Nooses, Anger and No Answers: Inside the Uproar Over a Future Amazon Site
The discovery of multiple nooses has set off heated debates about the responsibility of companies and the ability of workers to speak their mind.,
The construction site for an Amazon warehouse in Windsor, Conn. It is due to open next spring.Credit…Yehyun Kim for The New York Times
WINDSOR, Conn. — The town of Windsor has developed a niche in the world of warehouses and manufacturing, taking advantage of wide open spaces and crisscrossing interstates in nearby Hartford. Walgreens has a large facility here, as does Dollar Tree.
So when Amazon approached the town last year with a proposal to add a large distribution center — adding up to 1,000 jobs — local officials considered it a great opportunity.
“There are other mayors and selectmen that would give their left arm to have Amazon in their town,” Mayor Donald Trinks said in a recent interview. “It was worthy of our attention and our support of the project.”
But instead of uplifting the community of nearly 30,000 people, more than a third of whom are Black, the development has sent the town up in arms.
On at least four separate occasions in the past three months, workers building the Amazon warehouse found ropes that looked like nooses at the construction site. Their discoveries have set off clashes involving Black workers, racial justice activists, town officials and the numerous companies involved, raising questions about the responsibility of out-of-town companies to be responsive to local concerns as well the ability of workers to challenge people in power.
The disagreements have spilled into coffee shops and bars, the local press and town hall meetings, generating coverage from national and international news organizations. A rally in the middle of town meant to promote unity turned instead into a shouting match between the mayor and a local activist, with protesters crying out, “Who hung the noose?” Another protest by racial justice activists is planned for Saturday.
The workers and activists say their concerns about the nooses are not being taken seriously enough by many officials and the companies, including Amazon, the developer and the construction firm tied to the project. And the workers say they worry that if they speak up more, they will face retribution.
Town officials, including the police chief and the mayor, say the nooses are a serious problem. But the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have not pinned down the culprits. And some officials say the problem has been blown out of proportion by activists and the news media because of the public’s fascination with Amazon.
Representatives for Amazon and the other companies involved say they have done everything they can, delaying construction twice, adding security and cameras at the site and putting up $100,000 in award money for anyone who can provide information about the nooses. Those are unusual steps, particularly for Amazon, which often avoids getting caught up in local affairs. The companies also say their power is somewhat limited, because there are dozens of subcontractors that have a hand in the project and are not under their direct control.
Adding to the turmoil is disagreement about even some of the most basic facts of the case, like how many nooses have been found. The N.A.A.C.P., which has held multiple news conferences in Windsor, says there were up to eight nooses. The police say two were actual nooses, while the six others were ropes with the kind of loop often used in construction projects.
“I don’t recall anything like this ever happening before,” Mr. Trinks said about his town. “I don’t know what the message is” that the perpetrators are trying to send, he said, “but it’s an offensive and disgusting statement.”
The site of the future Windsor Amazon fulfillment center — part of a huge building spree by the company — sits four miles from the center of town, near Interstate 91. It is surrounded by rolling farm fields with few buildings across the landscape, and is expected to serve the greater New York and Connecticut area.
As with many of its new warehouses, Amazon will not take ownership until the project is complete, which is expected next spring. Until then, the site is owned by Scannell Properties, a developer based in Indiana. Scannell has hired RC Andersen, a New Jersey company, to handle the construction, including hiring around three dozen subcontractors.
The steel frame of the building, which will end up standing five stories tall with 3.8 million square feet of space for Amazon goods, was rising by December.
The problems began a few months later. In late April, a local television reporter, acting on a tip, asked the town’s police chief whether his department would look into a noose found on the second floor of the rising building. The local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. was sent a similar tip as well as a photograph of the noose hanging.
By the time police officers arrived, the noose had already been taken down by the site’s safety team, said Donald Melanson, the Windsor chief of police.
Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the Connecticut chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who had spoken to several Black workers about the nooses, said workers had told him that they felt the noose was taken down in an attempt to prevent the public from learning about it.
Robert Andersen, the president and owner of RC Andersen, said that was never the intention.
“We immediately contacted the police,” Mr. Andersen said. “Then from that point forward, we followed their lead on whatever we should do.”
The worker concerns grew over the next couple of days, when they found five more ropes that the police said “could be interpreted as nooses.” But the outrage really escalated two weeks later — after many people thought the problems at the site had been addressed — when workers found a seventh noose-like rope hanging from a beam.
It was “the discovery that drew the ear of many, many others that this had happened,” Chief Melanson said in an interview.
The N.A.A.C.P. held a news conference at the construction site the next day, on May 20, calling the acts “hate crimes.” The group said Amazon needed to do a better job of answering questions about what was happening at the site.
Carlos Best, a Black worker who had worked on the project until January, said during the news conference that racism at the site extended beyond the nooses. He had “personally heard racial remarks made toward my people, and other races as well,” he added. “It was a daily thing.”
Despite all the attention, workers reported an eighth noose a week later.
By that point, Amazon and Scannell had added security measures and said they were committed to holding the perpetrators accountable.
But many activists said this wasn’t enough. Keren Prescott and the Rev. Cornell Lewis, local community organizers who started groups called PowerUp CT and the Self Defense Brigade to advocate social justice, organized several demonstrations to demand that Amazon take stronger action to ensure the safety of Black construction workers. At one demonstration, Mr. Lewis, along with members from the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and the New Black Panthers showed up at the construction site, some of them carrying guns. Mr. Lewis said the activists were there to defend the Black workers and make them feel empowered to speak their mind.
Their anger intensified when the police made a startling statement: The department believed only two of the eight ropes were actually nooses — the first one they had investigated, and the last one.
Chief Melanson said a hangman’s noose has “a very specific knot” that tightens and “is made to withstand the strength of a human body.” He said the other ropes had a loop tied on the end that is used on construction sites for “many different reasons, like lashing down equipment.”
Ms. Prescott, the community organizer, said the police’s conclusion was “the biggest slap in the face.”
“Don’t make it seem as if Black people don’t work in construction,” Ms. Prescott said. “We know what typical knots and cables look like.”
Other local residents have also voiced their opposition to how the episodes at the construction site were being handled.
The nooses symbolize “one of the most detrimental issues to Black people in the United States,” Leroy Smith, a Windsor resident, said at one Town Council meeting. “To bring up that reminder, and to have this going on in 2021, is totally unjustifiable.”
Chief Melanson said that hundreds of people had been interviewed and that the department was still following leads. But he said the nooses, while serious symbols of hate, didn’t leave anyone physically harmed.
“Racism anywhere is wrong,” Chief Melanson said. “But I think it’s important to realize that there’s many other things where people are killed, and people shot, you know, with real victims.”
He added: “There’s a lot of people trying to do the right thing here, and blame needs to be placed on the people who hung the noose, not the people who are trying to stop it.”
Amazon, which has met several times with the N.A.A.C.P., said it would continue to provide enhanced security and free counseling for workers at the site.
“Hate, racism or discrimination have no place in our society and are certainly not tolerated by Amazon,” said Kelly Nantel, a company spokeswoman.
Mr. Lewis, however, is not satisfied. He said that he, Ms. Prescott and other activists had asked repeatedly for a meeting with Amazon and its construction partners, and that they had yet to secure one.
If they do not get a meeting, Mr. Lewis said he and other activists would occupy the construction site.
“They need to know we’re serious,” he said.