LA VISTA, NE – A 66-year-old man from Nebraska was reportedly sentenced to prison after being convicted in connection with an incident from 2020 where the individual placed a rudimentarily-crafted noose atop of a floor scrubber at the Oriental Trading Company that his black colleague was slated to use.
Apparently, there were no other elements associated with the incident – verbal or physical – aside from the noose being left out in the open, yet the Justice Department prosecuted the case as a federal civil rights violation.
But while the display associated with the incident can certainly be construed as offensive, one of sound mind would reasonably ponder how exactly was the purported victim’s civil rights violated over a coworker placing a crudely done-up noose at his workstation.
In the realm of alleged noose controversies that transpired in June of 2020, the one that garnered the most attention was the Bubba Wallace fiasco that later turned out to be nothing more than a garage door lever – yet the Justice Department took steps to review it at the time to ascertain whether there were any “violations of federal law,” according to a statement released by the Justice Department at the time.
But within the same month of the Bubba Wallace calamity, a totally separate noose controversy transpired in La Vista, Nebraska, involving a man identified as 66-year-old Bruce Quinn, who stood accused of crafting a noose out of orange twine and placing it on the seat of a floor scrubber that his 63-year-old black coworker was slated to use at work on June 18th of 2020.
The black coworker who discovered the noose, identified as Kirk Kirksey, told a local ABC outlet at the time, “I’m the only one that ever driven this machine for the last four years, nobody else has driven this machine but me,” adding that he contacted management at the company about the matter and an internal investigation was opened.
In a not-so-shocking development days after the incident occurred, Quinn was fired by Oriental Trading Company after the internal probe determined he was responsible for the noose stunt at work.
Again, such an outcome is hardly surprising; an employee at a company did something egregiously offensive specifically aimed at another coworker and was promptly fired – case closed, right?
Obviously not, as Oriental Trading Company President and CEO Steve Mendlik issued a statement after Quinn was fired, mentioning that a police report was filed over this noose debacle.
“We are saddened and angry that a member of our Oriental Trading family was recently targeted in a racial incident. We absolutely do not tolerate hate or racism in our company. After learning about this cowardly act, we immediately launched an internal investigation and filed a report with local law enforcement. After our internal investigation, we identified the individual responsible and they are no longer employed by Oriental Trading.”
Kirksey, at the time, also believed his discovery of the intentionally placed noose at work amounted to a criminal act, telling reporters, “Racism has not stopped, they are just taking it to another level. This is a hate crime, in my book, and anybody else can see it.”
The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office initially began investigating the case, but somewhere along the way, the Justice Department got involved after likening Kirksey being offended by a former colleague’s racist display as being a form of a civil rights violation.
And the case clearly stuck, with Quinn reportedly pleading guilty to a federal civil rights violation this past September and getting sentenced on December 2nd to four months in prison and one year of supervised release. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who works for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, claimed in a statement following Quinn’s sentencing that the mere act of leaving of a noose for a specific person to see is equivalent to “a threat of violence.”
“Federal courts have long recognized the noose as one of the most vile symbols in American history. Individuals, like this defendant, who use a noose to convey a threat of violence at a workplace will be held accountable for their actions.”
Chances are that a vast majority of people when informed about the details of this case, would agree that staging a noose for a black coworker to happen upon is extremely offensive, one that would rightfully lead to the culprit losing their job and warrant general condemnations from those involved and privy to the matter.
But jailing someone over the incident, alongside prosecuting the matter as a civil rights violation, seems odd as it is hard to really articulate exactly what civil right Kirksey was deprived of in the moments he observed this noose placed at his workstation by his coworker. By all means, it’s apparent that Quinn was putting his bigotry of his black coworker on full display with the noose stunt, but a coworker behaving like a racist jerk and getting fired for the act doesn’t fit the bill of typical civil rights violations.
In conventional civil rights violations cases, the offender usually needs to have deprived, or attempted to deprive, the victim of one or more very specific things based solely upon the victim’s membership of a protected class – with a rather important element to these cases being that the offender has to be in a position to achieve such deprivation.
Classic examples of the sorts of racially-motivated deprivations that would fall under civil rights violations would be things like denying to rent or sell a dwelling, restricting someone’s physical freedom, or refusing to hire someone or grant a due promotion to an existing employee – among other similar scenarios.
But based upon the circumstances of this case, it sounds as though Quinn and Kirksey were peers at Oriental Trading Company, meaning that Quinn wasn’t in a position of authority to deprive Kirksey of his civil rights as they relate to the workplace.
Now, if Oriental Trading Company refused to fire Quinn after the noose incident and allowed such workplace harassment to carry on unchecked, then that would make a bit more sense in the civil rights violation realm – but also would reflect more on the employer’s inaction rather than Quinn’s actions and would likely be something settled in civil court.
But going back to the noose at the center of this conviction, despite Assistant Attorney General Clarke claiming the federal courts have settled the issue of displaying a noose equals a civil rights violation, that claim is a bit of a stretch.
The closest the Supreme Court has come to the topic of nooses has been with partially upholding a Virginia law prohibiting cross burning meant to intimidate individuals in the 2003 decision of Virginia v. Black. In the years that followed that 2003 decision, several other states began crafting laws prohibiting the display of nooses meant to intimidate a person or persons – but Nebraska doesn’t seem to be one of those states, and Quinn wasn’t convicted of any state-level “true threats” violation but of a federal civil rights violation.
Ironically, Quinn being sent to prison over his speech – no matter how revolting the bigotry associated with the speech is – raises reasonable questions of whether his civil rights were violated by the United States government. While unlikely to occur with this particular case, it would be interesting to see how the Supreme Court would address a similar case if ever presented with one in the future.