Hate crime or overreaction?

Germantown, Tenn., officials defended the firing of three theater workers who tied stage-rigging ropes into hangman’s nooses.

City Administrator Patrick Lawton likened the knots left hanging at Germantown Performing Arts Theatre to cross-burnings and swastikas.

“It is the symbol of hatred and bigotry,” he said.

Meanwhile, the city took criticism from people inside and outside the local theater community for either overreacting to or misinterpreting the knots.

“I’ve seen plenty of stagehands whittling their time away by tying all kinds of knots,” said Bob Hetherington, chairman of the department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Memphis.

“If they were trying to send a racial message of any kind, the fly system of a theater would be the last place anyone would see it.”

But someone did see the nooses.

Another city employee, who is black, complained of a hostile work environment when he saw the nooses.

Even if GPAC technical director Matthew Strampe and part-time stagehands Michael Laraway and William Martin didn’t fully grasp the racist connotations of the nooses, Lawton said, “absence of knowledge is not a defense. It is wrong.”

The city fired them Aug. 24.

Lawton spoke out Wednesday in the face of sharp criticism that he was being hyper-politically correct and overreacting to knots never meant to suggest lynchings of black people.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen met Wednesday night. But they closed part of the session because of threatened litigation.

After the closed session, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes, the board opened the meeting and voted unanimously to support the administration regarding the terminations.

The unanimous vote included Alderman Carole Hinely, who had indicated earlier that she thought the firings were an overreaction based on a misunderstanding. She changed her position after hearing from administration officials.

Strampe, a 29-year-old University of South Dakota graduate, had been GPAC’s technical director nearly a year.

According to the city’s prepared statements, Strampe acknowledged he asked Laraway and Martin to show him how to tie a noose and that it was a knot hardly ever used in theater.

Also, one of the workers put his head through the noose and all three joked about the “hangman’s noose,” according to the administration.

The theater workers explained they made the knots to raise the rope off the stage floor while it was being refinished.

“If the purpose of the knot-tying was to secure the ends of the rope to get them off the floor and out of the way so floor refinishers could work, why were chairs left on the floor?” the administration asked.

“Why does the technical director for a performance theater not have an adequate knowledge of knotting and ask stage workers to teach him, by his own description, a rarely used knot?”

Laraway gave The Commercial Appeal his account of what happened.

“I was working with a gentleman I had never worked with before and we were talking about how to tie different knots. I asked him if he knew how to tie a bowline and he said yes. Then I asked him if he knew how to tie a hangman’s noose, and I showed him.

“… There were actually six ropes hanging there, but only three were nooses because it was the end of the day and we didn’t want to finish tying the others.”

GPAC’s entire staff, including artistic manager Tania Castroverde Moskalenko, stood behind the employees in a closed meeting with Lawton, Laraway said.

While a hangman’s noose is not typically used in theater rigging, local theater officials say versions of the knots have other common uses.

Jay Morris, the new technical director at Playhouse on the Square, said his main concern about seeing a noose backstage would involve safety.

“It’s like any other slipknot in that you could get your hand or your neck caught in it and it could cinch up on you,” Morris said.

“Personally, if I saw one, the first thing that popped into my head wouldn’t be the racial implications but the unsafeness of it.

“Of course,” he added, “I’m also new to the South.”

(Contact Christopher Blank and Lela Garlington of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)

6 Responses to "Hate crime or overreaction?"

  1. jverner  September 7, 2007 at 11:52 am

    “Personally, if I saw one, the first thing that popped into my head wouldn’t be the racial implications but the unsafeness of it.”

    If firing was warranted, it was for this. One of these guys actually stuck his head through the noose. He could have died.

    I have two sons. Once, when they were little, I showed them how to tie some knots. I started to show them a hangman’s noose but then stopped, thinking as sure as I did, one of them would hang the other.

    I don’t see the racial part, either, but then I’m not black.

  2. kanawah  September 7, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    It was not over reaction. The three who did this should be required to get appropriate counseling.

    Under the circumstances, this was a hate crime.

  3. jarrodlombardo  September 7, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Hate crimes require intent.

    A drunk that accidentally hits a gay man he doesn’t know with his car will be charged with the appropriate offenses of vehicular manslaughter and DWI. It’s not a hate crime.

    Theatre techs tend to love knots and playing with them, coming up with new knots and sharing the obscure ones they know. Leaving interesting knots around is _very_ common.

    In most theatres, most employees are not allowed to touch the rigging ropes for safely and liability reasons; anyone can usually move tables and chairs. The workers leaving the ropes tied up so as to not be on the floor makes sense. The chairs could be moved later, by anyone, but only some of them could deal with the ropes.

    –Jarrod

  4. Philip_blue_owl  September 7, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Under what circumstances? Because it’s in the South? Would it be different if it were in Canada? And hate against whom?

    The noose, like Death itself, is an equalizer and has been used against people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. If the theatre had a guillotine, would it be a hate crime against the French? My grandfather was killed by a dentist — should I regard any dental advertising as creating a climate of fear?

    From my 30+ years of working in the theatre, I have seen nooses in practically every theatre in which I’ve been. It’s rarely used on stage, but is considered a specialty, a kind of show-off thing.

    This is an example of hypersensitivity and overreaction.

  5. yarply  September 7, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    The whole thing is stupid, and I would say the one most racist was the one who supposedly was mostly offended. More white people have been and were hung in this country than any black ever thought of being. For quite a while it was the preferred form of execution in this country. We had a guy at work who always went around saying give a guy enough rope and he will hang himself, so another guy at work made a hangman’s noose and gave it too him. The guy said he did it as a form of racism and wanted the guy fired, never admitting that it was not about racism but about what he kept saying and mocking him for saying it. The same guy when told that a state was going to make it illegal to put crosses on the side of the highway (you know where loved ones have been killed), said they should, because its hateful, till I explained to him who (a family member usually) and why (a loved ones death at that spot)
    they were placed their to begin with. He actually said he thought it was the KKK or some other “group” who was putting them up. Some white power crap or something…. Idiot,,,,
    So you can see people read into stuff what they want too and their own bias and ignorance clouds their understanding to the different reasons behind things. The guy offended does not know that was directed at him (though it may have been) unless there was some other indicator saying so.
    Maybe it was more along the line that he hates white people and saw a chance to get some fired or in trouble.

  6. Robertek  September 8, 2007 at 4:00 am

    I don’t see how this can be considered racist in any way. Did the employees ever say anything racist to the blacks that worked there? Did they ever say “were going to hang you darkie”? No. They tied some nooses and some oversensitive retard claimed it was an act of hate. They need to fire the idiot who made the claim is what they need to do.

    This is so disgusting it makes me want to throw my keyboard across the room.

    People like this are so detached from reality it would better to ship their asses away from civilization so as not to infect the rest of us with the outcome of their stupidity.

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