June 19, 2020 - 3:00pm

When is a rope-swing not a rope-swing? Why, when it’s a symbol of racial violence, of course.

Confused? Let me explain. A resident in Oakland, California, found five ropes tied to trees in a park. Concerned that the ropes resembled a hangman’s noose — a symbol associated with the lynching of African-Americans — they reported them to the local authorities.

After they were removed, Victor Sengbe — another resident of the area — came forward to say the ‘nooses’ were rope swings used for fun and exercise. As he put it:

Out of the dozen and hundreds and thousands of people that walked by, no-one has thought that it looked anywhere close to a noose… it was really a fun addition to the park that we tried to create. It’s unfortunate that a genuine gesture of just wanting to have a good time got misinterpreted into something so heinous.
- Victor Sengbe

At this point, the sensible thing to do would be to close the matter. Tensions are running high, a knotted rope can look a bit like a noose if you’re in the wrong frame of mind, an understandable mistake but no harm done.

Instead, local officials doubled down and called in the FBI. Mayor Schaaf said that officials “must start with the assumption that these are hate crimes”, while Cultural Affairs Commission member Theo Williams called for the person that set the ropes up to be “made an example of”.

The revelation that the ‘nooses’ were ‘swings’? Irrelevant. “I want to be clear, ” said Schaaf, “regardless of the intentions of whoever put those nooses in our public trees, in our sacred public space here in Oakland, intentions don’t matter”.

To rephrase this, these officials believe a hate crime — a crime which by definition must be actively motivated by prejudice against someone — can be committed unintentionally. The idea of a bureaucracy prosecuting people on the basis that their actions could be perceived as hateful is truly terrifying; as Sengbe noted, only one of the thousands of people who walked past viewed the ropes as resembling anything close to a noose. But their opinion is the one that mattered from the perspective of the City.

Setting a rule whereby the harshest possible interpretation of an action determines whether or not a person should be subjected to a full investigation can have nothing but a chilling effect on a society. Hate crimes are singled out in law because of the effect they have on community relations. Treating every innocent interaction as a cause for a potential hate crime investigation does not exactly sound like a recipe for harmony either.

Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a journalist and economist.