Palmdale Protesters Say Robert Fuller's Death Was A Lynching, Ask State To Investigate
This story is a collaboration between Gina Pollack (writing) and Josie Huang (reporting in the field).
Protesters gathered at a park in front of Palmdale City Hall today to speak out against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's handling of Robert Fuller's case. The 24-year-old Black man was found dead in the same park, hanging from a tree on Wednesday morning -- a frightening image reminiscent of America's history of lynchings.
The Sheriff's Department said the initial results of a coroner's investigation indicate Fuller's death was a suicide. "Without going into too much detail, it doesn't appear there was any sign of a fight or struggle," Lt. Brandon Dean told KPCC/LAist on Friday.
But protesters today asked how that conclusion could have been reached without a full investigation or an autopsy.
"If you can suggest suicide, I can suggest a lynching," said Laurielle Stewart, one of the protesters, suggesting that Fuller's death was a hate crime.
When the protest began at 11 a.m., more than 150 people had gathered to demand an independent investigation of Fuller's death by the California Attorney General. Several protesters told LAist reporter Josie Huang that they don't trust local law enforcement to properly investigate or prosecute the incident.
Demonstrators chanted, "Say his name," echoing Black Lives Matter's call for an end to violence targeting Black Americans.
In the early afternoon, protesters moved from City Hall to the Palmdale Sheriff's Department, demanding answers to their questions. At least a dozen deputies were inside with their helmets on, for a tense 45 minutes, as chants continued outside.
Eventually, Lieutenant Derrick Ballentine came out to address the crowd, saying that there is an ongoing investigation into Fuller's death. When about whether he is open to an independent investigation by the state into Robert Fuller's case and how it's been handled he said, "Me personally, yes. But I can't make that call. I have no problem with it. We're transparent."
Tensions were high but there were no altercations during the protest. A white community liaison put himself between the protesters and the sheriff's deputies to facilitate. By 12:30, most of the protesters had returned to the park by City Hall. Some marched down the street on Palmdale Blvd., chanting Fuller's name. At one point, some protesters threatened to cut down the tree where Fuller was found, but they were dissuaded.
By 3:30 p.m., after two marches to the Sheriff's station, the crowd returned to the park and a sheriff's helicopter began circling and instructing them to disperse.
Sheriff’s department helicopter has circled the park where #RobertFuller was found at least 10x’s now, telling protesters to disperse because of unlawful assembly.— Josie Huang (@josie_huang) June 13, 2020
Audio is hard to make out but I hear “chemical agents” and “arrests” pic.twitter.com/BJfOatMiS7
At about the same time, about 15 sheriff's deputies vehicles gathered across the street from the park, but left as protesters shouted at them. (Warning: the video below contains profanities.)
Members of Fuller's family, who live in Lancaster, were present at the gathering. One protester, speaking for the family, asked others to pray for them and give them space.
"They are still grieving," she said.
Demonstrators placed candles and flowers around the tree where Fuller's body was found.
Diamond Alexander, Fuller's older sister, was shocked by how small the tree was. She said she couldn't believe that Fuller, who was tall, at least 5-foot 10', would hang himself from a tree that was barely taller than him.
"We sitting here staring at this tree," she said. "It don't make no sense. My brother is tall. My brother was not suicidal. He wasn't."
Tommie Andersen, a friend of Fuller's, said she last saw him two weeks at a 7-11 store, not far from the park where his body was later found. The two discussed the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, in the wake of George Floyd's death. She said Fuller was excited about the movement and seemed to be in good spirits. The two friends had a group trip planned to Las Vegas later this summer.
Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer said at a news conference on Friday afternoon that there are only two cameras in Poncitlán Square; both are low-resolution and follow traffic in real time, but don't record. Because of that, investigators say they don't have video evidence of what happened in the early hours on Wednesday morning before Fuller's body was found.
They are asking members of the public to come forward if they heard or saw anything. "We encourage anyone with information about this incident to call Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500," Hofbauer added.
The City of Palmdale announced in a press release this morning that officials support the protesters' call for a full investigation. "We will settle for nothing less than a thorough accounting of this matter," the statement says.
On Friday night, just after 11 p.m., the Antelope Valley branch of the NAACP released a statement saying that the circumstances of Fuller's death are suspicious, especially given another incident that happened the next day.
Fuller's body was found Wednesday morning. On Thursday morning an unarmed man named Michael Thomas was fatally shot by a Lancaster sheriff's deputy, who was responding to a domestic violence call.
The NAACP is asking for a full investigation into both incidents, including information on why deadly force was necessary in the Michael Thomas shooting. The organization also asked that both investigations be expedited and that the families be given full access to updates immediately, saying they deserve to know if foul play was involved.
"Must negative interactions between communities of color and law enforcement also be deadly?," the statement reads. "Public trust continues to erode after each incident. Wasn't the loss of George Floyd, [killed] just two short weeks ago, training enough?"
Fuller's sister said she and her family want answers from the sheriff's dept., too.
"It's like everything that they've been telling us has not been right.," she said. "We've been hearing one thing, and then we hear another. We just want to know the truth."
BACKGROUND ON ROBERT FULLER AND LYNCHING LAWS: