'The Confederacy of California': life in the valley where Robert Fuller was found hanged

Vivian Ho in Antelope Valley, California

In a corner of desert country at the northernmost edge of Los Angeles county, Black boys have grown up watching their fathers handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies during routine traffic stops. Black girls have had racial slurs shouted at them from passing cars and been warned not to go out by themselves at night.

They have stood in line at the grocery store alongside white men with swastika tattoos. They have organized to protect themselves when they felt no one else would. They have learned which streets to not drive down to avoid law enforcement traffic stops. Some have stopped driving at night al together.

“The Confederacy of southern California is the Antelope Valley,” said Ayinde Love, a longtime Lancaster resident and organizer.

When the body of Robert Fuller, a 24-year-old Black man, was discovered hanging from a tree near Palmdale city hall earlier this month, it plucked at a trauma that had been etched into the Black community for generations. Just over a week before, the body of Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old Black man, had been found hanging from a tree just 50 miles east. Together, Fuller and Harsch’s deaths ignited a firestorm of fear in the region, of white supremacist hate group violence and police conspiracy, during a time of racial reckoning nationwide.

Related: California: half-brother of black man found hanged killed in police shooting

Coroners with the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department preliminarily declared Fuller’s death a suicide. But following widespread outcry, the Los Angeles sheriff, Alex Villanueva, backtracked on the finding and announced that the FBI and the state attorney general’s office would monitor the department’s investigation.

Two days later, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies fatally shot Fuller’s brother. It was the department’s sixth fatal shooting since the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests and heightened scrutiny of police violence.

Two mysterious deaths of Black men, a thin investigation from a sheriff’s department with a documented history of misconduct, another police killing, all within a dry desert landscape rife with historic anti-black hate. To many in Antelope Valley’s Black community, it came to represent the years of racism, bigotry and violence that has gone overlooked in what is considered one of the most left-leaning counties in America.

Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

“People are arguing whether it was homicide or whether it was suicide, but that’s not the position that I’m taking,” Love said. “It’s a lynching regardless, because it is an act of violence when the people that are supposed to serve your community send a message through their lack of concern.”

‘Black men’s fear? The police’

Fewer than 500,000 people live in this sunbaked valley, where the gnarled branches of the Joshua trees splay under miles of open sky. About 70 miles from the city of Los Angeles, hardscrabble brown mountains loom far in the distance on clear days – the Tehachapi mountains to the north and the San Gabriel mountains to the south.

Of those living in Antelope Valley, about 15% are black, compared with 9% in all of Los Angeles county, and 6.5% statewide. The community has grown rapidly, and recently: from 1990 to 2010, the Black population in Lancaster, one of the main cities, grew from just 7% to 21%, while the white population shrank from nearly 80% to less than 50%.

As that population shifted, in the years leading up to 2010, the region saw the highest rate of hate crimes in Los Angeles county.

A 2013 US justice department investigation documented a series of white supremacist-related crimes that had haunted Antelope Valley in the 1990s and early 2000s. The First African Methodist Episcopal church in Palmdale was firebombed in 2010. Three white youths allegedly killed a Black man in 1997 to earn a white supremacist tattoo. Two Black men were stabbed by a white mayoral candidate’s son who had been reciting “white power” slogans, and homes were vandalized with racial slurs and a swastika.

But when asked about what they feared more in Antelope Valley, Black men overwhelmingly responded: the police.

“I don’t care about the KKK because I’m allowed to defend myself against the KKK,” said Arthur Calloway II, 39, a Lancaster resident and president of the Democratic Club of the High Desert. “But every day I have to leave the house, not knowing if I’m going to get pulled over that day and if that could end up in an escalated situation with me actually not coming home.”

At the tree where Robert Fuller’s body was found in the early hours of 10 June, supporters had placed a bright green sign, splattered with red paint, among the flowers and the candles: “Cops and Klan go hand in hand”. Just 30 years ago, a group of deputies described by a federal judge as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” had been rooted out through a lawsuit that cost the county $9m. Authorities are investigating whether similar other gang-like cliques of deputies, stationed primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods, persist today.

Combined with the stories of the Black community, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department’s reputation of racism has solid footing in the valley. While working for a car rental agency, Love, the community organizer, was pulled over so many times that he had to ask his manager to call the sheriff’s station.

“One time, I was driving into a community and deputies were coming out and passing me and immediately, they turned their lights on and turned around and pulled me over,” said T, a black Lancaster man who asked to only be identified by his first initial out of fear of retaliation. “They said there was a break-in in the neighborhood I was going into. If there was a break-in, why would I be going back into the neighborhood where I just broke into a home?”

In 2015, the US justice department settled a lawsuit against Lancaster, Palmdale and the Los Angeles sheriff’s department for targeting black people with discriminatory enforcement of the federal housing choice voucher program. The investigation that preceded the settlement found that deputies in Antelope Valley engaged in a pattern of misconduct that included pedestrian and vehicle stops in violation of the fourth amendment, “stops that appear motivated by racial bias”, unreasonable use of force and discrimination against residents on the basis of race. A review of use-of-force cases from 2010 to 2011 in which the only charge was obstruction-related – resisting arrest – found that 81% involved black or Latino subjects.

‘If this had been a white man’

Jamon Hicks reacted the same way many others in the black community did when he learned about Robert Fuller’s death. His initial thought was that it felt odd, that he had never heard of a Black man committing suicide in such a public way, and from a tree. When he learned of the other hangings, not just Malcolm Harsch’s in San Bernardino county but around the country, he got scared.

The poppy fields of Antelope Valley, California. Photograph: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

A few days later, he was retained as the attorney for Fuller’s family. Sitting at his home about an hour south of Palmdale on Juneteenth, he took a more reasoned approach. He was preparing the family for the findings to come back as a suicide, or even undetermined, he said. What mattered, he argued, was that the findings came back at all, and followed a thorough investigation.

“What I look at is: if this had been a white man hanging from a tree, if this had been a white woman hanging from a tree, would you have so easily just said, ‘Well, we think it’s a suicide?’” Hicks said. “I’m saying the investigation seemed very haphazard from the beginning. And I wonder, was it that way because this was just a 24-year-old black man?”

The family needed answers, he said. Instead, they were left with more questions.

Seven days after Robert Fuller’s body was discovered in Palmdale, Fuller’s brother, Terron Boone, was fatally shot by Los Angeles county deputies. According to the sheriff’s department, when they tried to stop his car, Boone opened the door and started shooting. The sheriffs were reportedly in plainclothes and an unmarked car, trailing Boone, a suspect in a domestic violence case.

“My question,” Hicks said slowly, “is did they know beforehand that it was his brother, before they attempted surveillance and before they followed the car?”

He wondered about the fears and conspiracy theories floating around the community, and whether they had reached Boone, who had been deep in grief. “If he’s thinking, ‘I’m being followed, something happened to my brother, now it’s me’ – if he’s in that mindset and he doesn’t know that they’re police, he’s in defense mode,” Hicks said. “He’s paranoid. He’s scared.”

‘You have to constantly think about your safety’

That sense of fear blanketed a Juneteenth rally in Lancaster, where hundreds came to demand justice for Robert Fuller, Malcolm Harsch, Michael Thomas, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. Amid the high energy and rousing speeches, a tension thrummed through the crowd.

Protesters demonstrate in front of the Palmdale Sheriff’s Station after Fuller’s death. Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

There had been rumors that the local Ku Klux Klan chapter would be hosting a meeting at the same park where the march would end. The Los Angeles sheriff’s department said it had been unable to confirm whether the meeting was to take place. Still, organizers put out warnings for everyone to travel in groups. They had a check-in system – when people got home, they had to text someone, and if that person did not receive a text message, then everyone had to mobilize as if it were an emergency. At the rally, people were on alert, watching to see if people got too close to the speakers.

Giovanni Pope, 17, had been scheduled to speak at a press conference a few days earlier. His parents have been incredibly supportive of his efforts as a young Black and gay activist – but they told him he couldn’t speak at this one, not with the rumors of hate groups.

At a recent protest, he left his face uncovered because he had been a main organizer and wanted to make sure he was recognizable. Near the end of it, a white man whom nobody could identify kept following him and taking his picture.

“In other parts of Los Angeles county, people don’t have to think about this at all,” said Pope, a Lancaster resident. “I go to Pasadena regularly and every young person there seems so carefree in that sense. It’s really easy to be an activist for things you believe in in those areas. Out here, you have to constantly think about your safety.”

Homicide by society

On Juneteenth, the family of Malcolm Harsch, the 38-year-old man found hanging from a tree 50 miles from where Robert Fuller was found dead, posted on Facebook that after reviewing surveillance video, they had accepted that Harsch’s death was a suicide. “We urge you all to continue your efforts concerning the hanging deaths of African Americans,” they wrote.

The next day, a small crowd gathered for a vigil at the tree where Harsch died near the Victorville public library. Harsch had been living in a nearby homeless encampment at the time of his death. Organizers of the vigil brought food and water for the encampment residents, stepping around the debris and garbage under the unforgiving sun.

“Even if it wasn’t murder, it was still homicide by society,” said Kareema Abdul-Khabir, an organizer, pointing out that city hall spent more of its budget on policing than on care for vulnerable people of color.

That’s why Love, the Antelope Valley community organizer, has characterized these hangings as lynchings. Racism comes in many forms in the high desert. There’s the specter of the hate groups. There’s police violence and overcriminalization. And there’s the damage of the passive slights and the allowance of racism. It’s Pope sitting in on a meeting with the mayor of Lancaster, listening to him talk about the need to differentiate “between the hip-hop kids and the good African American students”. It’s 24-year-old Isabel Flax, learning that when her family moved to Palmdale in 2000, her white mother was informed at two homes she had tried to rent that it was “a problem” that she had a Black husband. “It was always the little things, the things that happened when I was seven and I didn’t understand until I got older,” Flax said.

“Lynching was a tactic to instill fear and control the slaves. It had to be something perpetual,” Love said. “When all Black people have to experience the unacceptance of society to the point that life in itself can seem harder than death, it’s a lynching. It’s a lynching via the white supremacist systems that have been set up in place to oppress us.”

‘We’re not going anywhere’

Black people across the US are exhausted, and those in Antelope Valley appear to feel no different. With each passing day come more Black lives lost, and in making sure all Black lives matter, they find themselves forced to wear the mantle of slain names, loudly and publicly, even as their legs buckle under the fatigue.

One day after Robert Fuller’s body was found, sheriff’s deputies fatally shot 62-year-old Michael Thomas in his home in Lancaster. Deputies had been responding to a domestic violence call and said Thomas had reached for their gun. His family and his fiancee, who was at the scene, disputed that account.

Pastor Jacob Johnson, vice-president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the NAACP, said the deputies appeared to have violated at least several points of the consent decree set by the federal justice department as part of the 2015 settlement of the housing discrimination lawsuit – a section of the settlement covers use of force. Yet it’s unclear whether the officers will face any repercussions. This same drama has played out too often in police departments across the country. Officers violate policy. Black people die. No one is held accountable. “What’s the penalty if they break a consent decree – the oversight committee stays on for two more years?” Johnson said. “To be honest, if I’m the sheriff’s department, I could care less. Right now, there seems to be no repercussions. There seems to be no penalties.”

Related: Oakland moves to bar police from schools as bigger cities reject change

When it comes to police killings, people tend to ask first what the person killed did to deserve it – if he was suspected of a violent crime, if he had resisted arrest, if he had been armed. Always with this question, Black organizers think of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine in a mass shooting of a black church in South Carolina and was taken into custody unharmed. “Obviously there is no need for extra training because white adult males make it out alive all the time,” said Arthur Calloway, the Lancaster community organizer.

Johnson is tired. But in talking about the movement in Antelope Valley – and the Los Angeles sheriff’s department – he is reminded of another valley mentioned in the Bible, the Valley of Elah. “When David comes to fight Goliath, Goliath had been taunting the children of Israel for a while now, standing in the middle of this valley,” Johnson said. “By the time David shows up, his brothers say, ‘What are you doing, David? You can’t really do anything.’ And David says, ‘Is there not a cause?’

“That’s what keeps bringing people back,” he continued. “We’re tired, but we’re not going anywhere because there is a cause.”

Police will be held accountable

After years of living with racism, the black organizers in Antelope Valley are working to make sure this moment of protest is more than just that. Calloway has co-founded Vote Your Power Back not just to encourage people to vote, but to shape the next generation to run for leadership roles as well. “Once you get a mom on the city council who can feel the pain of Robert Fuller hanging from that tree, who can put that emotion and passion and empathy into legislation, police will have to be held accountable,” Calloway said.

Giovanni Pope, the 17-year-old activist, had planned on leaving for Syracuse University in the fall. But he too recognized that a shift was happening in his home, and he chose to take college courses from Antelope Valley for at least his first year so that he could also continue his work on some local campaigns. “I decided that having that localized attention on our valley was very, very important,” he said.

Ayinde Love leads a crowd of protesters during a Juneteenth demonstration. Photograph: Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

At the Juneteenth rally, Isabel Flax spoke about her five-year-old son, and how she wanted him to grow up in a different world than she did. In a later interview, she said that after watching the video of George Floyd, she couldn’t sit by the sidelines any more. She organized the first protest in Lancaster, and, together with the other organizers, has a strong future planned for the movement.

As Flax spoke, supporters were still on high alert for hate groups, watching the stage and pacing through the crowd. Armed sheriff’s deputies stood at a distance. “You almost fear the sheriffs, if they’re here to protect us and make sure nothing happens or if they’re here just to say they were here and to look the other way if something happens,” one protester wondered.

But for just one moment after Flax passed on the microphone, in a brief musical interlude, Frank Beverly and Maze’s Before I Let Go blasted out over the speakers. A wide smile broke out over Flax’s face and she allowed the beat to take her. Soon, she was leading an entire group of Black women and children in the Electric Slide, the BLM tattoo she got after her first protest still bold and fresh on her left calf.

Beyonce’s Formation came on next to loud cheers and the handful of dancers grew. Pope jumped into the middle of the circle to groove, as everyone sang along. And for one brief moment, there was celebration.