FBI investigates reported July 4 lynching attempt in Indiana

By Steve Gorman and Mark Hosenball

(Reuters) – The FBI is investigating a hate-crime report lodged by a Black civil rights activist in Indiana who said he was assaulted by several white men threatening to lynch him before a group of bystanders and friends intervened to stop the attack.

The federal inquiry into the July 4 confrontation at Lake Monroe, near Bloomington, Indiana, was confirmed to Reuters on Thursday by FBI and U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington and Indianapolis.

Vauhxx Booker, a member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission, said he and some friends were at a public park on the lake on Saturday when a man wearing a cap emblazoned with a Confederate flag accused them of trespassing on private property.

The conflict escalated when five white men who appeared to be drunk grabbed Booker, dragged him to the ground and pinned him against a tree while punching him as one of his assailants yelled, “get a noose,” according to his account of the incident on Facebook.

A group of onlookers and Booker’s acquaintances, all of whom were also white, began filming the confrontation with cellphones and demanding the attackers release him, as one of the mob shouted back, “You get out of here, leave the boy with us.”

The attackers finally released Booker, and he and his friends retreated to call 911. Video of the incident has gone viral on social media, fueling U.S. racial tensions following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis.

Booker, also a Black Lives Matters organizer, said he suffered a concussion, as well as cuts and bruises and patches of hair ripped from his head, but was grateful to those who came to his defense.

“I had friends and strangers who were willing to put their lives and their bodies on the line to make sure that a man they didn’t know, who looked different than them was able to survive the situation,” Booker said at a news conference this week.

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, whose officers responded to the incident and were criticized for failing to make arrests at the time, said the agency is cooperating with the FBI while continuing its own investigation with local prosecutors.

“Our officers arrived that evening, talked to witnesses at the time from both parties and have continued to conduct interviews as part of the ongoing investigation,” DNR spokesman James Brindle told Reuters on Thursday.

Booker’s lawyer, Katharine Liell, told reporters on Wednesday the attack was “clearly racially motivated,” and that her client survived only because witnesses came to his aid.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Steve Gorman in Eureka, Calif.; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

The world’s largest Confederate Monument faces renewed calls for removal

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, a nine-story-high bas-relief sculpture carved into a sprawling rock face northeast of Atlanta, is perhaps the South’s most audacious monument to its pro-slavery legacy still intact.

Despite long-standing demands for the removal of what many consider to be a shrine to racism, the giant depiction of three Confederate heroes on horseback still towers ominously over the Georgia countryside, protected by state law.

The monument – which reopens on Independence Day weekend after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close for weeks – has faced renewed calls for removal since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died during an arrest by a white police officer who pinned his neck to the ground with a knee.

The brutality of Floyd’s death, captured on cellphone video, triggered a national outcry against racial injustice, and revived a long-simmering battle between those demanding the removal of racist symbols from the public sphere, and those who believe the monuments honor Southern tradition and history.

“Here we are in Atlanta, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, and still we have the largest Confederate monument in the world,” said Gerald Griggs, a vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP civil rights group, which staged a march last week calling for the carving to be scraped from the mountainside. “It’s time for our state to get on the right side of history.”

The sheer scale of the monument makes its removal a daunting task to contemplate. Longer than a 100-yard American football field, it features the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, the president of the 11-state Confederacy, and two of its legendary military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, notched in a relief 400 feet above ground.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is an organization that staunchly defends Stone Mountain and other Confederate statues and emblems. Dedicated to teaching the “Southern Cause,” according to its website, it believes their removal is akin to purging American history.

The Southern or “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” holds that the war was fought over a heroic, but lost, effort to defend states’ rights to secede from the Union in the face of Northern aggression, rather than the preservation of slavery.

Martin O’Toole, an official of the Georgia chapter, said the monument is not a totem of racism at all. It’s history, plain and simple, he says.

“It’s three men on horses,” O’Toole said. “What’s racist about that?”

Maurice J. Hobson, an associate professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University, counters this, describing the Southern Cause as “a false history” that downplays slavery’s role in the Civil War.

He said the Confederate leaders were traitors to the United States who fought to hold on to a Southern economy that depended on slavery.

All three men featured on the monument, Davis, Lee and Jackson, were slave owners.

“The whole of Stone Mountain was erected to show what some white Georgians revered,” he said.

Stone Mountain has long held symbolism for white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan, a hate group that was formed by Confederate Army veterans and has a history of lynchings and terror against Black people, held its rebirth ceremony atop the mountain in 1915 with flaming crosses. Klansmen still hold occasional gatherings in the shadows of the edifice, albeit now met with protesters behind police tape. Many of those cross-burnings took place on or around July 4.

The monolithic monument was proposed more than a century ago and had numerous false starts over the years.

But with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, segregationist officials in the state pushed for the creation of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association in 1958 and purchased the park. The carving was completed in 1972.

“This debate has been going on for years, and we’re sensitive to it,” John Bankhead, a spokesman for the group, said. “We want to tell history as it is, not as some say it is.”

In the past, others have suggested putting more balance into the monument. There was a proposal to build a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta-based civil rights icon, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as well the King family, rejected the idea.

Even though that idea floundered, Hobson advocates adding more carvings to the rock face, including African American historical figures and leaders.

“It needs to be put in a context that forces a conversation, a serious conversation,” he said. “The easiest way to rectify it, is surround it.”

Griggs of the NAACP said that the civil rights group has consulted with stone masons who said it would cost about $300,000 to $400,000 to remove the towering images.

“Take it down,” he said. “Restore the mountain to its original condition.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Frank McGurty and Aurora Ellis)

Ex-officers in George Floyd case may seek venue change, raising questions of bias

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The former Minneapolis police officers charged in the death of George Floyd will likely seek to relocate their trials in hopes of finding sympathetic jurors, but legal experts said doing so could reinforce claims of systemic racism in the justice system.

While trials are rarely moved in Minnesota, legal experts said the Floyd cases might be exceptions because the Minneapolis police chief and other officials spoke publicly about the episode and called Floyd’s death a murder, a departure from norms that defendants may argue prejudiced jurors.

A video of the May arrest and death of Floyd, who was Black, showed officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he went lifeless, sparking protests globally and igniting a national discussion on race.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, and the three other former officers, who are white, Black and Asian American, are charged with aiding Chauvin.

In addition, while it might be hard to find jurors anywhere who have not seen the video, demonstrations in Minneapolis against police brutality could arguably intimidate local jurors, experts said.

In a Minneapolis court on Monday, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill said he might consider in September arguments to move the case, which goes to trial in March. If the cases were moved, the new venue would be another Minnesota county as the charges are under state law.

In several high-profile, racially charged cases in the past juries were more lenient with defendants of the same race as the majority of jurors.

“If you go to a less diverse place, what that would mean for the diversity of the jury pool and the question of bias?” asked Justin Hansford, director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and professor at Howard University School of Law.

When defense attorneys have convinced judges to move trials from the jurisdictions of the crimes, those rare cases usually were marked by frenzied media coverage that judges agreed made finding an impartial local jury impossible.

Former football star O.J. Simpson, who is Black, was acquitted on double murder charges in 1995 by a downtown Los Angeles jury, comprised of nine Blacks, two whites, and one Hispanic person, after the case was moved from nearby Santa Monica, where the crime occurred and the population is majority white.

“The (OJ) Simpson case teaches us that venue can be the difference between an acquittal and a conviction,” said defense attorney Brian McMonagle, who defended comedian Bill Cosby in his first sexual assault trial.

Earl Gray, a lawyer for Thomas Lane, one of the former officers charged in Floyd’s death, told Reuters that if Minneapolis officials continued to describe the case as a murder he expected the judge to move the trial.

Lawyers for the other officers and the Minnesota attorney general who is prosecuting the case declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment.

“They have got to get this moved,” said Paul Applebaum, a Minnesota attorney, referring to the defense team. He said if they get a jury with mostly minority jurors, “they are cooked.”

While ordering a new venue may be necessary to protect the defendants’ rights of due process and impartial jury, moving trials involving police defendants to less diverse areas has stirred allegations of injustice in the past.

Four white New York City police officers were charged in the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, a Black man. The shooting touched off days of protests.

The trial was moved to Albany County, New York by an appellate court that ruled Bronx jurors would be “under enormous pressure to reach the verdict demanded by public opinion.”

The officers were acquitted by a jury of four Blacks and eight whites. Albany County is almost three-quarters white while whites and Blacks are about equal in Bronx County, both around 44% of the population.

The 1992 trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of using excessive force in the arrest of Black motorist Rodney King, which like Floyd’s arrest was caught on video, was moved to suburban Ventura County from Los Angeles.

None were found guilty by the mostly white jury, sparking widespread protests.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Juneteenth observance arrives amid U.S. reckoning with racism

By Rich McKay and Brad Brooks

Atlanta (Reuters) – With most formal Juneteenth events canceled due to coronavirus concerns, street marches and “car caravans” were planned on Friday across the United States to demand racial justice on the day commemorating the end of slavery a century and a half ago.

Despite the limitations, the occasion holds particular significance this year, organizers say, coming at a time of national soul-searching over America’s troubled racial history triggered by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

Weeks of mounting demands to end police brutality and racial injustice are sure to animate rallies expected in cities coast to coast, including New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In Texas, where Juneteenth originated, Lucy Bremond oversees what is believed to be the oldest public celebration of the occasion each year in Houston’s Emancipation Park, located in the Third Ward area where Floyd spent most of his life.

This year a gathering that typically draws some 6,000 people to the park, purchased by freed slaves in 1872 to hold a Juneteenth celebration, will be replaced with a virtual observance.

“There are a lot of people who did not even know Juneteenth existed until these past few weeks,” Bremond said.

Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates the U.S. abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, belatedly announced by a Union army in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

Texas officially made it a holiday in 1980, and 45 more states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. This year, a number of a major companies declared June 19, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, a paid holiday for employees.

Juneteenth takes on raw emotion this year in Atlanta, where a black man last week was fatally shot in the back by a white policeman in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. The policeman was terminated by the department and charged with murder.

Instead of an annual Juneteenth parade and music festival, Atlantans will mark the occasion with a march to Centennial Olympic Park that organizers say will have a spiritual, rather than celebratory, tone.

“Join us in decrying racism in every form, and declaring unity from the church across lines of race, class, denomination, and culture,” OneRace, an ecumenical group that organized the march, said in a statement.

Dozens of protests and marches marking Juneteenth and calling for an end to racial injustice were scheduled to take place across New York City’s five boroughs on Friday.

On the West Coast, union dockworkers at nearly 30 ports planned to mark the occasion by staging a one-day strike.

But much of the focus of the 155th annual observance will take place on social media, with online lectures, discussion groups and virtual breakfasts, to help safeguard minority communities especially hard hit by the pandemic.

“We have been training our staff on how to use technology to present their events virtually and online,” said Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

Many chapters have also planned “car caravans”: slow-speed processions of motorists honking horns and waving their arms as they wend their way through neighborhoods, Williams said.

A focal point of Juneteenth observances this year is likely to be Tulsa. President Donald Trump is traveling to the Oklahoma city’s first campaign rally in three months, originally scheduled for Friday but moved to Saturday after an outcry.

Critics said staging the rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the scene of a notorious massacre of African Americans by white mobs in 1921, showed a profound lack of sensitivity to the city’s history, not to mention disregard for public health concerns. Tens of thousands of supporters will jam into a sports arena for the event despite the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Juneteenth organizers were planning an outdoor event expected to draw tens of thousands on Friday, local media reported.

Byron Miller, Juneteenth commissioner for San Antonio, Texas, said he has long felt compelled to make the celebration “palatable” to white people by emphasizing advances in racial harmony, rather than dwelling on centuries of abuses endured by African Americans.

But Floyd’s death has left him newly embittered.

“The times we’re living now have forced many of us to acknowledge that maybe slavery has never ended, in some fashion or another,” he said.

Bremond saw the potential for the holiday as a balm for racial wounds, saying, “I’m hopeful that Juneteenth will serve as a stabilizing influence for the chaos that we’ve been seeing in the streets.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting and writing and by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump signs order on police reform after weeks of protests about racial injustice

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices even as he pressed for “law and order” nationwide.

After weeks of protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed on May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis, Trump sought to offer a policy response to rising concerns about racial injustice going into the Nov. 3 election, in which he is seeking a second term.

Trump, a Republican, opened his remarks by expressing sympathy to the families of victims of police violence, pledging to fight for justice and promising them their loved ones will not have died in vain. But he quickly pivoted to a defense of law enforcement officers and a threat of penalties to looters.

“Americans want law and order, they demand law and order,” Trump said at a ceremony at the White House, reiterating a call that has angered protesters who have poured onto streets from New York to Los Angeles.

“Americans know the truth: Without police there is chaos, without law there is anarchy, and without safety there is catastrophe,” he said.

In his public comments and on Twitter, Trump has called for crackdowns on protesters and emphasized a forceful and militarized response to the social unrest sparked by the death of Floyd and others. Despite issuing a call for unity, he used his Rose Garden address on Tuesday to criticize former President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, for his record on police reforms. Opinion polls show widespread concerns among Americans about police brutality.

Tuesday’s order encourages police departments to employ the latest standards for use of force, improve information sharing so that officers with poor records are not hired without their backgrounds being known, and add social workers to law enforcement responses to non-violent cases involving drug addiction and homelessness, officials said.

Trump’s proposal would steer federal money toward police departments that get certification by outside bodies and would ban chokeholds unless an officer’s life was in danger. It also would encourage them to use less-lethal weapons such as stun guns.

Civil-rights groups and top Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said the order was insufficient.

Trump reiterated that he opposes calls to “defund the police” by reimagining or dismantling police departments. Leading Democrats, including Biden, have not embraced such calls, but Republicans have jumped on the issue.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote later this month on sweeping legislation put forward by the Congressional Black Caucus to rein in police misconduct.

Senate Republicans are expected to unveil their own legislation on Wednesday that concentrates more on data collection than on policy changes in areas involving lethal force. Trump urged Congress to act.

Democrats want to allow victims of misconduct and their families to sue police. Republicans are pushing to reduce job protections for members of law enforcement unions.

Trump’s decision to ban chokeholds appears similar to the ban included in the Democratic legislation.

Republican lawmakers are divided on that issue.

Inimai Chettiar of the Justice Action Network said the use of grant money to influence police department policies could be an effective way to get results, but she noted that Trump’s Justice Department has resisted other reform efforts.

“I have a lot of skepticism in terms of how rigorously this is going to be implemented,” she said. Other civil-rights groups said Trump’s order did not go far enough.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, David Morgan and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Sonya Hepinstall, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. ‘not above scrutiny’, urges other states to be open on racism: statement

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States is grappling with racial discrimination and implementing police reforms after the killing of George Floyd, but other countries should show the same level of openness, a U.S. envoy said on Wednesday ahead of a U.N. debate on racism.

Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, issued a statement hours before the Human Rights Council (HRC) was to open an urgent debate at the request of African countries on racism and “police brutality” against protesters.

Activists said that U.S. officials were heavily lobbying African countries to tone down a draft resolution being considered so that it would not name the United States or set up a U.N. commission of inquiry, but rather a fact-finding mission.

African countries had lobbied to set up a U.N. inquiry into “systemic racism” and “police brutality” in the United States and elsewhere, aiming to defend the rights of people of African descent, the initial draft resolution showed.

“As the world’s leading advocate for human rights, we call upon all governments to demonstrate the same level of transparency and accountability that the U.S. and our democratic partners’ practice,” Bremberg said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned the actions of police officers in Minneapolis, he said, referring to the city where Floyd died last month after being held under the knee of an officer, launching protests across the nation and the world.

Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices even as he pressed for “law and order” nationwide.

“We are not above scrutiny; however, any HRC resolution on this topic that calls out countries by name should be inclusive, noting the many countries where racism is a problem,” Bremberg said.

Bremberg, in a thinly veiled reference to ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, said that another member state stood “accused of running concentration camps directed at an ethnic minority”. In an apparent reference to Iran, he said that another state had murdered more than 1,500 peaceful protesters. Reuters reported in December that about 1,500 were killed in Iran during less than two weeks of unrest last year.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by William Maclean)

Trump says he will sign police reform executive order on Tuesday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he will sign an executive order on police reform and hold a news conference on Tuesday, after several weeks of nationwide protests sparked by the death of African-American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

In comments to reporters, Trump also said the shooting by police of a black man in Atlanta was a terrible situation and very disturbing.

An Atlanta police officer was fired and the police chief resigned after the killing of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night.

No details on Trump’s executive order on police reform have been released. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working on separate proposals on the issue.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)

Factbox: What changes are companies making in response to George Floyd protests?

(Reuters) – The corporate response to a wave of protests over the treatment of African Americans has included pledges to increase diversity, donations to civil rights groups and, in some cases, changes in policies or practices long sought by critics. Here is a sampling:

Starbucks Corp said on June 12 it would allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts and pins, rolling back restrictions on how baristas could show support for the social movement against racism.

Apple Inc said on June 11 the iPhone maker will increase spending with black-owned suppliers as part of a $100 million racial equity and justice initiative, while Google’s YouTube video service said it will spend $100 million to fund black content creators.

Walmart Inc said on June 10 it would no longer keep “multicultural hair and beauty products” in locked display cases at any of its stores. Critics had said doing so suggested consumers of those products are more likely to shoplift.

NASCAR on June 10 banned the Confederate flag at all its car racing tracks and events, saying the symbol of white segregationists “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans”.

Amazon.com Inc on June 10 imposed a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition product, Rekognition, which critics say is more likely to misidentify people with darker skin and more likely to be used in minority communities.

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter Inc and Square Inc, announced on June 9 that June 19, or June teenth, would become a paid company-wide holiday every year for employees of both companies. The date commemorates the June 19, 1865 reading in Texas of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, which brought an end to slavery in the United States.

U.S. payments group Mastercard Inc in a message to its employees on June 12 said that June 19 will be a holiday for its employees and the day would be designated as Mastercard Day of Solidarity.

L’Oreal SA on June 9 rehired Munroe Bergdorf, a British black transgender model it sacked in 2017 after she described all white people as racist. The French cosmetics company offered Bergdorf a seat on a newly formed UK diversity and inclusion advisory board, a role she accepted.

HBO said on June 9 it would pull from its HBO Max streaming service the Oscar-winning 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” long decried for its racist depictions of blacks in the antebellum South.

The Paramount Network, owned by ViacomCBS Inc, said on June 9 it would discontinue the reality show “Cops” after 33 years on air. Critics say the show has glorified police violence.

International Business Machines Corp said on June 8 it would no longer sell or research facial recognition tools that critics contend are biased against people of color.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on June 5 the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier,” an apparent reference to its opposition to players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police treatment of African Americans, a protest initiated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016. “We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”

Bank of America Corp on June 2 said it would spend $1 billion over four years to address racial and economic inequality.

(Reporting by Greg Mitchell, Uday Sampath and Anurag Maan; Editing by Dan Grebler, Shounak Dasgupta and David Gregorio)

U.N. rights body to examine ‘systemic’ U.S. racism and police brutality

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top U.N. human rights body agreed on Monday to hold an urgent debate on allegations of “systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” in the United States and elsewhere on Wednesday.

The U.N. Human Rights Council’s decision followed a request last week by Burkina Faso on behalf of African countries in response to the killing of George Floyd, an African American, on May 25 under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. His death has ignited protests across the nation and worldwide.

“We think it is a moment to really discuss this issue, as you have seen with the demonstrations all over Europe, including here in Geneva,” said Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Austria’s ambassador who serves as current president of the Council.

“This is a topic which is not just about one country, it goes well beyond that,” she told a news conference.

African countries may prepare a resolution for consideration at the debate, Tichy-Fisslberger added.

The United States is not a member of the 47-member state forum in Geneva, having quit it two years ago alleging bias against its ally Israel.

The U.S. mission in Geneva had no immediate comment on the Council’s decision, but last week issued a statement decrying the “senseless death of George Floyd” and saying that justice and transparency were “core values” of the United States.

The African group’s request, in a letter made public by the United Nations, said: “The death of George Floyd is unfortunately not an isolated incident. The numbers of previous cases of unarmed people of African descent who met the same fate because of uncontrolled police violence are legion”.

The outrage provoked by the death underlines the importance of the Human Rights Council discussing these issues, the letter said, noting that 600 activist groups and victims’ relatives had called last week for a special session.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Nick Macfie and Gareth Jones)

Pentagon chief orders review of National Guard’s response to protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered a review of the National Guard’s response to recent protests over police brutality and racism, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

“The report will address a range of issues, including training, equipping, organizing, manning, deployment, and employment of National Guard forces,” a statement said.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy will conduct the review, it said.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)