The city took down a Halloween display that some residents said evoked lynching. It sparked a wider conversation about Halloween decorations.

Maia Spoto, Print Managing Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of lynching.

When resident and Evanston Live TV founder Meleika Gardner saw the Halloween display in person, her back clenched in pain. 

Gardner, a community journalist, received a photo tip from a source earlier that day: at least two blow-up bodies wrapped in black plastic were hanging by chains from trees near a park where children play. Gardner, who posted the images to Facebook Wednesday, said she instantly thought of Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” a protest song that likens the bodies of publicly lynched Black people to fruit hanging from trees.

“It sends chills up my spine to see something hanging up a tree that’s supposed to be a human,” Gardner said. “Immediately, that takes me to the trauma of generations and generations.”

Black horror scholars strongly discourage people from decorating with nooses and other hanging objects, because hanging is associated with a history of racist terror in the United States. Pushback against hanging Halloween decorations has unfurled on a national scale for years. In Evanston, some residents are banding together to push for stronger regulations on decor for the holiday. 

“The city should think about banning the display of human bodies swinging from a tree, whether from their feet or their neck,” Gardner said. “I’ve seen some crazy displays that are pretty disturbing, but that has deep symbolic meaning.” 

By the time Gardner arrived at the parkway to look for herself, the bodies lay on the ground in a resident’s front yard. After knocking on the door to no response, municipal employees took them down from the parkway trees and moved them to the resident’s property, according to Patrick Deignan, the city’s communications manager. The employees also removed a neighbor’s parkway tree display that Gardner said featured severed hands and legs. 

In this specific situation, the display qualified for removal because it was hanging from public parkway trees, Deignan wrote in an email to The Daily. A city ordinance prohibits residents from hanging items on those trees. When the city responds to a violation of the ordinance, Deignan said employees usually return the property to the resident.

On private property, however, “(displays) would have to violate a city ordinance or law to be removed,” Deignan told Evanston RoundTable. 

Prior to the display’s removal that day, Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) called resident Angela Dunteman to let her know residents had expressed concern about the display and to inform her of the city ordinance. He didn’t specifically ask her to remove the display, Dunteman said. Dunteman was at work when she took the call, and nobody was home to take down the display. 

Dunteman said she hung up the display a couple of weeks ago “strictly with Halloween goggles on.” She said she’s upset the display caused harm. 

“(The intent of the display was) to do something different and scary for Halloween,” said Dunteman, whose family celebrates Halloween avidly every year. “Clearly, that was not a good idea.” 

Evanston establishes guidelines for Halloween annually. This year’s list sets up, for example, official Trick-or-Treat hours (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) and COVID-19 safety measures (including social distancing and cloth mask use). None of the guidelines address public-facing decorations. 

Resident Heidi Randhava, who also writes for the RoundTable, said the city should at the very least instruct residents not to hang false bodies from trees within those guidelines.

Randhava has lived in Evanston for more than three decades and said she’s seen a handful of similar decorations every year. She worries especially about the impact horror decorations have on young children. 

“A neighborhood is not a haunted house,” Randhava said. “In a haunted house, you get a warning. In a neighborhood, you don’t have that option.” 

Randhava encouraged residents to speak in favor of stronger Halloween guidelines at Monday’s City Council meeting. 

Gardner added there’s power in numbers. And she’s tired of public displays in Evanston augmenting the generational trauma of racism. 

“You have some people saying on Facebook, ‘Geez Louise, it’s Halloween. It’s just decorations, and people are oversensitive,’” Gardner said. “For you to say that, you’re not sensitive enough.” 

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Twitter: @maia_spoto