Over the past two weeks, the alleged hanging of an 8-year-old biracial boy has roiled the small, picturesque town of Claremont, New Hampshire. As a few hundred residents gathered in town for a prayer vigil organized by local clergy on Tuesday night, fresh allegations by the boy’s family further rocked this normally quiet area.
In an interview with Newsweek on Tuesday, the boy’s maternal grandmother, Lorrie Slattery, said local police did not begin seriously investigating the incident until images of the boy’s neck went viral on social media.
“Now they’re investigating,” said Slattery, 52, who is white. “On the day it happened, the police officer went around and spoke to the boy [believed to be the ringleader] and then came back to my daughter and said, ‘the child said it was an accident; there’s nothing we can do.' It was the media who opened their eyes and got them to do an investigation.”
The police refute that account. “All I can really confirm is that we sent officers to the initial investigation,” said Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase. “We have line-level officers that respond initially. When it’s a serious investigation, we assign it to our criminal investigation. I assigned a regular police officer, we got the facts, and then the detectives took over immediately. From the get-go, we’ve believed this was a serious incident. I know that as the police department, we’ve regarded it as serious.”
On August 28, Cassandra Merlin, 27, was at her boyfriend’s home in Claremont, and her 8-year-old son and his 11-year-old sister were playing outside at a nearby house with four boys Slattery believes are young white teenagers.
“They were playing,” Slattery said, “and there’s a tire swing that was hanging from a tree but the tire was not there, just the rope, and there’s a picnic table there. My grandson was there, and the boys were playing with the rope, and the 14-year-olds were saying ‘oh look at us,’ and putting the rope around their necks, and then they said to my grandson, ‘here, you do it.' And he’s 8 years old and he put that rope around his neck. And the boys said, 'A-ha!' and shoved him off the table. They did a scare and pushed him at the same time, and that’s when my grandson was hung.”
According to the boy’s sister, the four teens ran off and left him hanging, Slattery said. The boy was able to release himself from the rope, and when he was free, his sister ran to alert their mother, who rushed him to a local hospital, according to Slattery. From there, he was airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, about 30 miles away, and treated for his injuries. Slattery said hospital personnel examined the boy’s injuries and determined that the bruises on him were consistent with a noose going around the neck and up behind his ears. (The hospital declined to comment, citing the boy’s age and a possible criminal investigation into the incident).
“The doctor said he should have been dead,” Slattery said. “He never lost consciousness. I think that boy has a guardian angel.”
Facebook posts–including photos of the boy’s neck on the day of the attack–by the boy’s mother and her cousin garnered a lot of comments from community members. About a week later, the posts were widely shared by activists, who also began contacting local media. After the post went viral, the first news story appeared on September 5. Ten days after the incident, the Claremont Police had still not released any information about the case, other than to confirm an investigation.
“After this all blew up on Facebook, the chief came to my daughter’s house and was playing football with my grandson,” said Slattery. “Where was he when my grandson was hurt? That boy felt abandoned.”
Slattery said that at first, she didn’t believe there was a racial component to the incident. Like the rest of the state, Claremont’s population is 96 percent white, according to the 2010 Census, the most recent to date. But Slattery said it’s become more diverse in recent years and everyone seems to get along. “I was hoping they were wrong and it wasn’t racial,” she said, “but the more we learn, we know it was absolutely racially motivated.”
After her grandson was examined at the hospital, Slattery said she learned he had cuts and bruises on his legs. The cause? Two days before the incident, the same kids had been throwing rocks at him and calling him racial slurs, including the N-word, she said the boy told her.
Local activists and community members have criticized the police department, saying it has been slow to address the racial component of the attack. Among them: Olivia Lapierre, a 22-year-old local activist who moved to Vermont from Ethiopia in 2000.
“They say that what happened to the boy is not representative of Claremont or New Hampshire,” Lapierre told Newsweek. “What happened to him is absolutely representative of Claremont, New Hampshire and the United States. Law enforcement and public officials need to acknowledge this as a hate crime. How can people of color feel safe living here if law enforcement is not acknowledging the lynching of an 8 year old as a hate crime?”
During the vigil, she claimed, a lone white man yelled out “white power!” and no one in the crowd seemed to say anything.
Chase, the police chief, said the town is not as racially harmonious as it may appear, which is, in part, why he went to the vigil on Tuesday. “Whenever there’s a single issue, it’s important to talk about it and address it,” he said. “But don’t revolve it around one incident; you need to talk about everything.”
Slattery said her grandson’s physical wounds are healing, but the impact of what happened is a lot for an 8-year-old boy to handle.
“Mentally, he’s not so well,” she said. “He does not want to believe that...[these boys] wanted to hurt him.”