Authorities in Chicago charged four young African Americans with hate crimes Thursday after a video streamed live on Facebook showed a white man under assault from attackers who shouted obscenities about President-elect Donald Trump and white people.
The video, which Chicago’s top police officer labeled “sickening,” quickly went viral and sparked new arguments over the state of race relations on the eve of a presidential transition.
In the shaky video, a terrified young white man in a gray hooded sweatshirt and dark pants is seen crouching in a corner, his wrists and neck bound with orange bands, his mouth taped shut. A young woman films as two young men slash the victim’s shirtsleeves, then punch, slap and kick him while laughing and taunting him. One of the men can be seen cutting the victim’s hair and scalp with a knife, and the victim is later shown bleeding from his injuries.
The assault went on for up to five hours on Tuesday, authorities said, and police found the 18-year-old victim, who is mentally disabled, wandering the streets “in distress.” Police said he has been reunited with his family, who had reported him missing, and is expected to recover from his injuries.
The beating was live-streamed for about 30 minutes on Tuesday and began circulating widely Wednesday. The profanity-laced references to Trump and white people prompted many on social media to conclude the attack was politically and racially motivated and demand the act be designated a hate crime.
“If this had been done to an African American by four whites, every liberal in the country would be outraged, and there’d be no question but that it’s a hate crime,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday morning on Fox News. He added his belief that “there has been a dramatic rise in racial tension under President Obama.”
The president said the attack was “despicable” but not an indication of worsening race relations. In interviews Thursday with Chicago television stations, in advance of his farewell speech in the city next week, he suggested that tensions are amplified in a digital age of instantaneous communication.
“In part because we see visuals of racial tensions, violence and so forth because of smartphones and the Internet,” Obama told WMMB, “what we have seen as surfacing, I think, are a lot of problems that have been there a long time.”
Facebook removed the video from its site at some point, but the long stretch of horrifying violence already had been viewed by thousands. The company responded to questions about when it received complaints — and how many — and its policies on monitoring violence on video with a statement: “We do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook and have removed the original video for this reason.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a news briefing Wednesday: “The images in the video put on display the brazenness of the offenders who assaulted the victim and then broadcast it for the entire world to see.”
“It’s sickening. It makes you wonder what would make individuals treat somebody like that,” he said. “It still amazes me how you still see things that you just shouldn’t. I’m not going to say it shocked me, but it was sickening.”
Cmdr. Kevin Duffin of the Chicago police said officials sought the hate crime charges because of the victim’s “diminished mental capacity, the fact that they tied him up, the obvious racial quotes that they post live on Facebook.” Under Illinois law, attacking a person because of race or mental disability are among the factors that could elevate felony assault to a hate crime, which carries a lengthier sentence.
The four people, who were taken into custody on Wednesday, all acknowledged their roles, Duffin said at a Thursday afternoon briefing. “They admit that they were beating him, kicking him, they made him drink toilet water, and then obviously the video where they’re cutting a piece of his scalp.”
Despite comments made about Trump in the video, which prompted some online to refer to it as footage of a Trump supporter being attacked, police say they found “no evidence” that the attack was motivated by anything involving the president-elect.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said it had filed other felony criminal charges against three 18-year-olds — Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper and Brittany Covington — as well as Tanishia Covington, 24. They are scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon.
Police said the victim appeared to have voluntarily met up with Hill, an acquaintance who lives near him in a Chicago suburb, over the holiday weekend and later rode in a stolen van to the Covington sisters’ apartment on Chicago’s West Side. The victim’s parents reported him missing on Monday, and then received “text messages from persons claiming to be holding him captive,” police said.
On Tuesday, when a neighbor approached the sisters’ apartment to complain about the noise, two of the suspects followed the resident downstairs, and the victim was able to flee, police said. Patrol officers found him wandering the streets with Hill; shortly afterward, other officers responded to a police call from another neighbor, “discovered signs of a struggle and damage to the property and were able to link this evidence to the disoriented male,” authorities said.
A nearby resident, Walter McCray, called the kidnapping and assault “horrific” and said “in no way is it normal or should be normalized as reflective of most other persons in our community.”
“We’re saddened because it reinforces negative stereotypes about Chicago and about black people and about black young people,” he said Thursday night. “Most of our young people are positive, in school, trying to find work. . . . This is so extreme. It’s abnormal.”
Mark Guarino in Chicago and Abby Ohlheiser and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.