A Black man's report of an assault by white men in an Indiana state park has triggered an FBI investigation. Vauhxx Booker, an activist and member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission, says the men beat him and threatened him with a noose. The confrontation was partly recorded on video by witnesses whom Booker credits with saving him.
"The reason why I'm here today is simply because these folks, they didn't just stop and watch and film my execution," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in an interview on All Things Considered. "They became involved. They became active participants. They put themselves in danger when they stepped forward for me."
The incident took place on the Fourth of July as Booker and some friends were joining a group to watch the lunar eclipse at Lake Monroe near Bloomington. Their plan was to meet on Indiana state park land.
But as Booker and others made their way to the spot, a white man stopped them, saying they were crossing private land. They apologized for any intrusion, he said, and continued to the lake. Booker says the organizer of the event then told him that the man did not actually own the nearby property Booker's group had used to access the park. And then there was another encounter.
"We later found out that these individuals had blocked off the public beach-way with a boat and their ATVs claiming that it was also their land," Booker wrote on Facebook. "When folks tried to cross they yelled, 'white power' at them."
Booker and others went to talk to the men, but he says the conversation quickly devolved. As Booker was walking away, one man — then another, and another, he says — set upon him.
That's when the men dragged Booker to the tree, he says, adding that at one point, one of the men jumped on his neck.
Booker posted videos and his account on Facebook — a post that has been shared hundreds of thousands of times. In it, Booker said he feared he was about to be lynched after the group of white men tackled him and held him down next to a tree.
Several times, Booker says, he heard someone saying "get a noose."
As the videos show, a commotion ensued.
"People started screaming and shouting for them to let me go," Booker says. "There was a point when I'm on the ground, and I can feel them kicking me, and I'm struggling to breathe, that I hear a woman in the crowd yell out, 'Don't kill him.' And in that second, I realize that she's talking about me: Don't kill me."
In that moment, Booker says, he couldn't help but think of scenes from recent years, in which Black people have died while witnesses yelled for the violence to stop.
"I saw the face of George Floyd in my mind," he says. He later adds, "I didn't want to be a hashtag."
The white men holding Booker eventually let him go. He says a doctor later diagnosed him with a minor concussion and other injuries.
Booker and his group reported the incident to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources — and he says he is outraged that officers filed a report rather than make any arrests, despite videos and witnesses' statements.
"There's no reason that in the year 2020 that a group of white men should be able to accost anyone, let alone hold down a Black man, beat him and call for a noose. Not a rope — a noose," he says.
Booker says the DNR officers seemed preoccupied by the question of whether he and his group had trespassed on private property, despite attempts to assure them that the men in question did not own the adjacent land.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources says its Law Enforcement Division "is working diligently with the Monroe County Prosecutor's Office to ensure a lawful resolution" and that the case is still under investigation.
In fact, there are now two investigations — one local and one at the federal level.
"The FBI has opened an investigation into the attack on Vauhxx as a hate crime," Booker's attorney, Katherine Liell, wrote in an update on Facebook. "We welcome this inquiry and feel we are one step closer to justice."
"Yes, the FBI is investigating the incident," FBI Public Affairs Officer Chris Bavender told NPR. She added, "DNR is still the lead agency on the local investigation."
A representative for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Indiana confirms that the office is "aware of the incident" and is monitoring the situation.
By sharing his story, Booker says, he wants to help people understand that hate still exists in America. He also wants more people to actively engage in solving that problem. And he's grateful to the witnesses who stepped up for him.
"Even while in the video you can see that they were being assaulted, they were still pushing forward, they were still screaming," he says. They were still putting themselves in danger for someone they didn't know, someone that didn't look like them. And I want this to be the moment that changes how America engages."