The Muslim college student was on the New York City subway when three men snatched her bag, reached for her hijab and called her a terrorist. A Houston sixth grader was kidnapped and robbed by a band of young white supremacists, one with an “I hate black people” tattoo on his arm. And on one of the coldest nights of the year in Chicago, Jussie Smollett, a black and gay actor, was attacked by two men who shouted “MAGA Country” and slipped a noose around his neck.
The three victims reported these horrific assaults to the police as hate crimes, all built on America’s race, religion and sexual identity fault lines. Except the police say the incidents never happened.
Mr. Smollett’s dramatic tale of a hate-fueled assault by Trump supporters last month was pure fiction, according to the Chicago police, a calculated stunt to generate publicity and a higher salary for his role on the show “Empire.” On Thursday, the actor was arrested on a felony charge of having filed a false police report.
Despite the headlines that have dominated the news cycle since, fake hate crime reports are uncommon.
Hoaxes are not tracked formally, but the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said that of an estimated 21,000 hate crime cases between 2016 and 2018, fewer than 50 reports were found to be false. The center believes that less than 1 percent of all reported hate crimes are false.
But such false reports can play an outsize role in undermining the credibility of real bias victims and anti-hate efforts. In the aftermath of Mr. Smollett’s arrest, one lawmaker has even promised to draft a bill increasing the penalty for filing false hate crime reports.
“Devastating is how I would describe this Smollett story, especially during this legislative season when some states are trying to pass hate crime reform bills,” said Brian Levin, a national hate crime expert and the California center’s director. “This has the potential to eclipse the real facts about hate crimes.”
In the six weeks after Donald J. Trump’s election, hate crime reports spiked to their highest number in more than a decade, according to the center. Mr. Levin, whose research draws from news media reports, counted nine false hate crime claims in this period, most detailing pro-Trump signs and symbolism.
Among those cases was the one in 2016 reported by Yasmin Seweid, 18, the young woman on the New York City subway who told the police that she was the victim of an anti-Islamic assault. She said the attackers yelled “Donald Trump.” But within weeks, Ms. Seweid admitted that she had made up the story, reportedly to cover for a night of drinking with friends. She was charged with filing a false report, a misdemeanor in New York State.
As with the Smollett case, the sensational elements of the story — a young Muslim woman cornered, harassed and followed — became fodder for the news media.
“These kinds of rare cases do damage, especially in the current hostile political environment,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They are seized upon and used to try to discredit legitimate anti-Muslim incidents or used to say there is no such thing as a hate crime.”
Mr. Hooper said his group received 2,000 to 3,000 bias reports annually before verification, and “less than a handful” were deemed false each year.
Cynthia Deitle spent more than 20 years as an F.B.I. special agent in the civil rights unit, focused on hate crimes and police brutality. As the director of programs and operations at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, she said the most common motivation behind the false hate crime reports that she had investigated was the desire for attention and sympathy.
“They felt that being labeled a ‘hate crime victim’ would be a positive result,” Ms. Deitle said. “The cases I examined took place in a workplace environment and at residences, and sometimes the allegation was made to draw attention away from a real negative aspect of the complainant’s life, like poor performance at work or school, or a feeling that the complainant was not getting the attention she or he deserved.”
In Mr. Smollett’s telling of the Chicago attack, he was leaving a Subway restaurant in the Streeterville neighborhood when two masked men attacked him around 2 a.m. He said they called him homophobic and racial slurs and slung a rope around his neck. Even by hate crime standards, the story of an assault on a celebrity seemed shocking, and garnered relentless attention.
But it wasn’t long before the story collapsed. Questions, inconsistencies and a lack of evidence chipped away at Mr. Smollett’s version of events. He steadfastly pushed back at doubters, even appearing on “Good Morning America,” where he passionately proclaimed his innocence and questioned why anyone would make up a hate crime. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this,” Mr. Smollett told Robin Roberts.
According to some experts, the motivation behind filing false hate crime reports may be more than just getting attention.
“As a community we have to say this is unacceptable, because it’s wrong and dangerous and puts others at risk,” said Kelly Champion, a clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in trauma and anxiety. And, she added, Mr. Smollett “may have been under so much stress that we don’t know about that this seemed like an effective solution” to his problems.
By the end of the week, the police had built their own narrative. They announced that Mr. Smollett had staged the assault, hiring two brothers for $3,500. They said he was also responsible for sending himself a threatening letter. Both acts were done to promote his career, they contend. The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Mr. Smollett’s legal team has denied the claims made by the police. “He wants nothing more than to clear his name,” said Jack Prior, one of his lawyers.
In the wake of the Smollett case, State Representative Nick Zerwas, a Minnesota Republican, said that he planned to introduce legislation this session increasing the penalty for falsely reporting a hate crime. The announcement was met with pushback from Democrats.
Representative Ryan Winkler, the Democratic majority leader, called Mr. Zerwas’s proposal “grandstanding on a high-profile news story.”
“If you were to pass a bill, you would create a chilling effect. If anything, people underreport these kinds of crimes,” Mr. Winkler said. “This idea is going in the opposite direction. We should be encouraging people to report.”
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