“A black man was lynched in Saint Paul this morning,” read one of thousands of tweets, “He was found hanging from a tree in a park with his hands tied behind his back.”
Blurry photographs of the scene were posted to Facebook at 7:35 a.m. and shared over 10,000 times. I will not describe those images, except to say that both the purported race of the man and the described position of his hands seemed at least initially plausible. The man who posted the images, who is black, identified the deceased as being black. He expressed concern about what he thought was a murder that wouldn’t be covered by the news media.
At 9:52 a.m., St. Paul Police announced that the medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be suicide. A Pioneer Press article identified the deceased as being white.
At 11:03 a.m., Black Lives Matter St. Paul publicly announced a press conference for 2 p.m., identifying the deceased as being black and saying that police and journalists were lying. Activists questioned how a cause of death could be identified and released so quickly, calling it a cover-up.
“If it was a suicide, we need more information,” an activist said in front of cameras at the 2 p.m. press conference, describing what he felt were discrepancies. “I want his body to rest in peace. I do apologize, but I did share [the images] because right now what we’re experiencing here in America—and I’m sorry to the family—but I had to keep sharing that photo. I’m very sorry,” he continued, “condolences to the family…but we definitely want to know what happened, and we would like the family to come forward.”
The family had already come forward, settling both the fact that the deceased was white and that the cause of death was suicide. But activists weren’t aware, as police did not publicly announce their press conference. At the Black Lives Matter St. Paul press conference, a livestream camera turned to a Star Tribune and Pioneer Press reporter, in the awkward position of providing that information to activists who said they weren’t trying to push a false narrative, but rather ensure that nobody was, saying they wanted to “bring light to it from the people’s perspective.”
At 7:09 p.m., Black Lives Matter Minneapolis posted an apology for sharing the images, retracting their statements. “As more information came out & Mr. Bringle’s family came forward it became clear that this was an unfortunate incident caused by mental illness. We are sorry if our post offended anyone & hope that folks see we were simply echoing the questions and concerns that community members had.” At 12:41 a.m., Black Lives Matter St. Paul posted a follow-up that attempted to explain the confusion caused by the photographs and the difficulty in piecing small bits of information together. “It’s unclear what exactly happened, but may his body rest in peace.”
“He was a good hardworking man, he loved his children, and he was a great brother,” said the man’s sister.
Yesterday’s events can only be described as as a somber snapshot of the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, intertwined with the complexities of mental illness and suicide. Finger-pointing seems about the least helpful thing to do, but there are no shortage of strong—even vicious—opinions being shared online.
First, it’s important to recognize that the reactions of communities of color to perceived racial violence is not political calculus, but rather a learned mechanism of survival. When a black person has a visceral reaction to seeing images of what they’re told is a black body hanging from a tree, they’re not acting in bad faith by demanding answers.
The only reason South Carolina Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder over the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was because a witness recorded the officer firing eight shots as Scott ran away, before the officer planting his taser next to his body to prepare a self-defense argument. The only reason Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder was because video revealed him firing as Laquan McDonald was walking away from officers, and firing more rounds after he was already on the ground. In that case, reports indicated officers might have “intentionally damaged” recording equipment.
It is, therefore, a natural and necessary reaction for communities of color to capture their own evidence: to avoid being silenced, and to promote justice. In fact, the only thing that has begun to bring accountability to law enforcement in recent years has been the ability of people of color to organize together and demand answers and change. Had activists waited for police to investigate themselves after the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, the deaths might not have received more than a passing mention in a police blotter.
At the same time, law enforcement is burdened with telling the family about the suicide, and the family of the deceased has the unimaginable pain of images of their loved one being shared online. They didn’t deserve that. St. Paul Police had to balance emotions from all angles, with a special consideration for the fact that anytime suicide is reported on, or especially pictured, there’s a risk of others cogitating suicide.
Activists were wrong here, and there are significant consequences to that. Once something is shared online, it can’t be taken back. But they were not acting in bad faith, they did not intend to deceive anyone, and—though it took longer than it should have—they apologized.
Should Black Lives Matter be more careful next time? We all should, but there are consequences to staying silent because one doesn’t have the full picture. It’s even harder when officials withhold details—no matter the reason—so the question is a bit of a double-standard.
PS if you can't see how this mistake resulted directly from trauma / violence against black bodies then you are part of why BLM is needed https://t.co/yx1uB6WdEA
— eileen (@eileenshorts) August 2, 2017
But it does point to the fact that agencies w power rarely apologize when they get it wrong which is yet another symptom of racism.
— Anita Smithson (@anitalynns) August 2, 2017
Reporting on the complexities and sensitivity of the situation would be challenging for any journalist, but Mara Gottfried with the Pioneer Press did a particularly good job in her story: “Suicide in St. Paul park sparks false lynching rumor”. On the other end of the spectrum, MPR’s Bob Collins elected not to analyze those complexities and instead to simply call the posting of the images “callous” and a “new low” in his story: “In wake of St. Paul suicide, a callous Facebook post”.
If you want to talk to someone, or if you know someone exhibiting warning signs of suicide, free, 24/7, and non-judgmental help is available. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. Local resources are available here.