A tale of two hate crimes: a hoax unraveled and a plot foiled

Why We Wrote This

Two arrests last week – of Christopher Hasson and Jussie Smollett – had our reporter examining both hate crime and hoax statistics. Both the plot and the hoax, criminologists say, arose in an atmosphere of growing distrust of “others.”

Gene J. Puskar/AP
A group holds a sign during a memorial vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A shooter opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding others, including several police officers, Oct. 27, 2018. Even before the shooting, anti-Semitic hate crimes had jumped 37 percent in 2017, the FBI reported.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

The arrest of actor Jussie Smollett, who police say perpetrated a hoax that played on anti-Trump sentiments, came a day after the arrest of a US Coast Guard officer who prosecutors say was a white supremacist would-be assassin. Christopher Hasson, prosecutors say, amassed a stockpile of weapons, alongside a hit list of politicians – including the speaker of the House and several senators – and TV journalists verbally targeted by President Trump.

For conservative critics, the Smollett hoax raised deeper questions about whether leftist partisans are too quick to believe anything negative about Trump supporters. But criminologists say a hoax should not be used to dismiss the atmosphere that prosecutors say Mr. Smollett sought to manipulate. Hate crimes increased for the third year in a row in 2017 – up 17 percent, according to an FBI report released in November.

“Both hate crimes and hate crime hoaxes come from the same well of anger and dissonance,” says Wilfred Reilly, author of “Hate Crime Hoax.” “To want to kill another person, there needs to be a lot of hate and anger. But in the same way, to pretend that you were attacked by white men, there has to be a fair amount of hate and anger.”

Wilfred Reilly is a political science professor at Kentucky State University, a historically black university in Frankfort.

But at heart, he is, as he says, “a regular dude from Chicago.”

As such, he can feel concern about a rise in right-wing extremism and warnings from hate trackers that unscripted angry presidential rhetoric could lead to violence against minorities. But to him, at least, hate has become far more egalitarian than that.

“When I go to the gun range, there’s a whole selection of targets you can buy: There’s Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman; there’s the redneck racist looking guy with a beer belly and the black urban thug in a ski mask,” says Professor Reilly, an African-American and author of the just-released book, “Hate Crime Hoax.”

The symbolism of those gun range targets really struck Reilly as he pondered last week’s events: the arrest of a gay black actor in Chicago who police say perpetrated a hoax that played on anti-Trump sentiments. The arrest of Jussie Smollett came a day after the arrest of a US Coast Guard officer who prosecutors say was a white supremacist would-be assassin. Christopher Hasson, prosecutors say, amassed a stockpile of weapons in Silver Spring, Md., alongside a hit list of politicians – including the speaker of the House and several senators – and TV journalists verbally targeted by President Trump.

“Both hate crimes and hate crime hoaxes come from the same well of anger and dissonance,” says Reilly. “To want to kill another person, there needs to be a lot of hate and anger. But in the same way, to pretend that you were attacked by white men, there has to be a fair amount of hate and anger.”

The hoax allegedly perpetrated by the “Empire” actor wasn't just shocking, for many it confirmed perceptions of how gullible the mainstream press can be. For conservative critics, the Smollett hoax raised deeper questions about whether leftist partisans are too quick to believe anything negative about Trump supporters.

But criminologists say a hoax should not be used to dismiss the atmosphere that prosecutors say Mr. Smollett sought to manipulate. Hate crimes increased for the third year in a row in 2017 – up 17 percent, according to an FBI report released in November. Some 60 percent of victims were targeted because of their race or ethnicity, and the largest increase was in anti-Semitic crimes, which jumped 37 percent in one year.

Seen that way, the hoax and the plot each became “a cudgel that political pundits have used to sling anecdotes at each other [and] where actual national security and criminological findings are drowned out,” says Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, in an email. That comes, he adds, “at an inflection point where the risks [posed by] political violence have shifted.”

It is worth noting that law enforcement got their suspects in both cases. And as Reilly notes: “There is no epidemic of people just attacking their fellow Americans.”

But both the hoax and plot can be seen as sides of the same coin, minted in a country increasingly separated by ideas and values, bonded, it sometimes seems, only by a growing distrust.

How many hoaxes?

To many Americans, the Smollett case highlighted a different, but equally uncomfortable truth: that hate can inspire false reporting, which in turn can be deeply damaging to trust and law-enforcement resources. The Smollett case occupied the time of 11 detectives in a city with a low murder clearance rate.

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Time/AP
‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett (c.) leaves Cook County jail following his release, Feb. 21, in Chicago. Mr. Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct and filling a false police report when he said he was attacked by two men who hurled racist and antigay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, a police official said.

But Professor Levin says he counted just 49 fake reports between 2016 and 2018, making such reports less than 1 percent of an estimated 20,000 total hate crimes reported over the same period. “We also found an increase in hate homicides [in 2018] and an increase in far-right and white nationalist incidents, separate from hate crime data,” Levin adds. “What we found has been a collapse in violent jihadist plots and homicides and an increase in far-right and white nationalist plots and homicides.”

“What is so dreadful and fascinating is how the Smollett case has not become a springboard for understanding about the actual prevalence of the minuscule number of false reports and the rise of hate crimes and violent extremism, particularly by white nationalist and related extremists,” says Levin.

In his book, Reilly says he counted 409 confirmed race-based hoaxes over a five-year period – about 1.5 percent of reports – suggesting to him a more significant prevalence of false reporting, and a more nuanced story.

The White House has vehemently defended the president against accusations that he is tacitly encouraging attacks, saying he has been quick, if not the first, to condemn hateful acts. Mr. Trump called Smollett’s alleged hoax “dangerous” and “racist,” while noting Hasson’s plot was “a shame.”

At the same time, a Southern Poverty Law Center hate crime report released last week suggests that far-right extremist groups have grown by 50 percent just in the past year, in part out of frustration with the president’s failure to build the promised border wall. That campaign promise deals with border security, but has also been seen as a powerful symbol by groups determined to keep the US a white majority country.

‘How we perceive threats’

According to former FBI agent Michael German, who infiltrated white extremist groups after the Oklahoma City bombing, law enforcement has been slow to shift resources, concentrating only a fraction of the $2.8 trillion spent to counter terror from 2002 to 2017 on right-wing extremists. Meanwhile, the bulk of counterterrorism efforts are aimed at threats from overseas, such as Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Between 2008 and 2017, domestic extremists killed 387 people in the United States, according to a 2018 Anti-Defamation League report, while Islamist extremists killed 100. From 2007 to 2011, there were five or fewer attacks by right-wing extremists per year. In 2017, there were 31.

Take one week this past fall: In the span of seven days, Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man who lived in a van plastered with pro-Trump propaganda, is alleged to have sent a series of pipe bombs to Trump’s critics, none of which detonated. Two days after the first pipe bomb was reported, a Kentucky man tried to break into a black church and then killed two elderly black people outside a Kroger, telling an armed white man who confronted him that “whites don’t kill whites.” A few days later, a white nationalist in Pennsylvania killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and injured many others, including police officers.

“A big part of this gets to our base human nature regarding how we perceive threats and how we identify the ‘other’ in a white-majority country where the political class doesn’t see white people as the enemy,” says Mr. German. “Part of the reason that the government doesn’t fear far-right extremism is that it’s reactionary and tends to reinforce existing political, social, and economic inequities that the establishment has created. That’s why the government tends to be more concerned about Black Lives Matter than it does neo-Nazi skinheads going out and engaging in hate crimes.”

For example, a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report that accurately predicted a rise in attacks by far-right extremists – including, like Hasson, military veterans – was withdrawn after Republicans like former House Speaker John Boehner called it offensive. Last year, the FBI issued a report warning of a rise in violent black extremism, even though African-Americans and Jews are far more likely to be targeted by violent extremists.

“I don’t think we are in a very good place at all,” says Daryl Johnson, the former lead domestic terrorism intelligence expert who authored that 2009 report. “Local and federal law enforcement do a good job when they can, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who subscribe to antigovernment and racist extremism, and any one of these people are on the path to radicalization. They exploit and hide behind our constitutional rights.”

For his part, Mr. Johnson, now the head of DT Analytics and author of “Rightwing Resurgence,” has spent decades trying to understand those wellsprings of hate.

While institutions like the FBI work to contain the threat, the most important thing Americans can do, says Johnson, is to spend more time listening to the other side – not just to understand their ideology, but to extend a sense of humanity.

“I have learned in my own life that we need to engage a lot of these people instead of ostracize them and shun them,” says Johnson. “When you do that, they are left to their own devices and become even more radicalized. When we reintegrate them back into our own families, we are at least giving them ... a sense of belonging. We can, in fact, combat the hate for government [and other people] with love and compassion.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.