Mother of Claremont boy says son was injured in a 'lynching'

PHOTO: People stand together for an interfaith vigil at Broad Street Park in Claremont, N.H., Sep. 12, 2017.PlayBarry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
WATCH Mother: Son's near strangling 'attempted murder'

In this industrial hamlet of western New Hampshire, the unthinkable may have been unfolding. While playing just two blocks down from his home, Quincy, who is biracial, was nearly hanged from a tree, by a rope. His mother calls it an attack.

“I never would have -- in a million years would have thought that it would have come to my son, you know, nearly being lynched,” his mother, Cassandra Merlin told ABC News.

She took pictures of the wounds around the 8-year-old’s neck. Family members shared them on Facebook. They went viral, outraging the public and bringing national attention to Quincy’s case. Those details of his case -- a rope, a brown boy, a tree -- evocative of another time in American history where it was commonplace for African-Americans to be hung.

PHOTO: The Claremont Police Department in New Hampshire as well as other state agencies say they are investigating the report of an 8-year-old child who was injured on Aug. 28. Courtesy Cassandra Merlin
The Claremont Police Department in New Hampshire as well as other state agencies say they are investigating the report of an 8-year-old child who was injured on Aug. 28.

Merlin alleges that police were slow to respond and says they initially declared what happened an “accident”, criticism the Claremont Police dispute.

“I wasn't at the initial scene of it,” Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase said in an interview with ABC News. “I know that I was alerted to it within a short period of time where we made contact with the people in this investigation [and] started assigning the resources to further investigate it.”

It was just weeks before school started, on August 28, that the incident occurred. Merlin says that Quincy and his older sister, Ayanna were playing at a park with a group of older boys when an argument broke out. Merlin says her account of what happened came from what her children told her.

“They had thrown out some things that they're-- some racial slurs, and that obviously upset him and his sister, and so Quincy had decided, you know, just to move on with it, just to let it go,” Merlin said.

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They all met back up, heading to a house right down the road from Quincy’s, she says, and the boys continued to horse around, spotting a tire swing attached to the tree. One of the boys broke the swing off, she says, before all taking turns putting the rope around their necks. And then it was Quincy’s turn.

“They told him to tie the rope around his neck. And he got up on the table, and he tied it around his neck, and one of the older boys came from behind him and pushed him off of the picnic table,” she said. “My daughter started screaming and Quincy was, like, kicking his feet, and grabbing at his neck.”

Quincy clawed at the rope, eventually dropping to the ground, while the boys walked away, she alleged. Ayanna ran to get Merlin who saw the marks and called police. The boy was eventually airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he was treated for his injuries.

“It's always been an attempted murder in my eyes,” Merlin said. “Ayanna said that they had called him the n-word at one point in time and made more remarks about how they should be white.” As she saw how police were handling the case, Merlin became frustrated. At one point, Chase said of the juvenile suspects, “These people need to be protected. Mistakes they made as young children should not have to follow them for the rest of their life."

“Success in the juvenile system is those people that are involved in the juvenile system never being involved in the adult system,” Chase later told ABC News. “So that's -- that lone statement is in context with that general statement about the juvenile justice system. At no point was I ever talking specifically about the other juveniles that are involved in this.”

Merlin went where so many other flash-points begin: Facebook. In a nearly 20-minute Facebook-live post, filmed three weeks after the incident, Merlin detailed her son’s story, admonishing her town to remember that “Racism is still so alive.” From there, Quincy’s story took on a life of its own, #Claremont started trending, as people called for police and town officials to take action.

Chase maintains that the victim is always his primary concern, and the New Hampshire Department of Justice has joined the investigation into whether a hate crime occurred.

Now, the parents of one of the boys allegedly involved is speaking out. In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Rhianna Larkin and Eric Sullivan say that what happened to Quincy was child’s play gone horribly wrong. They say their son never pushed Quincy, but that he jumped up behind Quincy and scared him, and Quincy jumped off the table on his own in surprise.

According to Larkin, her son actually tried to help Quincy. “He said, 'I grabbed around his legs and at that time, the rope had come lose and I noticed he opened his eyes,' and then he was able to talk and stand. And [my son] said he couldn’t apologize enough." They’re also adamant that racism had nothing to do with it, noting that they have black people in their immediate family.

But, despite conflicting tales, some say that the imagery of a rope around a brown boy’s neck, especially in a town that is over 95 percent white shouldn’t be shrugged off.

“When you see something like this when you see a young person of color with a rope around their neck you can’t help but be reminded of all the tactics that were used to try to control the African American community,” said LZ Granderson, ABC News contributor and senior writer for “The Undefeated.”

Many on social media pointed out that, in a different time and a different place, Quincy’s headline perhaps wouldn’t have been all that uncommon. Back in the 1960s, as African-Americans fought for Civil Rights, groups like the Ku Klux Klan went on fiery rampages, burning crosses and hangings were their choice methods of terror.

Today, advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League say there’s been a surge in hate crimes around New England and across the country, especially since the election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were nearly 1,900 bias incidents from November to March -- nearly 16 percent of which are anti-black motivated and often involving a noose.

Merlin, who’s white, now fears for Quincy’s safety, recalling a conversation she had with him. “He always says to me, "You know, mom, what's-- what's different about me?" You know, and I always try to explain to him that it's not-- it's not you, it's just that some people are clearly rather ignorant.” She’s considered moving out of Claremont, but she says she knows that’s not the solution. “No matter where we go, this is something that's gonna follow, because it happens, and it's so real.” For families here in Claremont, it’s been a watershed moment.

“I believe this event happened in New England because racism exists across our country,” said Dr. Middleton McGoodwin, superintendent, of Claremont and Unity School Districts.

He’s had to grapple with how to address his students and their community. While he says that the boy who allegedly pushed Quincy isn't in the same district, this issue is still his responsibility. He sent out a message to parents throughout the district, meant to reassure them that the District condemned the incident, reminding them that, “Racism and hate are not a thing of the past.”

He says the school is looking at curriculum changes down the line and intends to foster conversation about inclusion.

“We as a society have some choices to make. Do we turn our back on it because it doesn't happen a lot?” he asks. “Or do we acknowledge that perhaps this is the tip of the iceberg?”

On Thursday, Sept. 21, members of the town gathered at a local church, for a conversation meant to allow for frank discussion on race, personal experiences, and privilege. In attendance was Merlin's mother, Lorrie Slattery, who was coming to grips with the fact that her privilege has shielded her from having to confront prejudice.

“There was a surprise and that was how much racism there was around that I was not familiar with. I had no idea. That was heartbreaking to hear. But I'm glad I heard it because that can help me help my children, help my grandchildren. And go from there,” Slattery said.

Margaret Hawthorn traveled from Rindge, NH. “I grew up in Pennsylvania, about 50 miles north of the Mason Dixon Line and history to me was taught that the good guys, the North won, and anything south of the Mason Dixon Line were the bad guys and it’s just not that cut and dry.”

Amy Cousins drove an hour from Marlow, NH with her own biracial children. She says that what happened to Quincy only confirms her own unfortunate reality. “This is nothing new to us as shocking as it is. You know, this is for some folks, this is something some people fear and live with every day,” Cousins said. “As well- liked as my children are, incidents have come where they've been called the n-word maybe in a joking way, that we don't take as a joke.”

Her daughter, Adia, 10, a bright girl with big, bouncy curls, says she saw herself in Quincy.

“I got really scared and I wanna feel safe but sometimes I just can't and it doesn't make me feel free even though America's a free place.”

Merlin, a white mom with brown kids, is now grappling with what she says is her own new normal. “Most days I just want to just break down and just kind of just let it all go. But I can't because I have to keep fighting the fight for them, you know? I can't show them that it's having an effect on me because I don't want them to ever think that I'm not strong enough, you know what I mean?”

But with the support of a big community, they are starting to heal. A GoFundMe for the family has raised more than $50,000 and have been invited to visit Quincy’s favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys, in October.

“It does also show Quincy that not everything is bad, that there's a lot of good in the world, and in this community as well,” Merlin said.

A small salve for a child whose scars may linger forever.