USA Justice First Look

Chicago beating: Prosecutors file hate crime charges in 'sickening' attack streamed via Facebook

Chicago police filed charges Thursday against four young adults accused of beating a young man with mental health issues, an attack broadcast via Facebook Live.

This image posted on the Chicago Police Department's Twitter page shows a frame from a video that was broadcast live on Facebook in which a man is assaulted. The video shows the man with his mouth taped shut, as a woman and other people cut off his shirt and hair with a knife, and someone pushes his head with his or her foot. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Wednesday that the victim has mental health challenges, and he called the video 'sickening.'
Chicago Police Department/AP
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[Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time on Jan. 5, 2017.]

Prosecutors filed hate crime charges Thursday against four young adults taken into custody in Chicago after a man with special needs was bound and beaten in an attack the assailants broadcast online via Facebook Live.

In the video, the attackers are heard making "terrible racist statements" toward the white victim and using profanities against President-elect Donald Trump, as Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told the Associated Press. But authorities believe the man was targeted on account of his cognitive disabilities, not his race, he added.

"It makes you wonder what would make individuals treat somebody like that," Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said. Noting that the victim has "mental health challenges," he called the assault "sickening."

The specifics of this investigation have only just begun to trickle out to the public, but the case's impact is reverberating already across the United States, as a flood of post-election hate-incident reports seem to suggest racial tensions are particularly fraught. Racial and religious minority groups, especially, have reported high numbers of hate crimes, even before the election.

In considering whether to bring hate crime charges in this case, prosecutors had to weigh whether the racial remarks made in the video were "sincere or just stupid ranting and raving," Chicago police Cmdr. Kevin Duffin said prior to the charges being filed.

Investigators said they believe the victim was with his attackers for 24 to 48 hours before authorities found him Monday walking the streets on the city's West Side in distress. The victim, from a Chicago suburb, is believed to have been a classmate of one of the suspects, and he may have left with his attackers voluntarily.

Portions of the video re-broadcast by Chicago and national media outlets show the victim cowering in a corner with his mouth taped shut. A wound is visible on his head, and his hands appear to be bound with a red band as at least two people cut his sweatshirt with a knife and others off-camera taunt him.

In addition to hate crimes, the four defendants are charged with kidnapping, aggravated battery, and aggravated unlawful restraint. Three face a burglary charge as well.

On Thursday, prosecutors in Cook County identified the suspects, all of whom are black, as Jordan Hill of Carpentersville, Brittany Covington of Chicago, Tesfaye Cooper of Chicago, and Tanishia Covington of Chicago.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest – who had not yet spoken to President Obama about the incident in the outgoing head-of-state’s hometown – said the attack demonstrated "a level of depravity that is an outrage to a lot of Americans."

Some have expressed outrage at the incident on social media with the hashtag #BLMKidnapping, which appears to be suggesting that the alleged kidnapping and assault were carried out by individuals associated with the Black Lives Matter movement – an association that prominent members of the group have sharply denounced as unwarranted.

This is not the first time Facebook's relatively young live-video feature has made headlines highlighting US racial tensions. Perhaps most notably, the platform was used last summer to document the shooting death of black motorist Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer.

"Live video allows us to see what's happening in the world as it happens. Just as it gives us a window into the best moments in people’s lives, it can also let us bear witness to the worst," Facebook wrote in a blog post following Mr. Castile's death.

Facebook then clarified its guidelines, which prohibit violent or graphic content, unless it serves a higher purpose. Videos glorifying violence – such as the attackers' documentation of their own misdeeds – would be impermissible and removed, while other videos depicting violent events – such as Castile's death – could be allowed to remain.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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