It took time.

The rope, with nooses at each end, that appeared on a telephone wire over the road into Deer Isle last Friday – on Juneteenth, no less – was not the product of momentary impulse.

Someone had to think about it. Someone had to tie the tricky hangman’s noose – not once, but twice. And then someone had to sneak out as darkness fell and toss it up over the wire for all to see on the very day that marks the end of slavery in this country.

As 23-year-old Mina Mattes, organizer of a series of Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown, put it in a Facebook post the next day, “Tell me again this isn’t ‘our problem,’ that it ‘doesn’t happen here.’ ”

For weeks, the tension has risen between those who think it’s time, at long last, for a true racial reckoning in this country and those who claim, as always, that there’s nothing to reckon.

But then along comes the incident in Deer Isle, and suddenly it becomes harder to look the other way because racism is “someone else’s problem.”


Exactly when the nooses went up is unknown. As is often the case with acts of pure cowardice, there were no witnesses.

But by Saturday morning, Mattes said in an interview, numerous pictures of the nooses had “spread like wildfire” on social media and throughout the Hancock County hamlet, population 1,900.

“People had a little bit of a wake-up moment,” Mattes said. “A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I had no idea things were this bad, I never expected this in my community.’ ”

Her response: “I’m glad you’re here now, but were we even living in the same place before?”


“I don’t think there’s been a single day that’s gone by without people shouting things out of their car or shaking their fist or flipping (the protesters) off or whatever,” she said. “I think a lot of them are scared – and maybe they should be scared of being racist in public.”


According to Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland, investigators are still trying to determine whether the hanging of the nooses was in fact a crime. Key to that determination will be who did it and why.

“It’s that motive that may clue us in as to exactly what we’re dealing with – other than something offensive and obnoxious,” McCausland said.

But this much is already clear: In the long, sordid array of racist idolatry that has plagued this country since its very birth, the noose stands alone.

Jack Shuler, a professor of English and Black Studies at Denison University in Ohio, is the author of the 2014 book “The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose” – the title a reference to the 13 turns of the rope used to fashion the hangman’s knot.

In an interview Wednesday, Shuler said the noose has replaced the burning cross as the symbol of white supremacy in the United States, an echo from the 4,743 recorded lynchings – almost three quarters of them targeting Black people – that occurred in this country from the post-Civil War era through the mid-20th century.

Shuler sees a parallel between the end of lynching as an extrajudicial form of punishment and the videos of police killing Black men that are now energizing the Black Lives Matter movement. In both cases, he said, the more everyday people witnessed what was happening, the more they were inclined to stand up and say “enough.”


“I don’t think it’s a stretch to think about the relationship of the lynching photograph to the videos of people being killed (by police),” Shuler said. “People are seeing these things and they’re reacting in a certain way. And the way that they’re reacting is in horror.”

But even amid today’s chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the noose still holds an insidious power over the public consciousness. It exudes violence. It shocks the senses. It harkens back to a time when racist mobs ruled with impunity and God help the Black man or woman who crossed their path.

“Why would you go to all that trouble?” Shuler asked, referring to the time and effort it takes to tie a noose and then surreptitiously put it where it will be easily found. “You would go to all that trouble because you know the noose symbolizes something to people in the African American community in this country. That’s why you would do that – I can’t think of another reason.”

Some in and around Deer Isle have speculated that what happened last week was just a prank, likely carried out by young people who had no true grasp of what they were doing.

“It doesn’t matter,” countered Shuler. “It is incumbent on the adults in that community to educate those children about that history.”

Mattes, the young activist, wholeheartedly agrees.


“It doesn’t change the meaning of the symbol – whether it was a prank or whether it was done as a joke,” she said. “It’s not a joke, and it doesn’t matter why you display that symbol. That symbol has a life beyond your intentions for it. It’s really ugly down to its core.”

Thankfully, at least in Deer Isle, it also appears to have backfired.

Since Jason Lepper, an arborist from neighboring Blue Hill, showed up Saturday morning with a pole saw and, bless him, took the nooses down, local reaction to the provocation has been swift and unambiguous.

Some were sufficiently frightened by the display to suggest canceling a Black Lives Matter demonstration previously scheduled for Sunday in the center of town. But Mattes insisted that despite the possible danger, the gathering was more important than ever.

She was far from alone. Somewhere between 160 and 180 people showed up over the course of an hour – far above the number who have participated in past protests.

“For a lot of people in the community, it was their first time coming out to anything like that,” Mattes said. “People really wanted to be there. They were really angry and they wanted to say, ‘I won’t stand for this.’ ”


To be sure, what’s happening across this country’s racial divide is about far more than a pair of nooses hanging from a telephone wire in a remote town on the coast of Maine.

But to the cretin who cut that rope, tied those knots and managed to put it all on display without getting caught, know that you’ve only managed to awaken a whole town – and now people far beyond – to the need for meaningful change, for lasting reform and, above all, for racial justice.

And if you eventually get apprehended and exposed for the world to see, all the better.

“I’m sad that this is what it took,” Mattes said. “But the island is overdue for this conversation.”

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