Remember Tawana Brawley? She was missing for four days and then discovered on November 28, 1987. In the emergency room, the doctors found the words “KKK,” “nigger,” and “bitch” written on her torso with something that looked like charcoal. She claimed white men kidnapped and raped her and named a former county prosecutor as one of the perpetrators. Later, it all turned out to be a hoax. The prosecutor later sued and won a defamation suit against her, Rev. Al Sharpton, and her lawyers, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox. A special state grand jury investigated her claims and determined that Brawley fabricated them, “perhaps to avoid punishment for staying out late.”
The problem, of course, is that false claims undercut the veracity of true claims of rape and racism. Just as a country that prints too much money finds it has created inflation, a plethora of false claims depreciates the value of the real ones.
Remember the story of the boy who falsely cried “wolf” too often. Eventually, the villagers did not believe him, and when the wolf actually came around, it feasted on the sheep. Aesop’s moral, “Nobody believes a liar . . . even when he is telling the truth.” The villagers did not believe the lying shepherd, but they still believed other shepherds. In that sense, Aesop’s moral is self-correcting. Shepherds learn that no one will believe them when they regularly lie. The problem with false claims of hate crimes is worse because it is not self-correcting. People begin to disbelieve those who are truly victims.
The last few months have seen an unusual increase in false claims. Last November, black students at Kean University, New Jersey, were confronted with tweets threatening to kill them. Police discovered that a black alum of Kean issued the phony threats, faking a hate crime. She participated at a student rally to raise consciousness of racism on campus. She left about half-way through the rally, went to the university library, created an anonymous Twitter account, and began posting the threats. Kayla-Simone McKelvey, age 24, is now charged with third-degree creating a false public alarm.
On November 13 of last year, Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan, students discovered a threat posted on the social media site called Yik Yak that read, “I’m going to shoot every black person I can on campus. Starting tomorrow morning.” The police, with the help of the FBI, investigated and arrested Emmanuel D. Bowden, age 21, a black Delta College student. He was living in SVSU housing at the time. Police charged him with the felony of making a false report or threat of terrorism. Bowden said, “Right. I could be angry and just expressing myself lol.”
In early September, at the SUNY at Buffalo, students awoke to find “White Only” and “Black Only” signs appear around campus water fountains and bathrooms. To say that students were upset is an understatement. Students tweeted statements like, “These sickening signs placed against areas much reminiscent to a pre-Civil Rights ear, entices a fear no one should ever experience.” Another student posted a photograph of one of the signs and said “Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism.”
It turned out that Ashley Powell, a black graduate student in Fine Art at the college, posted the signs. She said it was her art project; she was supposed to address “time.” That’s why she did it. She said, “These signs illustrate that white people do not have to be active aggressors, like the KKK, to be responsible for this system of racism and white privilege that threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts, and literally kills non-white people every day in the United States.” She also said, when speaking at the Black Student Union, “I won’t apologize for what I did.” At the Black Student Union, 70 participants reported, “extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about.” Later, in an interview, Micah Oliver, president of the Black Student Union, said that Black Student Union “did not condone the signs because they were ‘quote unquote artwork.’”
In all of these cases, blacks made false claims of racism. We also find gays making false claims of homophobic attacks. For example, on September 4, a gay man, Haakon Gisvold, age 18, claimed that members of a University of North Dakota Fraternity choked, beat, and stripped him. The Huffington Post reported that Gisvold said he “hid behind a bush in his underwear until a Good Samaritan gave him clothes.” The police and the Grand Forks State’s Attorney investigated, interviewed 150 witnesses, and found that the allegations were false. There was “no evidence of a hate crime.”
These are the false “hate crimes” that occurred in one short, three-month period, from early September through November of 2015. Why the spike in false reports? I do not know. What can be done about them? I do not know the answer to that question either.
Sometimes we have problems that have no easy solution, and this one falls in that category. The police can prosecute those who make false reports, but one questions how effective that attempt at deterrence will be. All the people who made the false reports since September of last year have not been children but adults, all over 18. (Tawana Brawley, by the way, was only 15 years old when she made her false report.) When they make the false reports, they do not expect to be caught. In Ashley Powell’s case, she freely admitted what she did and was hardly repentant, “I won’t apologize for what I did.”
In Brawley’s case, recall that the victim of her false report won a defamation suit against Sharpton, Brawley, and Brawley’s lawyers. Defamation suits are also not a major deterrent because they are expensive to prosecute, and collecting the judgment can take years. By 2013, fifteen years later, Brawley had paid only one percent of what she owes. Later, a judge issued an order garnishing her wages, so the victim of Brawley’s defamation may someday collect the judgment. Friends of Rev. Sharpton paid his portion of the judgment, so it did not come out of his pocket. Sharpton has never apologized for his role in the hoax.
These false charges hurt at least three categories of people: (1) those falsely accused, (2) those fearful because they believe they are the subject of threat; and (3) those who are future victims (real victims) of hate crimes.
There is no easy solution to the problem of blacks or gays who make false claims of racism or homophobic behavior, but there is something we all can do: we need not rush to judgment and we can refrain from assuming guilt. We should not assume that those crying wolf are lying. Tawana Brawley was, but others are telling the truth. We should allow the police to investigate without embracing a lynch mob mentality.
Legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen reminds us, “From the Scottsboro Boys to Clarence Gideon, some of the most memorable legal narratives” are “tales of the wrongly accused.” If we need reminding, read the book by astute legal commentator Stuart Taylor Jr., and K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College and the CCNY, “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.” In 2006, a black stripper claimed that various members of the Duke lacrosse team gang-raped her. The story was completely false and the criminal prosecutor, Mike Nifong, knew it, almost from the very beginning. Eventually, the defendants were vindicated and Nifong was removed from office, disbarred from practicing law, and jailed for a day.
Such vindication does not come cheap. The parents of the defendants had legal bills of about $3 million. While all this was going on, the press regularly published articles lambasting the lacrosse team. Joining the smear campaign were many Duke professors led by the school’s president. As Taylor and Johnson said, “Dozens of the activist professors who dominate campus discourse gleefully stereotyped and vilified their own students—and not one member of Duke’s undergraduate faculty publicly dissented for months. Duke President Richard Brodhead repeatedly and misleadingly denigrated the players’ characters. He also acted as though he had no problem with Nifong’s violations of their rights to due process.” Indeed, “some professors persisted in attacks even after the three defendants were declared innocent in April by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper—an almost unheard-of event.”
So let us presume innocence instead of guilt. Or, at least, not smear those who have not yet had their day in court.