No one denies that Anthony Jackson saw a noose on an office desk while he was working at Fort Carson last winter. But his former co-workers say it was meaningless, a fun knot to tie that was never meant as a threat to anybody.
For Jackson, a 51-year-old who finished a 20-year Army career at Fort Carson and continued working there as a civilian employee, that explanation just doesn't hold water.
"Everybody and their mama knows what this represents to a black person," he says.
Jackson, who worked for four years as one of seven inspectors on Fort Carson's firing ranges, says the noose appeared in the post's range control department around the time President Barack Obama took office in January. In late February, he says, a maintenance supervisor who works in the same department held the noose up to him and said, "You don't want me to hang your ass."
The maintenance supervisor has denied in official documents ever saying that. But the noose is at the heart of a complaint Jackson filed in March with Fort Carson's Equal Employment Opportunity Office alleging he faced discrimination and a hostile environment while working as one of about 70 employees at range control.
Jackson had raised alarms in 2008 about having to work outside his job description, sometimes lifting heavy objects by himself, before he hurt his back in June that year. He argues the noose was part of a pattern of hostility and mistreatment aimed at getting him to quit. He's now on leave while his complaint is being reviewed.
The complaint is likely headed toward a lawsuit against the Army. The FBI has also been gathering information about the noose incident for a possible hate-crime investigation, according to Steve Smith, supervisory special agent in the Colorado Springs FBI office.
The noose, Jackson says, is just part of a broader pattern of uneven treatment for civilian employees at Fort Carson.
"This stuff has been going on for years," Jackson says. "They've got a huge problem out there."
Officials at Fort Carson declined to speak about Jackson's complaint, explaining the matter is still under review. But an internal assessment of the noose incident offers skepticism. A Fort Carson investigator summarizes what happened in a few paragraphs, seeming to cast the noose as part of a workplace dalliance.
Joan Maatta, an assistant in the office that runs Fort Carson's firing ranges, had seen that a maintenance supervisor at the range had tied one, and she asked him to teach her how.
Paging through a phone-book-sized report detailing his discrimination complaint and Fort Carson's assessment, Jackson reads the terse explanation of how that could happen: "Ms. Maatta does not have a military background; she desires to learn more of the military and what Range Control Personnel do."
Jackson's nose crinkles with disgust as he looks up from the page, booming, "We don't have no job with a noose that you hang people with."
Looking back at the report, he gets to the part where Everett Geery, the maintenance supervisor, gives the same explanation for the noose tutorials before denying he ever waved the knot at Jackson or said anything threatening. Maatta and other employees who were in the office also say they never heard Geery make a threat.
Jackson's not surprised.
"They're lying, sir," he says. "That's how they're trying to make it sound good."
James Cathcart, a welder who retired three years ago after 30-plus years as a civilian employee at Fort Carson, remembers Jackson being a good co-worker. In early 2006, Cathcart made target protectors out of armor-plated steel that Jackson and the other inspectors were asked to install at one of the ranges. Somehow, Cathcart says, the task fell to Jackson alone, and Cathcart cringed as he watched Jackson drive off with the bulky, 100-plus-pound lumps of metal.
"It was just too dangerous," Cathcart says, explaining why he later complained to management.
Jackson got help, but Cathcart says the incident was part of a pattern at range control.
"I believe there's been a certain amount of favorites," Cathcart says, with many supervisors still issuing orders like active-duty military.
Berneathia Myers worked with Jackson as a range inspector, the only woman on the seven-member crew. She says most would help each other out if one had a flat tire or something heavy to carry. Yet when she got a flat tire and couldn't get the lug nuts off, no one would help except Jackson, who later faced criticism.
"They told AJ, 'You should have let her do it herself,'" Myers says.
Amid feelings of double standards, Myers bristled at occasional off-color jokes. She finally transferred in December 2008 to a civil-service job in Kansas, and she's relieved to be away from range control: "It's only the good-old boys in those jobs."
Threat or not?
Maatta told post investigators she crochets and does embroidery. Learning to tie a noose, she said, was just an extension of her interest in knots.
Geery said he was inspired to tie a noose at work after watching a western movie at home.
All of which is unbelievable, in Jackson's view: "I truly believe they did this with the intent to make me quit."
Even if the noose was never intended as a threat, having one at work could still raise questions. Bruce DeBoskey, Mountain States regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, says it's impossible to separate a noose from a sordid history.
"Nooses are a frightening reminder of bigotry and hatred taken to violence and death," he says. "Other than in a museum, it's hard to imagine any circumstance where they would appropriately be displayed."