We go to Bloomington, Indiana, to speak with the African American human rights commissioner for Monroe County, Vauhxx Booker, who says he survived an attempted lynching when a group of white men pinned him against a tree over the Fourth of July weekend. “You have to be aware of George Floyd and how many other Black folks in our history have heard their executions spoken before them in real time,” Booker recalls. “I felt myself want to cry out 'I can't breathe’ with these men on top of me, and I just couldn’t say the words.” Police were called, but no arrests were made. “These men remain loose in my community,” says Booker. The FBI is investigating the encounter as a potential hate crime, and Bloomington’s mayor has condemned the incident in a statement. But Booker is now calling on the U.S. District of Southern Indiana to convene a grand jury to take up the case. “At this point, I’m not sure that we can find justice in our local system,” he notes, “so we’ve asked for the federal government to step in.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go to Indiana, where authorities are investigating a violent, racist attack on an African American man that took place over July 4th weekend. It that was caught on film. But more than a week later, no arrests have been made in response to the incident.
A warning to our viewers: This story contains disturbing images.
Vauhxx Booker was at Lake Monroe, near Bloomington, Indiana, in the Indiana state forest, with friends on July 4th, when five white men pinned him to a tree, beat him, threatened to lynch him. Booker is a member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission in Bloomington. He says he was able to get out of the mob’s hands after passers-by intervened to get the attackers off him.
Last week, Vauhxx held a news conference with his attorney, local elected officials and two of the white witnesses who intervened on his behalf during the attempted lynching. This is a reporter questioning one of those witnesses, Steven Cox.
REPORTER: Vauhxx, you know, had said multiple times yesterday that when they were holding him down, calling for a noose, threatening to harm him, he truly thought that they were trying to kill him.
STEVEN COX: Yeah.
REPORTER: As someone who was an outsider kind of able to see all the moving parts of this, did you also think that it was a possibility —
STEVEN COX: Yes.
REPORTER: — that Vauhxx might not make it?
STEVEN COX: Yes. When they caught him, “You can leave the 'boy' here. You guys can go, but you can leave the 'boy' here.” So the white people could go, but they wanted us to leave him there, and to do what they wanted to with him. I don’t think anybody could do that in good conscience. I’m not a fighter, so I’m like — but I wasn’t going to leave. But it was scary, I mean, probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a reporter questioning another white witness, Brennan Golightly.
REPORTER: In your opinion, if you all, you know, the other people that were there, as well as yourself, that had their phones out, there with Vauhxx — if you were not there, do you think the situation would have ended differently?
BRENNAN GOLIGHTLY: I think it would have ended very differently. … I also feel if it was me or any one of our other campers, that wouldn’t have happened. That’s just my personal feeling of the situation. I do think, because of the color of Vauhxx’s skin, that this happened to him.
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI is investigating the attack as a potential hate crime, and Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton has condemned it in a statement. But Vauhxx Booker is now calling on the U.S. District of Southern Indiana to convene a grand jury to take up the case.
Vauhxx Booker joins us now from Bloomington.
Welcome to Democracy Now! I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to you. Can you describe what — it was July 4th?
VAUHXX BOOKER: It was July 4th, the nation’s Independence Day. I was simply trying to gather with a group of friends to watch the lunar eclipse.
AMY GOODMAN: You walked into Indiana state forest?
VAUHXX BOOKER: Yeah, we just made — the site was just about a short 10-minute hike in. A friend and I, we were going to go meet a group of others. On our way in, we were confronted by a man who was wearing a oversized cowboy hat with a Confederate flag print on it. We were cordial enough, continued towards the site. A moment later, he pursued us on an ATV, told us we were on private property. I knew we weren’t actually on private property, but rather than have some type of confrontation, we just simply apologized and continued to our site and spoke to the organizer. From there, we didn’t know what would escalate later.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to your campsite. And what did the person who ran the campsite tell you?
VAUHXX BOOKER: So, he informed us that this gentleman actually wasn’t the property owner, that he knew the property owner. So, from there, we just went ahead and advised the rest of our group that they should take the public accessway of the beach so there wouldn’t be any dispute at all.
Shortly later on, some of our group joined, and they had informed us that these gentlemen had set up sort of a barricade or blockade on the beach using their boat and some ATVs. And as they were coming in, they had “white power” and some other phrases chanted at them. It was all very disturbing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, then explain what happened. Explain when they actually physically attacked you, Vauhxx.
VAUHXX BOOKER: So, a friend and I went down to see if we could just talk to some of these folks and build a rapport and reason. The conversation was going well. Then this gentleman with the Confederate flag hat on initially joined. He quickly became belligerent. We felt a situation developing, so we just simply walked away.
A few moments later, as we were walking away, I heard footsteps quickly approaching. This man came at me and swung his fist at me. Another gentleman came. So, I was on the ground with them. A third gentleman came. We tussled for a moment. Two more men came. And from there, they were able to pin and drag my body to this tree and put their bodyweight on me.
And as several of the folks started kicking and punching me, there was a moment where one of these gentlemen jumps on my neck with both of his feet, and I can feel his full bodyweight impact me. It was scary. They were literally — in the video, you can hear one of the gentlemen refer to me as “nappy-headed.” At that time, he had his hands in my hair and was using my hair as leverage to strike me in the back of the head as his friends held me down.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
VAUHXX BOOKER: In the noise, one of the men’s daughters heard us. She came out screaming for her father to let me go, for his friends to get off me. They refused and tried to tell her to go away. More people heard the daughter screaming, because we were still close to the roadside and people were passing through. People just started coming to my defense. They yelled at the man to let me go. They came forward as these men pushed them away or swatted at them.
There was a moment where I hear a lady yell out, “Don’t kill him!” And it’s a moment where you realize that you’re hearing your own potential death being narrated in front of you, and you have to be aware of George Floyd and how many other Black folks in our history have heard the executions spoken before them in real time.
I felt myself want to cry out “I can’t breathe,” with the weight of these men on top of me, and I just couldn’t say the words. So, these folks continued to just stop just merely being bystanders, as we’ve seen in so many videos, and actively engage and resist. And they were finally able to pull me from under these men. And then they used themselves as sort of a human shield to make sure that as these men pursued us, that I was still safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you hear one of the men on top of you talk about getting a noose, as they piled on top of you at this tree?
VAUHXX BOOKER: Absolutely. So, there was a point where this gentleman, as a command, tells a friend to get a noose — not get a rope, but simply get a noose, as the first term that comes into his mind, with the heavy connotation in American history with Black people and lynchings. It was an odd thing to hear. Rather than even “get a rope,” it was just the “noose” was the first thing that came to his mind.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did the police end up coming? Did you and the others in your party call the police? And what did they do?
VAUHXX BOOKER: I know that I had called the authorities. I’m not sure if other folks had already called the authorities, as well. It’s a state park, so the Department of Natural Resources responded. They took about 40 minutes to get there. Before they even came to see if any of us were injured, they went and spoke to these men that had attacked us first. Then, about 20 minutes later, they came to us.
They didn’t seem very interested in actually doing an investigation. It wasn’t 'til the white bystanders that had stayed on the beach with me just became fiercely passionate in objecting to me being treated this way and feeling like there was a miscarriage of justice, that these officers went back and got these individuals' names. Then they came and took some photographs of my injuries, but they never specifically asked me if I needed an ambulance.
AMY GOODMAN: You had patches of your hair pulled out?
VAUHXX BOOKER: I did have patches of hair missing.
There was a moment where the commanding officer showed up, and he instantly starts lecturing me on property rights. One of the things that I do in our community is I also chair the county’s Affordable Housing Commission. So, I’ve done that for two years, so I’m intimately acquainted with the details of property rights in our county. I pulled up the county rights, the land rights, in my phone, in real time, to show this commanding officer that this land wasn’t actually these folks’ land, as they were claiming. He still continued to berate me.
I explained to him how they had literally tried to lynch me. And he said, “Well, I could go arrest them, but then they could say to us, 'Well, what do you mean? We can't defend our property?’” And he was just fixated on this notion that somehow, even if I had been on private property, which I wasn’t, that that superseded the importance of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: So they were not arrested for assault there. And you made it out of the forest. Can you talk about what happened after this? You went to the hospital?
VAUHXX BOOKER: So, the following day, I had symptoms of a concussion. I went to the emergency room. I was examined by the physician. She was enraged. She called the Department of Natural Resources herself and demanded that they return to the hospital and add her medical report, her diagnosis, into my incident report. She was very upset with the officers. She indicated that they should have offered me medical treatment at the time, that they couldn’t know whether or not I had injuries, because they weren’t medical professionals. It was just a very disturbing situation, and it felt like not only was I attacked in the moment, but I continued to be attacked by the events that followed.
AMY GOODMAN: So —
VAUHXX BOOKER: I honestly felt like — I honestly felt like those officers, when they showed up in the moment, would have rather arrested me than the men who attacked me.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what’s happened at this point. It’s now a week later. Have the police arrested these men? Have they been identified? Is the FBI involved?
VAUHXX BOOKER: So, the FBI is actively investigating. These men remain loose in our community, free to do whatever harm they might do to whomever they might find. I feel like the Department of Natural Resources is dragging their feet on the investigation. It’s been over a week.
Going back and looking at the events of the night, we also were able to realize that they didn’t arrest these men who attacked me, but they arrested some folks who were skinny-dipping nearby. It just seemed like my life wasn’t a priority to them at any time. And at this point, I’m not sure that we can find justice in our local system, so we’ve asked for the federal government to step in.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are you demanding of the federal government? I mean, interestingly, your state, Indiana, is also Vice President Pence’s state.
VAUHXX BOOKER: Yeah. So, Mike Pence and I are from the same small town: Columbus, Indiana. I grew up interacting with him in various ways all through my life, and our families were acquainted. The irony is not lost on me.
But the federal government has the capability to not only investigate this incident with me. Indiana has seen a whole string of hate-fueled assaults and violent encounters with police. It’s time for the federal government, with their resources and federal hate crimes standards, to step in and help the people of our state.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the prosecutor’s name? What about a grand jury?
VAUHXX BOOKER: So, the prosecutor’s name is Erika Oliphant. We’re aware of each other. We’ve interacted. I hosted a panel on the topic of racial justice that she attended. And I endorsed her myself. So, it’s painful in a way that I can’t describe, that here I am, over a week later, and there’s still no justice.
And as far as a grand jury goes, the grand jury is the citizens acting to indict someone. In Indiana, there’s basically two ways that you can be arrested. You can have a probable cause issued by an officer — that could have already been done — or you can call a grand jury and ask for the citizens to find probable cause to arrest. And Indiana doesn’t do a lot of grand juries. I think it’s been about 40 or 50 years in our county since we had one. But, apparently, you know, it seems that we need to do it again.
AMY GOODMAN: Your final comments, Vauhxx, and what you think your parents would say? You’re outspoken. Even your name, Vauhxx, explain it.
VAUHXX BOOKER: My name, Vauhxx, it’s from the Latin for “voice.” There’s never been a time that my parents haven’t told me to speak up for what’s right. My late mother encouraged me to be vocal and to stand up for others when I saw folks put down.
I think that what’s happening here is happening throughout the nation, where our political leaders have sown discord, where property rights are elevated over the lives of Black people. And it’s time for our nation to demand a change.
AMY GOODMAN: Vauhxx Booker, I want to thank you so much for being with us. We will continue to follow up on your case. Vauhxx Booker is human rights commissioner for Monroe County in Indiana, also chairs the Affordable Housing Commission. Vauhxx Booker says — just describing to us an attempted lynching. Stay with us.