Robert Fuller was “the sweetest person you know,” Tommie Anderson, Fuller’s best friend, told local station KABC this week. “He could make two people who didn’t like each other sit in a room together.”
But the 24-year-old Fuller was found dead on Wednesday, hanging from a tree in a square across from City Hall in Palmdale, California.
Authorities initially said he had died by suicide, but his family and many others are calling for a deeper investigation. “My brother was not suicidal,” Fuller’s sister, Diamond Alexander, said at a rally on Saturday. “He wasn’t.”
Fuller was the second black man found dead by hanging in the area in a matter of weeks. On May 31, Malcolm Harsch, 38, was found outside a library in Victorville, California, about 50 miles away from Palmdale. The investigation into his death is ongoing, but his family is worried it will be ruled a suicide, according to the New York Times.
The men’s deaths have been highlighted as the world enters its fourth week of protests against police violence and racism, spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Especially given the manner of Fuller’s death, many fear that the men in California could have been victims of hate crimes. “If you can suggest suicide,” said Laurielle Stewart, a protester, on Saturday, “I can suggest a lynching.”
Malcolm Harsch’s family doubts his death was suicide
After firefighters found Harsch’s body apparently hanged with a USB cable, authorities told his family they did not suspect foul play. But family members were suspicious, according to the Victor Valley News.
“Amidst the current racial tension and following the protesting the night prior to his body being discovered we were truly troubled to learn of his passing particularly of how his body was discovered,” family members said in a statement to the newspaper. “He is an African-American man whose body was found hanging from a tree!”
Moreover, the family said, “Malcolm had very recent conversations with his children about seeing them soon. He didn’t seem to be depressed to anyone who truly knew him.”
Officials are continuing to investigate Harsch’s death, but his sister, Harmonie Harsch, is doing an investigation of her own. “It has been stressful,” she told the New York Times. “It doesn’t sound right.”
Fuller’s family, too, are demanding answers
As Harsch’s family grieved his death, Fuller’s body was found at 3:39 am in Palmdale’s Poncitlán Square, according to the Times.
“Although the investigation is ongoing, it appears Mr. Fuller, tragically, committed suicide,” the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement Friday.
“Sadly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” the city of Palmdale said in a statement, according to CNN. “The city remains committed to addressing mental health issues during these difficult times. We are in this together.”
But his family, too, were deeply skeptical. “Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right,” Alexander said at a rally on Saturday. “We’ve been hearing one thing. Then we hear another. And we just want to know the truth.”
Many others shared their skepticism. “Why was it right here in public, in front of City Hall, next to a church, in front of a library?” said one woman at a press conference on Friday, according to the Times. “Why was it like that? Who would do that? No black man would hang himself in public like that.”
Hundreds of protesters came together in Palmdale on Saturday, demanding answers in Fuller’s death, according to LAist.
And more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for a full and transparent investigation by authorities in Palmdale. “This was not a case of suicide but murder,” the petition reads, demanding that authorities “find the persons responsible for his lynching and justice for Robert Fuller and his family.”
In the wake of protests, the city of Palmdale issued a statement in support of an independent investigation Saturday, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger called on California’s attorney general to investigate. Meanwhile, Fuller’s autopsy was conducted on Friday, but the cause of death has been deferred, according to KABC.
Both Harsch and Fuller died as millions protested around the country and the world in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and other black Americans killed by police or white civilians. Activists have been calling for investigations into their deaths, as well as a larger reckoning around police brutality and racist violence.
And for many in California, the hanging deaths of two black men cannot be separated from the context of a country grappling with centuries of racist killing.
“I feel like somebody murdered my best friend and they used this tree to cover it up,” Anderson, Fuller’s friend, told KABC. “There’s a lot of Black Lives Matter things going on and I feel like they want to put it on — it was mental issues, it was depression, it was something other than the fact that a young man was hung from a tree.”