Sometimes a Chair Isn't Just a Chair: About those Anti-Obama Mock Lynchings

It horrifies me that we still need to even have this, "Why Lynching Isn't Okay," conversation, but here we go. [WARNING: Violent images in this post may not be work-safe. Or life-safe.]
Publish date:
September 21, 2012
racism, electoral politics, lynchings

[WARNING: Violent images in this post may not be work-safe. Or life-safe.] [EDIT: In case you're dubious, they really are extremely violent. I'm not kidding.]

Today, thanks to venerable xoJane commenter edotwoods, I have learned of a new trend sweeping the nation -- if two documented instances count as a “sweep,” although I expect as word gets out we’ll be seeing it more and more -- in which thoughtful anti-Obama political activists have hung empty chairs from trees in a symbolic lynching.

OKAY, where do we start with this?

First, some background: if you were avoiding the Internet during the Republican National Convention last month, you might have missed the phenomenon of “Eastwooding,” a concept that particularly took off on Twitter. Eastwooding is a reference to actor Clint Eastwood’s bewildering speech on August 30, the final night of the event. To sum up, Eastwood had a one-sided conversation with an empty chair, as though the chair were President Obama.

The meaning even at the time was somewhat unclear: does the empty chair suggest that Obama ought to have attended the Republican convention? Does the chair’s inability to respond indicate that Obama has failed to answer questions like the rhetorical ones posed by Eastwood? Who the hell knows.

In his effort to do something different -- which, in fairness, we should all probably appreciate -- Eastwood only baffled many people and made the whole event a laughingstock in left-leaning circles. The confusion even inspired numerous people to post images of hands pointing at empty chairs (“Eastwooding”) and enthusiastically noting the sudden appearance of Invisible Obama all over the nation.

It seems, however, that it wasn’t only Democrats and other liberals who saw the chair as an amusing surrogate for the President.

In Austin, Katherine Haenschen, editor of Burnt Orange Report, a Texas liberal-leaning political blog, said someone forwarded her a photo this week of an empty folding chair hanging from a tree in front of a home in the city’s northwest... In Virginia, a photo posted on Tuesday on Blue Virginia, a Democratic-leaning political blog, shows an empty chair with a handmade "Nobama" sign strung from a tree by a rope.

Both of these imaginative protests have taken place in southern states; both purposely and maliciously invoke the southern campaign of lynching, in which a mob would gather to capture and execute a person believed to have committed a crime without the pesky need for due process.

With its origins in the Revolutionary War, lynching was not always an explicitly racial act, but by the time racially motivated lynchings had reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th century American South, this kind of vigilante mob justice was irrevocably associated with race-based prejudice and hatred. The vast majority of those lynched were African American men, usually those who had been accused of the murder of white men or the rape of white women, although in the preponderance of cases these crimes were often fabricated or embellished.

While it would be simpler to put the practice of lynching down to a dangerous mob mentality in enforcing instantaneous justice against alleged wrongdoers, it was more than just a means of executing black men who had crossed certain lines with their so-called betters.

Lynching also served as a sustained campaign of terrorism against black folks; the public hangings -- which were attended by hundreds of onlookers, joined by cheers, and the dead bodies were often photographed and sold as picture postcards afterward -- made the unforgettable point that black Americans would never be allowed to participate in society, culture, or government, and that those who protested this arrangement risked imminent and horrifying death.

Lynching was liberally employed by the Ku Klux Klan for this purpose. It was practically the KKK’s calling card. What lynching means, to be clear about it, is that the ruling empire of white supremacy will never fall.

We can’t forget this terrorist campaign, even as it seems distant and embarrassing now, and as much as we may crave the forgetting. It is a scar on the character of this nation that will linger for a long time, and given that declining lynchings nevertheless persisted into the 1950s and 60s, the wound is fresher than many of us would like to think. We can’t forget it, and neither should we do so; we can’t ignore it, and we can’t pretend it never happened, any more than we can look back at September 11, 2001 and think of all the time that has passed between now and then as though that has healed the injury to our national consciousness.

There are those who will argue that it’s just a chair, and that the symbolism associating it with our first black President is irrelevant. There are those who will argue that even to be angry for a moment is a waste of energy that might be better put toward fighting against the injustices of today.

I’m sorry, but those people are wrong. The use of lynching even in an abstract sense is never okay. It’s not just a chair, and it’s not just a rope, and it’s not just a tree. It is a symbol that represents the murder of a mixed-race President for the crime of daring to win an election and take on the leadership the United States of America in spite of his racial makeup.

It represents the greatest fears of all the racists, both in public roles as government officials and in private roles as citizens, who systemically disenfranchised black voters (something that is still happening) in the south -- and the rest of the country lest we think this is exclusive to that region -- to enforce white domination over people of color.

It is, in short, a very big fucking deal, and it shows just how far we still have to go in this country before we can triumphantly declare that racism has ceased to be a powerful influence in our lives.