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Halloween decoration, hung by a noose in Westminster, raises questions on race, symbols, legality

Sam Marshall was working in Westminster on Sept. 30, as he does every week, casually driving to his next stop, when he noticed what he thought was a skeleton hanging from a rope on a tree.

After his stop, he circled back to confirm what he saw. He didn’t take pictures this time, but the next week, he saw it again. So he got out to take a closer look.

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The figure reminded him of a young Black man, with a hoodie on, sagging pants and a noose around his neck. Marshall, who lives in Baltimore, took pictures and posted it on social media, where he said it blew up.

“I know it’s near Halloween time, but this is really a replay of hanging a Black man,” said Marshall, who is Black. “I was hurt by what I saw. This is 2020. This community is OK with seeing this.”

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The homeowner, who requested anonymity in the interests of privacy and security, said she took the decoration down Oct. 15 after an inquiry from the Times, saying she didn’t want to be harassed about something she sees as merely a Halloween decoration that she has had up for about eight years. She said it depicts a white man and that the pants were sagging due to rain that pushed them down. Her whole house was decorated, she said.

“It has nothing to do racism. If I had built a hangman in my yard, I could see that,” she said. “But it’s a Halloween decoration I’ve had for several years. I’ve never had a complaint.”

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jonathan Light said the office received two calls Oct. 9 about a depiction of someone being hanged on the street where the homeowner lives, though Light didn’t specify if the calls came from different people. Deputies responded but determined it to be a Halloween decoration and not a criminal violation, Light said.

A new Maryland law went into effect Oct. 1 that bans the use of nooses or swastikas to intimidate someone or a group. Those symbols (actual or depicted) are prohibited on any property without the owner or occupant’s permission while intending to intimidate.

“Under the new additions to the law, you would still need it to be placed without the permission of the owner and prove it was with the intent to intimidate,” Light said. “In this case, with the information we have at this time, this criteria is not met.”

The homeowner said she didn’t see any Sheriff’s Office deputies come by her home. Light said there had been no calls to any home in the road where the homeowner lives and an incorrect address might have been given. Because responding deputies did not file a report of a criminal violation, Light said he can’t confirm which addresses were actually checked and what was seen, he said.

Such an incident doesn’t appear to be a hate crime, said Meredith Weisel, senior associate regional director of the Washington, D.C., region for the Anti-Defamation League. If a potentially hateful symbol is on someone’s own property and they set it up themselves, it isn’t classified as a hate crime directly, she said.

“Given the long and difficult history of lynchings in America, the recent use of nooses and noose imagery definitely has been seen to threaten and intimidate people within the Black community,” she said. “We would hope people would be more sensitive in choosing Halloween decorations and costumes.”

There has been an increase in hate and bias incidents in recent years, Weisel said, pointing to political division and a rise in extremism, as well as leadership, including President Donald Trump, failing to speak out enough about “certain incidents.” She referenced a moment in which Trump was asked in the Sept. 29 presidential debate if he would denounce white supremacy. Trump called on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by," referring to a group associated with white supremacy.

“The climate has been ripe for hate incidents to increase,” Weisel said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland declined to comment. The NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Lonnie Randolph, a Black man who has lived in Westminster since 2013, said that when he saw a photo of the figure on Facebook he found it sad but not shocking. He described Carroll County as openly racist and said he has been called racist slurs often.

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“Seeing a noose hanging out here around Halloween is normal behavior,” he said, drawing a connection to Confederate flags being hung year-round in Carroll County. The 1861 Cornerstone Speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens tied the Confederacy to a belief that the races are not equal, and the Confederate Constitution also institutionalized Black slavery, banning any laws that would bar slavery.

Carroll County’s population is composed of close to 92% white residents and about 4% Black residents, according to U.S. Census data.

The county reported an average of 3.75 hate and bias incidents per year between 2010 and 2017 before reporting one incident each in 2018 and 2019, according to the annual Hate Bias Report compiled by Maryland State Police.

The 2018 incident was “verified” and concluded when Joseph Nagy of Taneytown was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of malicious destruction of property scheme valued more than $1,000 after allegedly confessing to spray-painting racist graffiti on a Chinese restaurant. The 2019 incident, reported to be committed by three white boys younger than 18 years old, was determined to be “unfounded,” meaning “the evidence or investigation definitively indicates that it was not motivated by bias.”

For some, seeing a noose in any capacity — even as nothing more than a decoration, as the homeowner described it — can be disturbing. And for Randolph, although he wasn’t surprised, it can bring other negative experiences to mind.

“I’ve been called a n— more times in the last seven years than my whole life. It’s sick how open and just normal it is out here,” he said, “but what can I do and how should I react to it?”

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