When Jussie Smollett alleged he had been beaten up on a Chicago street at 2am, in the middle of a polar vortex, by two white supremacists yelling racist and homophobic slurs who poured bleach over him and placed a noose around his neck, many were sceptical.
They included a handful of local TV reporters and crime blog CWBChicago, who in turn appeared to be passing on leaks from Chicago police strongly suggesting that, behind the scenes, investigators doubted the story.
They did not include most of the national and international media, journalists, politicians, celebrities and activists who accepted Smollett’s claims, in many cases denouncing sceptics as “conspiracy theorists”.
More often than not, the word “alleged” was nowhere to be found in the reporting.
Smollett, who plays a gay singer on the Fox drama Empire, said the two men — one of whom was wearing a red hat — called him a “f****t”, “n****r” and yelled, “This is MAGA country!” during the alleged January 29 attack.
The actor’s story now appears to be falling apart, with reports police believe he paid two friends — Nigerian bodybuilding brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo — to stage the assault and even rehearsed it in the days prior.
Smollett’s lawyers have rejected those claims, saying he is “angered and devastated” by the allegations. Chicago police said on Sunday they were seeking a follow-up interview with Smollett after information gleaned from the brothers in a gruelling two-day interrogation “shifted” the focus of their investigation.
While no one has yet been charged, many conservatives have already used the incident to decry yet another “hate crime hoax”.
“It appears that Jussie Smollett tried to manufacture a hate crime to make Trump supporters look bad, and most of the media not only uncritically accepted his lies as facts for weeks but attacked those who questioned the validity of his false story,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter.
“The elephant in the room for media malfeasance discussions is that many reporters are simply not smart,” said Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist.
“They fall for hoaxes easily. Over and over and over again. They are obviously not well read. That this is combined with a completely unwarranted arrogance compounds the problem. They uncritically accepted ‘MAGA thugs roving Chicago, attacking celebrities’.”
Radio host Jesse Kelly joked, “The key to a good ‘victim’ hoax is starting small. Write something racist on your restaurant receipt. Draw a swastika on your own house (this is known as ‘The LeBron’). You gotta crawl before you can walk.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, groups including the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Anti-Defamation League — criticised by many conservatives as partisan political operations — reported a surge in hate crimes.
According to FBI statistics, hate crimes in America have been rising since 2016 but are still well below the all-time high in 2001 following the September 11 terror attacks.
While many reported hate crimes are genuine, others are conveniently difficult to pin on a suspect — racist graffiti, for example, is particularly common — or are self-reported with no corroborating evidence.
And then, of course, there are the large number of proven hoaxes, some of which are listed below. The vast majority of these cases were reported in national and international media at the time they first occurred, typically with some reference to the US president.
Naturally, they received much less attention when they turned out to be fake. In some instances the event never occurred as reported, while in others the culprit turned out to be the alleged victim.
The statistics become even more hazy when you take into account many of the perpetrators were charged with crimes. In at least three of the cases listed below, follow-up media reports either played down or omitted the ethnicity of the perpetrator of the “racist” graffiti.
Cases like these make conservatives naturally suspicious of reports such as Smollett’s and highlight why journalists should exercise caution when reporting on hate crimes — or at least remember to say “alleged”.
THE HOAX FILES
• In December 2018, 21-year-old black lacrosse player Fynn Ajani Arthur was arrested over a spate of racist graffiti around Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. The graffiti, which included swastikas, “KKK” and appeared to target four black students — including Arthur himself — sparked protests at the campus.
• In November 2018, 26-year-old James Polite, a black Democratic activist who had worked on city initiatives to combat hate crime, was arrested for scrawling “Kill All Jews” and “Hitler” inside a Brooklyn synagogue, less than a week after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
• In September 2018, 19-year-old Long Island woman Adwoa Lewis claimed to have been accosted by four teenagers who yelled “Trump 2016!”, slashed her car tyres and left a note reading “Go Home”. She was charged after admitting to making up the incident.
• In November 2017, a black Kansas State University student admitted to scrawling racist graffiti on his own car, including the words “Go Home”, “Date your own kind” and “Die”. Police said charging 21-year-old Dauntarius Williams with filing a false police report would “not be in the best interests of the citizens” of the local community.
• In September 2017, the US Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs made national headlines after five black cadet candidates found the words “go home n****r” scrawled outside their room. Two months later, the school revealed the perpetrator was one of the students allegedly targeted.
• In March 2017, Israeli police arrested a 19-year-old “hacker” over a series of bomb threats against Jewish community centres in America that raised concern about rising anti-Semitism. Michael Kadar was last year sentenced to 10 years in prison for the hoaxes.
• In December 2016, 18-year-old Muslim woman Yasmin Seweid claimed three drunk men on a New York subway yelled “Trump! Trump!” and called her a “terrorist” as they tried to steal her headscarf. She was later charged with filing a false police report.
• Earlier that month, 18-year-old Drake University student Kissie Ram was charged after allegedly faking a series of “racist notes” found around the Des Moines, Iowa campus. She was charged with filing a false police report in connection with one of the notes.
• Also in December 2016, a student at the University of Michigan told police she had been approached by a “white male” who “demanded she remove her hijab or he would set her on fire with a lighter”. Police cancelled the “ethnic intimidation” crime alert after determining the “incident did not occur”.
• In November 2016, a Muslim student at San Diego State University reported being assaulted and robbed by two men who made comments about president-elect Trump. Police scoured surveillance video but came up with no suspects. They later said her initial report of a stolen car was unfounded as she had forgotten where she parked. The case was dropped “because the victim no longer wants to co-operate”, a police spokesman said.
• Also in November 2016, an 18-year-old student at the University of Louisiana admitted she made up a story about being robbed by two men, one of whom was wearing a “Donald Trump” hat, who hit her, knocked her to the ground, yelled racial slurs and stole her wallet and hijab.
• Just before the US election, a black church in Mississippi was burned down and spray-painted with “Vote Trump”, in a crime widely reported as a “hate crime” tied to suspected “white supremacists”. Andrew McClinton, a 45-year-old African-American member of the church, was later charged with arson over the incident.
• The same month, days after the election, an Indiana church was vandalised with anti-gay, anti-Semitic slurs including a swastika and the words “Heil Trump”. The church’s organ player, 26-year-old gay man George Nathaniel Stang, later confessed to the crime, telling police he wanted to “mobilise a movement”.
• Around the same time, “openly bisexual” Chicago university student Taylor Volk claimed to have received hateful emails and notes taped to her door containing homophobic slurs and the words “Back to hell” and “#Trump”. North Park University later said the claims were “fabricated”.
• Still in November, an African-American woman’s viral Facebook post about a shocking racist encounter at a gas station also turned out to be fake. Ashley Boyer claimed she was accosted by “four caucasian males” who “proceeded to talk about the election and how they’re glad they won’t have to deal with a n****r much longer”, but police denied the story.
• In another post-election viral Facebook post, University of Minnesota student Kathy Mirah Tu said she was physically attacked by a “white male” who yelled at her to “go back to Asia” before police arrived and handcuffed her. Police said they had no record of such an incident.
• The night of the US election, filmmaker Chris Ball said he was attacked outside a Santa Monica bar by Trump supporters yelling, “We have a new president f****t.” Local police said they had “not received any information indicating this crime occurred”, but the 25-year-old insisted it was not a hoax.
• Also immediately after the election, racist graffiti reading “Trump Rules” and “Black Bitch” was spray-painted across storefronts, cars and homes on a South Philadelphia street. Two days later, 58-year-old African-American William Tucker was charged with vandalism and related offences.
• In September 2016, Eastern Michigan University was hit with racist graffiti, including the letters “KKK” and “leave n*****s”. More graffiti appeared over the next few months. A black former student, 29-year-old Eddie Curlin, was later charged over the incidents.
• In April 2016, an unnamed 20-year-old woman claimed she was walking down a Manhattan street wearing a headscarf when she was slashed in the face by man who called her a “f***ing terrorist”. She later told police she slashed her own cheek.
• In June 2015, racist flyers were left outside a predominantly black church in Colorado Springs, with references to the KKK and the words, “Black men beware, you are the target.” Police arrested 44-year-old Vincent Broughton, who is black, over the incident.