Arrest of young black suspects in brutal Chicago attack sparks hate crime debate

Three black teens and one 24-year-old were charged with hate crimes Thursday in relation to the brutal attack of a white man with special needs.

News of their arrests had sparked a fierce debate on social media over whether the assault — which was broadcast via Facebook Live — should be called a hate crime.

(Screenshot: Facebook via Reuters Video)
Screenshot: Facebook via Reuters Video

The victim’s name has not been released, but police have identified the man as an 18-year-old from suburban Chicago who suffers from “mental health challenges” and was reported missing by his parents on Monday. His assailants reportedly shouted racially charged taunts during the assault, including “f*** Donald Trump, f*** white people,” while they held they young man captive in an apartment and physically abused him.

In an earlier statement to media, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stopped short of describing the incident as a hate crime, sparking outrage on social media. He said that despite the fact that the suspects made “terrible racist statements,” investigators were still not sure of the motive.

“We do not believe the victim was targeted because of his race or because of a political affiliation,” Gugliemi said then. The incident comes shortly after Chicago closed out its deadliest year in almost two decades, with 762 recorded murders in 2016.

The details of the incident are violent and disturbing. The young man’s parents said that, shortly after reporting their son missing to police in the suburban community of Streamwood, they began receiving text messages from someone who claimed to be holding their son captive. The texts led area officers to “a Facebook video depicting [the man] being verbally and physically abused,” CNN reported. Not long after, officers in Streamwood received a call from Chicago police, who said they’d found the man, bloodied and disoriented, after responding to a domestic battery call on the city’s West Side.

The 30 minute video — which was reportedly widely shared before it was removed from Facebook — appeared to show the victim tied up, his mouth covered, as he is beaten and berated by a group of young African-American men and women as they yell profanities about “white people” and president-elect Donald Trump. At one point, one of the men is reportedly seen cutting a patch of the victim’s hair, causing his head to bleed.

By Wednesday, Chicago police had arrested four suspects. Initial reports stated that all four of the suspects were both African-American and 18 years old, however the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office later announced that felony criminal charges had been filed against 18-year-olds Jordan Hill, Brittany Covington and Tesfaye Cooper, and 24-year-old Tanishia Covington.

The suspects are expected to appear in court on Friday, where all four will face charges of aggravated battery, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated unlawful restraint, in addition to the hate crime charges.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson described the actions depicted in the Facebook video as “deplorable” and “reprehensible,” adding that such actions, “along with racism, have absolutely no place in the city of Chicago or anywhere else for that matter.”

Johnson also clarified that there was “no question whether this attack should be investigated as a hate crime,” given the victim’s mental health status as well as the racial epithets recorded in the video.

Police Cmdr. Kevin Duffin offered new details Thursday on the timeline of events, telling reporters that the victim was last seen by his parents on Saturday, New Year’s Eve, when they dropped him off at a local McDonald’s to meet and spend the night with his friend, Jordan Hill.

Duffin said that Hill arrived at the McDonald’s in a van that, unbeknown to the victim, he’d just stolen in Streamwood. The two then drove to the West Side of Chicago and spent the next two days driving around and sleeping in the stolen van. Eventually, they arrived at the home of sisters Brittany and Tanishia Covington where, the victim told investigators, he and Hill got into a “play fight” that escalated into him being tied up in a corner and assaulted both physically and verbally for the next five to six hours.

The victim finally managed to escape when Chicago police officers arrived at the Covingtons’ apartment in response to a noise complaint from the sisters’ downstairs neighbors at around 5:15 Tuesday evening. That’s when Officer Michael Donnelly said he spotted the victim “bloodied, battered” and disoriented, walking outside wearing sandals, jean shorts and a tank top turned inside-out and backward.

After a brief hospitalization, officials said, the victim is now back in the custody of his parents.

Amid the the flurry of reactions that circulated across social media late Wednesday, claims also began to spread that Black Lives Matter was to blame for the horrendous incident, despite the fact that, as Chicago police clarified Thursday morning, there is no evidence to suggest that the suspects were in any way affiliated with the activist group.

Prominent tweeters like alt-right author Mike Cernovich and conservative commentator Glenn Beck had already broadcast the rumor to their tens of thousands of followers. By Thursday morning, #BLMKidnapping was trending on Twitter, as the group’s Chicago chapter attempted to maintain its innocence.

Donnelly said Thursday that there was “certainly no premeditation” when the initial play fight broke out between Hill and the victim, but that “the totality of the circumstances” that ensued, including the victim’s “diminished mental capacity” as well as the assailants’ use of racial slurs, is what led the police to pursue hate crime charges.

Asked why the attackers posted the incident on Facebook, Donnelly replied, “I can’t understand why anyone puts anything on Facebook.”