The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

A positive lynching bee...

I've now had a chance for a first read-through of the paper by David Garland on Public Torture Lynchings mentioned in my piece yesterday.

It's generally a naming of parts: an enumeration of factors such (apparently) that a layman might arrive at without detailed research (though I'm inclined to think that's an illusion!). But it's none the worse for that. It sometimes reads like a grant application for such research: despite the masses of public documentation available - postcards, newspaper articles and the like - he seems to be suggesting that there is plenty of work on the individuals who organised and attended such lynchings that has yet to be done. Which, given the emphasis these days on subaltern studies is rather surprising.

Also, at a more macro level, questions like, Why, of two similar communities, did a such a lynching happen in one but not the other? don't seem to have got the attention they deserve.

What is new to me is his placing of the phenomenon in time. First principles might suggest that this sort of pattern of violence would have started as soon as the Yankees moved out, by way of revenge for defeat and the sufferings of Reconstruction.

Completely wrong. Just as, in politics, Negroes persisted in many places as a force (manipulated by pre-lily-white Republicans and Democrats) until well along into the 1880s; and the segregation laws familiar in all those civil rights TV movies were only perfected in the 1900s, so the start of the type of lynching Garland is talking about can be dated to 1893 (p12):
The public torture lynchings of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas in 1893 and of Sam Hose in Newnan, Georgia, in 1899 – each of which occurred before large crowds and was the subject of national newspaper reports and widely circulated photographs – established a formula that became the pattern for subsequent mass lynchings elsewhere.

Just as Christmas as we know it was an invention of the Victorians, so lynching in its most iconic form was very much post-bellum. (One element suggested (p11a) as contributing to the timing is the failure of Populism to break open the structure of Southern politics.)

And, so far as I can tell, the Duck Hill, MS lynching of Bootjack McDaniels and Roosevelt Townes in April 1937 was the last of its type. (Garland mentions Duck Hill, but nothing dated later.)

So, what might appear, from the Hollywood version - Intruder in the Dust, To Kill A Mockingbird and so on - to be a phenomenon out of time, a sort of Aboriginal dream-time sort of story, is pinned down to the dollars and cents of the Gregorian calendar. Love it!

He stresses the political importance of such lynchings - again, denying that they were in some way created by the same sort of instinct that sees birds flying south for the winter - but warns against neat notions that they merely reinforced racial solidarity (protesting against mob justice was liable to get the mob turning on the protesters!).

He gives good footnote, too. A couple of examples: first, from a continuing pillar of the US media establishment (p60):
Responding to criticism of Sam Hose's lynching, the Atlanta Constitution April 24, 1899 had this to say:: 'Remember the facts!...remember that shocking degradation which was inflicted by the black beast, his victim swimming in her husband's warm blood as the brute held her to the floor! [Such a crime] dethroned the reason of the people.'

And, showing the spirit of compassion and compromise that would supposedly make the world a peaceful place if only we were governed by women (p62):
'In 1897, Rebecca Lattimer Felton attracted national attention by announcing during an address to the State Agricultural Society of Georgia that “if it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a few thousand a week if it becomes necessary.”

(The Without Sanctuary site - which I'm fairly sure I've mentioned before - has copies of lynching picture postcards, fortunately with the images less than crisp. Garland says (p3n) that, in 1908, the US Post Office took the courageous stand of banning them from the mails!)

Meanwhile, coming up to date, I've rather lost touch with the lynching at Caramarca in Cochabamba department in Bolivia (November 7 and November 8) - there's nothing new on Google News in Spanish.

But light may be thrown on the phenomenon of lynching Latin-style by a couple of long studies published by the Mexican Comisión Nacional por Derechos Humanos under the title of Justicia por Propia Mano, dated 2002 and 2003 respectively (both PDF).

To date, I've only skimmed through a chunk of the 2003 paper, but the stuff looks worth a modicum of perseverance: as well as an analysis of why lynching should be prevalent in 21st century Mexico - the problem of clientelismo bulks large [1], as does the weakness of the Mexican state [2] - it has case studies: for example (p33ff), it considers the lynching on August 31 1996 at Tatahuicapan (Veracruz state) of Rodolfo Soler Hernández.

The Soler lynching falls very much into the category of public torture lynching that the Garland paper discusses: the crowd, the extorted confession, the burning to death.

Except, this time, someone (p42) had brought a photographer to record the happy scene - with a Hitachi camcorder: Flash, Bang, Wallop, What a picture!, indeed - who said Mexico was a backward country...

And, surprisingly or not, there are apparently some clercs willing to cloak this barbarism in respectability, delving back to pre-Conquest times (the era of the Aztec human sacrifices) to justify calling it derecho indio consuetudinario. A sort of intellectual barbecue salsa (p54ff).

Certainly gives us a bit of context for the MEChA nonsense (a sort of prettified, Americanised Indian-ness, of which Tex-Mex is the culinary equivalent).

  1. Citizens only can exercise rights when they can exert political leverage, through personal power and wealth, or via quasi-corporatist structures (p15a):
    El Estado no es ya un ente público creado por y para los ciudadanos, sino un agente a sueldo de quienes lo contratan.
  2. As reflected in the pitifully low tax take - around 10% of GDP (p16a).

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