into race massacres and race riots. 1921, Tulsa race riot. So we see that even though there are still hundreds of people that are dead, there's an under count. And now they're doing the excavations as well as looking at soil samples, determining how many other bodies are buried in different places. But the biggest thing is we know that there's extensive property damage that occurred. So Greenwood, which was a suburb of Tulsa, was thriving; had paved roads, theaters, and so on, primarily because of segregation. So while Tulsa was not as wealthy, these people out of their own ingenuity developed a thriving community, and that is probably the basis for why they reacted to Greenwood in this particular way.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: So then that gets us to 3, which is mass lynchings. Mass lynchings are similarly, in my argument, done to, in a wholesale way, tell a population to stay in your place. So there's many different mass lynchings. There's 1862 with the Dakota Wars, roughly about 32 Dakota indigenous folk were hanged by the US army in Minnesota. In 1864, after the passage of the 13th amendment which ended slavery, there were thousands of lynchings that took place in a matter of weeks, some say around 2000. In 1871, there's a Chinese massacre in Los Angeles leading into the Chinese exclusion act 10 years later, but it was a mass lynching of Chinese Americans. And then in 1918, the Prevena massacre, which was in Texas where Texas Rangers publicly executed around 15 Mexicans. Now this is where there's disagreement in certain cases with scholarship, because it's a lynching, is it not? And this is why it's important to understand that what we consider to be lynchings is so biased from our view of what was happening to black people, that we don't see what was happening with indigenous folk. So you can kind of think about them as mass lynchings, but they are also considered public execution, which I'll get to.
Noura Ahmed: So colloquially, I'd say that our view of lynching, to kind of be graphic, is that image of like a group of white people with a hung black man, and that's our image of lynching. So you're kind of taking that nebulous definition of lynching and saying, Oh no, that actually applies to a lot of other things.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Yeah. And then technically lynching is the least of the issues, right? Whereas I think people invoke the term lynching because there is a sense that this is the worst. And I'm saying like, lynching is actually number four. So lynching speficically there is no true definition. One of the best attempts at a definition was based upon the debates that the Tuskegee research Institute and the NAACP had with each other. And out of that comes this definition. So on is that the act of killing has to involve three or more people because one or two is just a murder, even if it's racially motivated. The second part is that it has to result in a death. Three, it has to be done in the name of tradition, race, or some other cause. So there has to be some pronouncement of that in some way. And so they define it in that way. And that's kind of helpful to think of lynching in that way, even though there are things that still are falsely or inappropriately labeled as lynching.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: So, what we know of is a period of 30 years that almost 4,500 lynchings took place. What we know today is that about 65 to 7,000 lynchings took place. But we only know of these lynchings because of newspaper clippings. Right? So that's what Ida B Wells did. That's what Monroe Work did. These are two individuals before the 20th century that research lynchings in terms of the number and the locations in their own way. So within the 30 year period it is so common, that is roughly about 180, 190 lynchings happening every year. So this is where the famous image of the NAACP office in Manhattan. They hang out a flag every day, because you could count on somebody being lynched that day, or at least the next. So that's lynchings.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Number five is gun violence. And why I put gun violence there is because while of course it happens, the onus is not on these perpetrators that engage in it. It's the fact that with all this data and all of this capability to stop crime, somehow they can never stop these actions. So some people believe that gun violence is allowed to happen. So in rural Indiana gun violence can take place in a traditional way in terms of murder, but also gun violence takes place in terms of suicides, right? Or in terms of accidental shootings. But in urban places, when we get into nonwhite populations it also is sort of labeled as an aspect of criminal activity. What I'm saying is that they're allowed to happen, right? Regardless of advancement and we're having a decrease in crime, there seems to be no ability and no desire to trace bullets and sales of guns. It is not because of law enforcement. There was legislation that even prevents law enforcement from even creating a searchable database and file system. So for example, the ATF, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, they literally are working with paper that's in freight cars out in the parking lot, right. Because they cannot have a searchable database system by law.
Eliza Craig: So who benefits from, from the lack of legislation and policy to regulate gun violence?
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: I have no idea in that regard, but what we do know, it allows communities of all types to still have terror, right? Because there's no safety that's provided at all. So you can't call nine 11be cause nobody's coming and nobody cares to come. Nobody's going to do any investigation. Right. And so gun violence is number five.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Number six is state executions. And so this comes back to the 1862 Dakota Wars and 1918 Prevena massacre that I mentioned where it's officially done. And so could they be lynchings? Yes, they could. But they also could be state executions. And we still know that public executions are a thing and when they do happen, there's still a desire to watch them or see them, even though the numbers are less than what they were in the sixties.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Number seven is police killings, right? From 2013 to 2019, what's estimated as something like 7,700 people who have been shot by police, not killed by police. And people are killed by police in a number of other ways as we see with what happened with George Floyd, with the knee, the chokehold with Eric Garner, and others. For example, there is an 84 year old black woman's case in Chicago in 2019. She was sleeping in a car and a high speed chase was going after a suspected quote “Criminal” unquote. They ran into the car and hit her car with her in it. And she dies. So the number does not include that. So these are 7,065 police shootings. There's concerns amongst people who are on the abolition side. The fear is moving towards a Brazil-like environment. In Brazil, there's an official shoot to kill policy and they actually go to kill with pre-crime. So they look at a list of people who have committed a crime beforehand, go find them, regardless of whether they're committing an act or not, and take them out.
Noura Ahmed: So it's like state sanctioned executions before like the trial, the jury, the judge.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Yes. So that gets into eight which is recreational murder. So this is killing people just for fun, and this is different than lynching. So I remember, you know, when Ahmaud Arbery's case became more known, people labelled it a lynching. But remember lynchings are done for the position of race, because of tradition, and specifically the black bodies are somehow going to be used as some type of promotion, right. They're going to display it. In this case, if the camera footage they were taking of the act that they were performing was never presented to the public and they were never caught, he just would have been dead on the ground. So there was never going to be like this sense of “Hey, black people stay in your place.” This was just to kill somebody for fun based upon their race. And so Ahmaud Arbery, I would say, is more recreational murder.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: That gets to nine and that's hunting, not necessarily for fun, but just for the purpose of a specific person needing to be eliminated. And so one of the classic cases that has been labeled a lynching is in 1981, Mobile, Alabama with Michael Donald. Young man was just walking down the street when members of the United Klan of America decided to retaliate because of a white police officer that had been killed in Birmingham. The trial had moved from Birmingham to Mobile, and a predominantly black jury decided the suspected murderer didn't murder the officer, it was manslaughte. It was a firefight between the police officer and a bank robber.
Benny Jack Hayes, who was the leader of the United Klan of America, the largest clan at the time, reportedly says through some radio show, “if a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.” And so this prompted listeners to then go randomly find somebody and Michael Donald was who they found. That was a hunt. And so we don't know how many of those really happen, just like recreational murders. Some of the times when we find a body on the side of a road, who knows? During this time of COVID-19, there have been the hangings of individuals found in certain places … we don't know, right? These are cases in which maybe they're lynching, maybe they're recreational murders. Maybe they're just the byproduct of someone that was hunted. Some of the missing persons cases could be hunting.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Then that gets us the ethnic cleansing, number 10. And that is where we have to then invoke the history of indigenous folk within the United States. Many of them were killed and not just by official military or colonial militia, but by settlers who were “defending” their property. And that was ethnic cleansing. But we also see it in the present day where the majority of people who are dying from the shoot to kill policies in Brazil are a lot of Afro-Brazilians. Just in one city alone, Rio, in 2019 had something like 5,000 police killings in one year. One city, one year. They almost out did the United States total number of lynchings, only short by two. So the numbers of just police killings in Brazil area ridiculous number.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: And then I finally gets me to number 11, which is race war. And we just haven't seen that, but we know that there's literature that wants it and calls for it. There's readers of it. So the 19th century novel Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail, talks about the concerns of immigration in Europe and the camp is the camp of the last few pure Europeans that defend the future of Europe. And they're successful against the threat of the ongoing waves of immigrants from let's say Somalia and Algeria and other places. And then we have 1978, the Turner diaries by William Luther Pierce under the pseudonym and Andrew McDonalds. The book concludes with this “rope day” where once they have retaken the United States to create a new country, they line the city street lights with the hanging bodies of all the black victims, their supporters, and Jews. So while we have not historically seen race Wars, though we have seen ethnic cleansing with Rwanda and so on. There's something to be concerned about and there's something to be concerned about far more than lynching. Lynching is not the worst thing that can happen, which is a scary thing to embrace. There are other things that society can move towards or has already moved towards and we're not paying attention.
Eliza Craig: I'm trying to visualize the continuum and it seems that one clear movement is number, another is intent, would you say?
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: That's right. Absolutely. So think of it as regardless of how horrible coups and massacres are, the intent is not to get rid of the entire population. It's just to send a wholesale message. So Tulsa wasn't about killing every black person alive, and it wasn't about calling for a need to kill every black person in Oklahoma. It was about telling this group of black people to stay in your space. Where I'd say ethnic cleansing is about total elimination. And so that's why they're on these two opposing ends- on one end you have a large scale killing for a message, on the other end you have a wholesale killing. Period.
Eliza Craig: So you’ve explored all the different examples of racial violence on a continuum, which of those forms are most common in the United States? How has the pattern changed and increased or decreased?
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: So I think, what's most common is probably in the middle. In the middle of those 11 examples are lynchings, gun violence, state executions, and police killings. So let's try to use and identify lynchings as a sort of a basis to think about patterns, because that also gives a sense of how they are a specific type of violence as opposed to something that can just be labeled on to anything right. Police Lynch. And these are things that I think merit some scrutiny. Tolnay, Dean, and Beck three researchers in 1996, look at lynching and find a pattern when looking at the geographic location and the spatiality of lynchings; where they happen and how they influence other places. They come up with two concepts of what the lynchings were done for. They were done for deterrence and they're done for contagion.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: So deterrence is in sort of in-city action to prevent the population from getting out of line: “stay in your place” right? So you kill one person, you hang their body up with a sign, you make sure everybody's present that deters future behavior. The future behavior is not about a crime because as we know most cases of lynchings, there was maybe sometimes an alleged sexual assault, but most times they're all labor disputes, fair pay for labor, pay for labor performed, production of crops and not receiving fair pay and the dispute takes place. Most of the cases of lynchings were around labor. It wasn't like everybody was getting lynched. It was specific people at specific moments for specific reasons. That's why Tony Dean and Beck and looking and finding this pattern tells us there's a logic. And so this also says that lynchings are not mobs, they are planned, they're thought out: deterrence. Contagion is about preventing the spread. So if you commit a lynching here, in let's say, Bloomington, or Indianapolis, it prevents the need for a lynching to happen in Louisville because news will travel down. And so Louisville, you won't see any lynchings pop up. So this is why in the South, you don't see lynchings everywhere. When you look at a large map, you see a concentration of lynchings in the South, but when you zoom in closer and closer they're not happening at every single city. Right. Expanding. And it's not like they’re happening every year. Right. So deterrence and contagion identifies one kind of pattern.
Eliza Craig: So it's almost as if lynchings are a measure of where black progress may be?
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: It could be right, but remember on an individual basis. If we allowed us one individual to continue to move around and do what they're doing, they're going to inspire other individuals to move around and do similar things. Prior to this, Tonlay, Dean and Beck looked at crop production and they noticed that in different places with different crops, either the lynchings occurred in season during the labor of the crop, so they would lynch to keep people working. When you jump to another crop like tobacco, you may see lynching out of season. So they figure tobacco laborers had more time to organize a union off season because of how difficult it is to harvest that crop. You may still be working on it even though the sun has gone down. Whereas with cotton, you can meet with your coworkers and be disgruntled and begin to form some kind of union. So that’s the second pattern. The third pattern we see with racial massacres and coups is that political influence of social entertainment. So when we think about Tulsa, Atlanta, Wilmington, we see these things happen when there's been a growth and so there's a response to growth. And so those are the patterns that we see with certain cases of racial violence.
Eliza Craig: What are more contemporary examples of maybe not necessarily lynchings, but racial violence to accomplish those same things, prevent labor organization, deter black progress and political influence…
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: We don't, we don't see it to that degree because we also have to remember that by the fifties, lynching starts to become not undesired, but not popular because you have the Emmett Till case and the Emmett Till case is on TV. Although people got off, they were still embarrassed. And so it wasn;t any longer that you can just kill somebody at a local level and get it erased or ignored. There was now going to be national attention. And so there was then a greater desire to probably do some of these acts internally. So that's where recreational murder and hunting probably started to increase.
We think about the killing of the three civil rights workers you know, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, that was clearly not a lynching, right? They didn't work to display the body, they were hopefully going to dispose of the body, but that was a hunt to prevent these freedom riders coming down and helping black people vote in the South. So, TV disrupts the activity of lynching of specifically black people. It opened the doorway for other types of violence to become more common, because you can do that under the veil of the night, but also undercover and no more fanfare, there's no more postcards, there's no more of these other things that were part of the entertainment spectacle.
Eliza Craig: Emmett Till's case introduced shame and then brought the white supremacist desire to kill and control black people underground, but did not wipe it out.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: That's my argument. Right? Some other people's argument also is that you can probably look at the time when a lot more lynchings decrease and maybe public executions increase. There was a lot more people who were black, they were being sort of railroaded into public executions and people started to attend public executions, and watch them as entertainment. But I'm only cautious of that because did the number really decrease or do we just not have enough knowledge about how many that were happening?
Eliza Craig: Gotcha.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: You know what I mean?
Eliza Craig: Right.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Like, so if we're going just simply off the numbers, then yes. I think there may be a relationship. No one has completely proven that it has just turned into public executions. But the problem is you're taking only the number that we know of and not the number that could be. And also you're only looking at the lynchings of black people. Right. And so those two things don't quite match up with this potential rise of public executions.
Noura Ahmed: To kind of tie it back into the theme, how does racial violence negate democracy specifically in America. To kind of expand that a little, what I've heard from other people is by our contemporary standards, America, wouldn't be considered a democracy for most of its history.
Dr. Rasul Mowatt: Yeah. I think in thinking about that question and also thinking about the frequency of racial violence, then you kind of see that either it completely disrupts it or as a fundamental part of United States. So if you think about the earliest case of riot, racial riot: 1829 Cincinnati. Then you have 1835 snow riots in New York and then 1836, you're back to Cincinnati with another one in 1841. In 1855, you have bloody Monday, which is on ethnic Germans in Louisville. Then you have 1863, the New York draft riots, which were Irish dissenters on the black population. But you also have the Detroit race riot, similarly around the draft at, during the same year. In 1866, you had a New Orleans massacre, the Memphis riots on Irish and black people. In 1871 Los Angeles, Chinese-Americans are the target. 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming. 1891, You got New Orleans, anti-Italian. 1898 you have Wilmington, 1906 Atlanta. Also in 1906, you have the Billingham anti East Indian riots. You have 1910, the Slocum, Texas massacre of 100. 1917, you have East st. Louis riots also that same year, you have Chesterton, Pennsylvania, as well as Lexington, Kentucky riots. And then 1919, you have Red Summer. And that's a misnomer because there was at least some form of racial violence that happened on black people specifically from January to November. So it wasn't just summer, even though the Chicago race riot during that year was the most known. But the biggest and worst one of the Red Summer is the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 237 farmers all in three days, right? And then 1921, you have Tulsa, 1930, you have WatsonVille, California riot on Filipino populations. It's not until you get to 1935, Harlem that you actually see what's known as the modern riot where a population internally begins to articulate their descent on property.
So it's a fundamental part. I know that was an onslaught of years and that's not even including lynching numbers, right, and time periods. It's either they tanked and strangled democracy; they're happening so frequently there’s never stabilit, or they're a fundamental part of United States-based democracy. If you're saying that they're completely part of United States-based democracy, then that begs the question, what is democracy in the United States?