CLAREMONT, N.H. — Scores of people gathered at a city park here Tuesday evening to show support for the family of an 8-year-old biracial boy who, according to his family, was taunted by a group of teenagers with racial slurs and hanged with a rope around his neck.
For more than an hour, people from throughout New England prayed, sang, and talked not just about what happened in a backyard here in late August, but also about how to combat institutional racism in their community.
“We’re gathering to recognize that we have . . . a mountain of work to do to deal with racism in our community and virtually every community in America,” said Rebecca MacKenzie, a Claremont resident who helped organize the event.
The hanging incident became public after family members shared photos of the boy’s neck on Facebook last week. Lorrie Slattery, the boy’s grandmother, said that police initially told her daughter, the boy’s mother, that the incident was an accident, and that there was nothing that could be done.
“That’s their words,” Slattery told the Globe Tuesday. “They said that. It was after the fact, after the media, after Facebook and all that they decided they were going to investigate.”
Local police and the state attorney general’s office this week said they are investigating whether the incident was a hate crime. Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase said that his department is conducting a thorough investigation with support from county and state prosecutors and that a charging decision will be made “in the very near future.”
He said his department always viewed the allegations as important and put resources on it right away.
In an interview, Chase said state law prohibits him from discussing specifics of the case because the parties involved are juveniles. He said his officers are investigating the matter and that allegations of bias-related crimes are always reviewed “to the fullest extent of the law.”
In a statement, City Manager Ryan McNutt wrote that his city of approximately 13,000 residents “does not condone racism in any form.”
“The incident on August 28th involves minors and NH law restricts what we can say,” McNutt wrote. “Social media does not face the same restrictions, nor does it have to report accurately.”
The boy’s family had said in social media postings that a group of teenagers were in a backyard with the child when some of them grabbed a rope that held a tire swing. Somehow, the family said, the rope got around the child’s neck. The Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., first reported on the incident.
On Tuesday, Slattery said she was told that the group was standing on a picnic table. Slattery alleges that her grandson was pushed off the table with the rope around his neck. He never lost consciousness, she said, but the skin on his neck was burned by the rope and it swelled that evening after he was taken by medflight to a nearby hospital. Next week is his 9th birthday.
“He shouldn’t be here after what happened,” Slattery said. “He could’ve died.”
Slattery said the boy’s neck is now mostly healed.
“It looks wonderful right now,” Slattery said of the boy’s wounds.
She said her family would like to see the teens involved have a chance to learn from the incident, rather than simply be punished.
“It’s really about trying to understand,” Slattery said. “He was taught this racism by somebody.”
Chase, in an interview Tuesday, spoke generally about investigations and said that in any case, his officers attempt to identify and locate witnesses to conduct interviews, secure any physical evidence, and document the crime scene.
He did not answer directly when asked whether any family members of the juveniles have refused to cooperate.
“I would answer that by saying I have faith that the investigators have done their due diligence,” Chase said.
He said he did not immediately have statistics available on the number of prior bias cases reviewed in Claremont, but he said his department reports all such incidents to an FBI database. “I believe the number would be very low,” Chase said.
He was also asked whether he felt his city was safe for racial, religious, and sexual minorities.
“I believe it is,” Chase said. “With that being said, we are not immune to anything going on in the rest of the country.”
Citing reports of recent incidents such as the violent unrest in Charlottesville, Va., Chase said, “I’m not going to stand on a pedestal and say it cannot happen in Claremont. It certainly can.”
Many people interviewed in town did not want to give their names. One woman said the community is hurting over the news; a man said he didn’t think anyone cared.
Bethany Owens, a hairdresser in Claremont and the mother of two biracial children, said her sons are friends with the 8-year-old, but she hasn’t talked to her sons about the details of what happened.
“Whether it was race-related or not, that’s just a sick thing to do to anyone,” Owens said.
Fran Brokaw, a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Upper Valley Vermont & New Hampshire, a group that helped organize Tuesday’s community meeting, said Monday that the city must heal.
“We need to have a frank discussion about what racism is, how it’s perpetuated, and how we can fight against it,” Brokaw said.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, called the incident “concerning” and said police should treat it as a hate crime.
“We are urging the Claremont Police Department to conduct a robust and transparent public investigation that will hold the responsible racist parties accountable for attacking and injuring a child based on his race,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
An earlier version of this story misstated which family member made the initial Facebook post about the boy’s injuries.