After Lake Merritt Effigy Discovery, Oaklanders Say It's Time for a 'Righteous Conversation'

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A tree at Lake Merritt decorated with Black Lives Matter art on June 18, 2020. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

The Oakland Police Department and the FBI have launched investigations into the source of what appears to be a hate crime. This comes just one day after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf made a statement on ropes found hanging from trees around the lake.

A caller made a report about finding an effigy hanging from a tree Thursday, which they say they removed and set on the ground. In a statement, Oakland police said they found “material stuffed in the shape of a human body with a rope tied around the torso and neck, laying on the ground next to a tree with an American flag lying next to it.”

Under California state law, it is a misdemeanor to hang a noose, "knowing it to be a symbol representing a threat to life."

The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” If this act is determined to be a hate crime, the perpetrator could face imprisonment or jail time and a monetary fine.

Symbolically, Lake Merritt is a special place for many Oakland residents and is the home for many community events.

“The lake is like the community — everyone comes here. It’s the heart of Oakland,” said resident Topher Francia.

But the lake has also drawn controversy. In 2018, the lake was the backdrop of a viral video that showed a white woman calling the police on two Black men barbecuing. The term “BBQ Becky” was coined, and used to refer to this incident, as a concerning trend.

Francia was sitting with Gabriel Alcaraz, who said that nooses have also been found on the campus of Mills College in Oakland. Alcaraz, who has studied ethnic studies and art, said the noose is "meant to terrorize and recall people being publicly murdered.”

While some in the community were surprised by the effigy, others saw it as a tool of opportunists attempting to spark fear. Retiree Floyd Johnson said he was shocked, but also wondered if someone was trying to instigate something.

“I thought we’d come a whole lot farther than that,” Johnson said. “I would suggest people focus on themselves, forget about that and continue to love people.”

"I would suggest people focus on themselves, forget about that and continue to love people," said Floyd Johnson on June 18, 2020. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

Esteban Samayoa, an Oakland-based artist who sat by the lake with his dog and friend Tiernan Nguyen, said he was surprised by the incident.

Nguyen said incidents like these have made his friends nervous, but acknowledged that “this isn’t new at all, it’s been happening.”

John Johnson found out about the incident when a white woman came by to ask if a nearby tree was where the effigy was found. After his conversation with the woman, he looked it up on social media. Johnson said, as a Black man, he wasn’t surprised.

“I’m kind of happy the ugliness appeared as it did. I think it will make us come together even more. The more the hate rears its ugly head ... then we’ll continue to fight, unify and speak truth to power,” said Johnson, who works with CHOOSE1, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform.

'The more the hate rears its ugly head ... then we’ll continue to fight, unify and speak truth to power,' said John Johnson on June 18, 2020. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

“I think the moment is static-charged and it’s a good energy. It’s the perfect storm for a righteous conversation for good,” Johnson said. He showed the book he was reading on complex PTSD, and said racism also impacts those who perpetrate it.

Despite the initial shock, Esther Melton voiced the sentiment of many enjoying a sunny afternoon at the lake.

“Everybody enjoys this space. We’re still out here," Melton said. "I still feel like this is our space. We’re still gonna have our joy."


What to Do If You Witness a Hate Crime

If you believe you've seen or been the victim of a hate crime or incident, the California Attorney General's Office recommends that you call the local sheriff or police department immediately to make a report. It's also suggested that you make a report to the FBI, so it can be investigated as a federal crime.

You can also report hate crimes to the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC, however, recommends you report to local law enforcement first.

Additionally, law enforcement officials recommend that you also take notes and save evidence from the incident to aid law enforcement in their investigation.

Several Bay Area cities have their own processes of reporting hate crimes, including Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco.