Why Do People Fake Hate Crimes?
Donald Trump's election unleashed a wave of (very real) hate across America, but some people are still inventing violent crimes of prejudice. What gives?
Photo by William Foley/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
The young black woman was found in a plastic trash bag, apparently unconscious and smeared with feces after going missing for four days. Emergency personnel discovered slurs and "KKK" scrawled on her body. The traumatized 15-year-old could barely speak, but managed to convey that she'd been abducted and raped by a group of white men who had kept her out in the woods in freezing temperatures. Reverend Al Sharpton made his name nationally as Tawana Brawley's champion, charging that a Dutchess County assistant district attorney was one of the rapists. The 1987 case divided America racially in a way that previewed the OJ Simpson trial.
Except it wasn't true—not a word of it. A rape kit showed no signs of sexual assault. Brawley had no major abrasions, hypothermia, or burns. The feces were from her neighbor's dog; the slurs were written upside down, as if she were looking down as she wrote. A grand jury declined to indict anyone, and a civil jury later awarded damages to the falsely charged ADA.
Each year the fakes can be counted fairly easily, while real hate crimes number in the thousands.
So why did Brawley do it? And perhaps more relevant as we hurtle toward Donald Trump's inauguration as president of the United States, what about the bogus reports we're seeing now? Just since the election, two young women have been accused by police of falsely reporting men ripped the hijabs off their heads—one a college student in New York City, another at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. Why would anyone put themselves into the media maelstrom in such a way, performing their own stigmatization and undermining everyone who reports a genuine hate crime?
I've wondered about this over the years, as fake hate crimes surface from time to time. Of course, before exploring the fakers, it's worth emphasizing that actual hate crimes outnumber false claims by an astonishing margin. Each year the fakes can be counted fairly easily, while real hate crimes number in the thousands. The imbalance is so large that I haven't yet discovered a social scientist who researches the fakes, and although I contacted more than a dozen experts while writing this story—mostly people who focus on hate crime—only two were willing to talk about such a loaded and comparatively rare phenomenon.
Still, the fakers keep coming. The first fake hate crime to stun me personally came back in 1992, during a wrenching antigay referendum campaign in Oregon. Ballot Measure 9 would have defined being gay as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse," essentially equivalent to pedophilia. At least one church that opposed it was spray-painted with slurs. A documentary revealed that a pro-LGBT organizer's car was tampered with in ways that meant danger on mountainous roads. Police responded to a spate of arson, vandalism, and death threats. And a pair of roommates—a black lesbian and a white gay man—died after skinheads firebombed their apartment, although it wasn't clear whether the attack was trained at their race or sexual orientation or both.
Amidst that campaign, a 40-year-old black lesbian named Azalea Cooley reported being harassed in nonstop fashion: swastikas and racial slurs spray-painted on her house, threatening letters, burning crosses, and even a black plastic doll on her front porch with a .38-caliber bullet in its forehead. All of which, police eventually discovered, she had done herself.
"For the same reason that people lie about anything," Dr. Robert S. Feldman tells me. He's a professor of psychology who specializes in lying and deception, and deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "There's some benefit," he adds.
What possible benefit could there be? An alibi, for some—Tawana Brawley was reportedly afraid of being beaten by her mother's boyfriend for staying out late and not coming home for days. Which is to say she may have staged the hate crime to avoid being punished. "It boomed much further out of control than she expected. Now she's got Al Sharpton in the door, uh oh," recalls James Mulvaney, an adjunct professor at John Jay College's Department of Law and Police Science and former deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights, where he investigated hate crimes.
The New York City college student who said that three men ripped off her hijab on the subway was also apparently in trouble at home: As punishment for having a boyfriend, her parents had reportedly shaved her head. As a parent of a teen and a former teen myself, it's easy to imagine young people being shocked when not just their parents but law enforcement and the news media take an alleged crime seriously enough to try to establish what actually happened.
Still other fakers are likely lonely people with real emotional problems who may stage a hate crime, Feldman says, "to gain sympathy from other people. People go out of their way to do positive things for you," when you're a victim of a crime like that. Azalea Cooley became the center of potlucks, prayer vigils, and a rally against hate, before police—growing suspicious over a period of weeks—secretly videotaped her putting out that doll herself. Facing the evidence, Cooley confessed that she was also faking brain cancer and didn't need a wheelchair. Hers was a kind of hate-crime Munchausen's syndrome, taking advantage not of medical resources but of the community's well of kindness, support, friendship. One subset of these fakers carve slurs into their own bodies, putting self-hatred on stunning display.
These frauds are violations of community trust that shock the conscience.
Still others who falsely cry "hate crime" really are suffering harassment—but embellish so officials will listen. When investigating hate crimes, Mulvaney sometimes found people complaining about police inattention when they'd been taunted and harassed in a way that didn't violate any actual statutes. "Was it annoying or hateful? Yes, but that's not a crime," he explained. "Hate crime is a crime of bias, but it's a crime first." To get official attention, someone being harassed needs only add a dash of assault.
The worst fake hate crimes, though, are the ones claimed by people who are criminals themselves. Just this month in Volusia County, Florida, Vincent Palmer set his ex-girlfriend's car on fire—after taping a note that read "KKK" and "Trump" to her mailbox. And in 2010, a lesbian couple in Tennessee accused a neighbor of setting their house on fire and spray-painting "queers" on the freestanding garage. A jury found they had actually set the fire themselves for the insurance money.
These frauds are violations of community trust that shock the conscience. "If you start with a crime that's often of incomprehensible motivation, it makes it that much more difficult to question the credibility of the victim," Mulvaney says. "When they turn out to be hoaxes, it's upsetting."
Watch the VICE News short where leaders of vandalized mosques respond to Trump's election win.
Should we feel gullible when we believe such reports? No, according to Feldman. "We just assume people are telling us the truth because it's much easier to live our lives thinking that," he says. That's especially true when, like "fake news," the lie supports our own beliefs about the world, which social scientists call confirmation bias. Feldman continues, "Right now many anti-Trump people are ready to believe that the incidence of hate crimes is going up." And that may well be true. But, he says, it also means that "if someone were to fabricate a hate crime at this particular moment, they would be much more likely to be believed than previously."
And who's hurt by bogus allegations of hate crimes? Real hate-crime victims, most obviously. Within days of the false New York subway hijab-pulling story breaking this month, an off-duty NYPD police officer wearing a hijab was actually threatened when a man screamed at her, "ISIS *****, I will cut your throat, go back to your own country!" And even though we know Muslims have in fact been kicked off planes for appearing, well, too Muslim, a skeptical public may well raise its collective eyebrows when a prankster claims it happened to him, as is going on right now with a man named Adam Saleh.
So it's no surprise that hate crime experts were reluctant to talk to me for this piece. Why? Because "it's a dopey story," Mulvaney tells me. He responded only after he looked me up and found that I took the hate seriously. "Certainly there are false claims. But that doesn't negate the reality that hate crimes are ongoing and perhaps increasing," he says. Law enforcement needs to take such crimes seriously, and—like doctors who must risk caring for the occasional undiagnosed Munchausen's patient—start by assuming that the victim should be believed.
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