Officials in Oakland described ropes hanging from trees in a park as nooses but a local man said he and his friends used them for exercise.
“Out of the hundreds, thousands of people who walked by, no one even thought it looked anywhere close to a noose,” Victor Sengbe, who is black, told KGO-TV.
“Folks have used it for exercise, it was really a fun addition to the park that we tried to create,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that a genuine gesture of wanting to create a good time got misinterpreted into something so heinous.”
The Oakland Police Department said officers discovered the five ropes on Tuesday at Lake Merritt.
They responded after seeing social media posts that described the ropes as nooses.
Oakland police officials said that during its probe, several community members told officers that the ropes were used for exercise equipment. One of them said he put the ropes up for exercise and games.
“The Oakland Police Department and the City of Oakland recognize especially at this time, that any ropes on or attached to trees, limbs, or other objects can be associated with hate crimes and racial violence,” it said in a statement.
Evidence gathered during an investigation was turned over to the FBI, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a press conference this week.
“We have to start with the assumption that these are hate crimes. We cannot take these actions lightly. These symbols are symbols of racial violence,” Schaaf, a Democrat who is white, said.
“What a privilege for those of us who don’t feel complete fear and terror when we see a rope in a tree.”
Staff members were told to remove any similar ropes wherever they were found.
“The intentions do not matter because the harm is real,” Schaaf said. “They will matter in regard to whether or not this is charged as a hate crime.”
J. Nicholas Williams, the director of recreation and youth development for Oakland Parks, said at the same briefing: “These are acts of hatred and our country is experiencing that right now.”
He said that some of the “rope apparatuses” were “absolutely” not exercise equipment.
“The symbolism of the rope hanging in the tree is malicious regardless of intent. It’s evil, and it symbolizes hatred,” he said.