Lessons From a Lynching


In vigils and marches in cities around the country last night we mourned and protested the murder of gay Puerto Rican teenager Jorge Steven L?pez-Mercado on the evening of November 13th.

His murder was so gratuitous – Jorge was decapitated, dismembered and partially burned – that he may pass into popular memory as the Puerto Rican Matthew Shepard (aka the gay Wyoming college student whose 1998 lynching spawned a similar wave of protests and jump-started the gay-straight alliance movement on high school campuses).

Most in the vigils and marches last night acted out of grief and anger, and with good reason. But left at that alone, the growing awareness of what Jorge L?pez’s murder means for what the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement needs to do will be left unanswered, and a budding movement, stillborn.

Back in 1998 the myriad of Matthew Shepard vigils and marches focused almost exclusively on the simple messages that hate and violence are bad – messages that were frankly so basic that even the most reactionary conservatives could mouth agreement with them. Literally hundreds of protests in the U.S. and internationally occurred, but aside from a huge mushrooming of gay-straight alliances in the nation’s schools, little of permanent importance was achieved. This is why drawing correct conclusions about next steps from last night’s vigils for Jorge L?pez is so important.

To the extent that a political understanding seeped into last night’s events, it was largely a diversionary debate around the issue of hate crimes legislation, pro- or con-.

On the pro- side, liberals have framed demands of the vigils as focusing almost exclusively on enforcement in Jorge’s case of recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation which mandates, among other things, stiffer penalties for felonies motivated by anti-LGBT hate. But as with enhanced penalties legislation generally, and the death penalty specifically, there is no evidence that such legislation deters violence.

On the side of those opposing hate crimes legislation, some left-wing critics rightly point out that governments often use increased policing powers to further already discriminatory “law enforcement” against minorities. Unfortunately these same critics often speak as though hate crimes don’t exist, that there is little or no difference between the murder of an Emmett Till or a Matthew Shepard – lynchings designed to send messages of hate and intimidation to whole communities – versus other more “routine” murders.

Worse, such “left-wing” commentators typically are dismissive of, if not opposed to equal marriage rights land legislation mandating equal employment rights in the military. In justification of this attitude, they note that such institutions are quite reactionary (re: the military, I would agree; re: marriage, it’s changed more than just a little bit since the time when women were literally owned by men). But this misses the point. The American workplace, with its dictatorial organization and huge gaps in compensation is perhaps the most reactionary institution in U.S. society, but does this mean that we abstain from struggles for equality within it, whether based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other categories?

Rather than focusing on the issue of hate crimes legislation, pro- or con-, as the key to preventing future lynchings like that of Jorge Steven L?pez, we need to take a much broader perspective. We need to take a look at the history of lynchings and the prevention of such.

Doing so will highlight one very important fact: It was the sweeping change in social attitudes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and the legislative gains of at least de jure equality it created that finally put an end to routine lynchings of African Americans.

It is no accident that the height of lynching violence against African Americans coincided with the height of “legal” segregation and racist Jim Crow legislation. Government and religious sanction of discrimination explicitly endorsed violence against African Americans. Removal of American apartheid in the 1960s obviously did not end racism, but it did remove a powerful justification for lynchings – the government endorsement of racial inequality – and such lynchings diminished dramatically a few years after the movement finally won broad enforcement of equal rights legislation.

The LGBT community has yet to achieve formal legal equality, an initial step towards the far more ambitious goal of social equality. Today hatred of us is explicitly endorsed from pulpits and the podiums of politicians, and the dominant – read federal – legal framework within which we live. Thus it should come as no surprise that there are lynchings like that of Jorge L?pez, Matthew Shepard and many, many virtually anonymous scores more. Government- and religious-sanctioned discrimination are major bulwarks supporting anti-LGBT violence in the United States.

The struggle against Jim Crow segregation of lunch counters was never so much about the lunch counters as such, but about the dehumanizing message such petty segregation sent to the African American community as a whole. In warfare as in other kinds of violence, dehumanization is the first step towards making it “okay” to harm another human being.

Similarly, the struggle against anti-LGBT legal inequalities – whether on the issues of marriage, employment, housing, access to public accommodations, immigration law, etc – is not even mainly about the specific rights that come with such, as important as those are for the life choices they might make available to innumerable individuals. It’s about removing the dehumanizing impact that official discrimination has in fostering routine, everyday hatred and discrimination against LGBT people. (This is a major reason why domestic partnership legislation, rather than marriage rights, is not “good enough” for same sex couples).

Losing the anti-LGBT repressive social climate, rather than preventing Sally from marrying Sue, is the main reason why anti-gay leaders oppose equal rights legislation. They couldn’t give a damn about who any of us marry, any more than we care whom they marry. What they really value is officially-sanctioned bigotry and the bolster to their social power that it gives.

Jorge Steve L?pez-Mercado was a victim of social anti-LGBT hate, a hate powerfully endorsed by the United States’ legal inequality and the hate officially endorsed by most religious denominations. If we wish to make the most direct assault upon the conditions that fostered L?pez’s murder, we must directly confront the politicians of both political parties, including President Obama, who oppose our legal equality or who at best, give us pro-equality rhetoric instead of pro-equality policies.

Moreover, we must call out as bigots the powerful religious figures, leaders of the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, who use religion as a cover for their bigotry, not unlike those religious right figures like Jerry Falwell who used religion as a cover to justify Jim Crow a generation ago.

L?pez’s lynching demands not just grief and anger, but a political strategy that attacks the conditions which led to his lynching.

ANDY THAYER is a co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, a direct action group formed in 1998 in response to three Chicago gay-bashings just weeks before Matthew Shepard’s murder. He can be contacted at LGBTliberation@aol.com


Andy Thayer has written previously about the then-impending Supreme Court decisions here and here. He is a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network in Chicago and can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxemburg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving