Before cellphone and body cameras were ubiquitous, our arguments at arraignment and trial about the beating cops gave a defendant fell on deaf ears. The counter-argument was easy: why would this heroic, dedicated officer of the law, who doesn’t know the defendant from Adam and certainly has no personal animosity against him, possibly want to gratuitously harm him? Of course, we now know, because there are tons of videos on Youtube, that it happens all the time. Why? Who knows? Who cares? It happens. There may be no good reason, but it happens.
It’s the same argument for why no woman would allege rape if it didn’t happen. Or no black person would falsely claim to be the victim of a racist attack. Why would anyone do something like that?
After an unidentified troll wrote the threatening words “Go home n—-r” on dormitory message boards at the Air Force Academy prep school in September, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academy’s superintendent, delivered a blistering speech on tolerance. With 4,000 students standing at attention, he said, “If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out.”
It was a great speech. It was exactly the speech General Silveria should have given, and he delivered it brilliantly. It’s no less brilliant for the fact that it happened due to a hoax.
Now the academy says one of the five African-American cadet candidates thought to be a victim was actually the perpetrator. The student is no longer enrolled, school officials said Tuesday.
The prep school, which offers a year of training for academy prospects who need academic help, wouldn’t offer details on the circumstances surrounding the hoax. But The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, citing anonymous sources, reported that the unidentified student wrote the messages “in a bizarre bid to get out of trouble he faced at the school for other misconduct.”
Would anyone have known the motive behind the hoax? Even to question the claim would have brought universal condemnation for not believing the victim. But then, only the person who did the dirty knew the reasons behind it. And this time, there were reasons. Sometimes, there are no reasons at all.
Earlier this week, the police released a statement saying that they would not file charges against 21-year-old Dauntarius Williams—who admitted that he was responsible for his car’s vandalism—for filing a false report. Riley County Police said that it would “not be in the best interests” of the community, adding that Williams was “genuinely remorseful and expressed sincere regret.”
Williams, for his part, referred to the incident as a “Halloween prank that got out of hand.” His car, which was parked in an apartment complex near Kansas State’s campus in Manhattan, Kan., was covered in yellow washable paint with slurs like “Go Home Nigger Boy,” “Fuck You Die Dumb Nigger” and “Date Your Own Kind.”
A “prank that got out of hand” seems more like releasing chickens in a high school. Did he miss the part where America went ape shit over such racism? Yet, it happened.
There is the obvious problem with hoaxes, that they serve to undermine real outrages by bolstering suspicion of false claims and feeding those who would attack allegations using Shaun King-level reasoning. But as is happening in the Kansas State incident, the Black Student Union is demanding prosecution of the “prankster” for a different reason.
However, leaders of the Black Student Union at the university were not impressed with the leniency shown by officers in this case.
“The K-State Black Student Union is disheartened that no charges were filed by the Riley County Police Department,” the organization said in a press release. “The fact that an African-American man committed this act should not undermine its effect on K-State students. The conduct of Williams does not negate the current racist and discriminatory actions that continue on campus, community, the state and nation.”
This is a twist on the “words are violence*” approach to racist speech. Regardless of whether it’s a prank, or whether it was intended to frighten anyone or even whether it was perpetrated by a black person, the BSU argues that the words happened and whoever caused the words to happen should be punished for the words. Williams is black? So what? He did it.
No matter who wrote the despicable and hateful speech, we, the K-State Black Student Union, will never stand for hate or threatening speech. We urge the Riley County Police Department to strongly reconsider pressing charges.
The strong position taken here isn’t about Williams’ falsely reporting an incident, or committing a hate crime per se, but the utterance of “hate speech” disconnected from any crime or intent to harm. This is pure speech. Racist and horrible, but speech.
It’s certainly fair to question why anyone would do such a thing. And it’s similarly fair to be outraged that it happened, as it surely impacts views and feeds those who would deny such things happen. And yet, stuff like this happens.
For the Air Force cadet, there was some background problem. For Williams, who knows. That these are outliers and have absolutely no bearing on whether any incident is real or a hoax is often lost in prejudice. At the same time, these incidents are a critical reminder that bad and stupid things happen for reasons, or no reasons, we know nothing about.
It doesn’t matter what “most people” do, or what you believe they do since we never quite know as much as we believe we know about what’s in the heads of other people. Each incident is like the flip of a coin, independent of any other. Rather than hoaxes having the effect of making us doubt the veracity of a claim, they should remind us that the presumption of regularity prevails, but that it is never the same as proof.
Stercus accidit, even if you have no clue why. We should never assume the hoofbeats are made by zebras rather than horses, but we can never exclude that possibility until we know for sure.
*They’re not. No. They’re not.