Authorities in Chicago charged four young African American adults with hate crimes Thursday after a video broadcast live on Facebook appeared to show them shouting obscenities about President-elect Donald Trump and white people while abusing a man authorities say has mental health problems.
The footage, which Chicago’s top police officer labeled “sickening,” quickly went viral online. 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. The assault went on for up to five hours, authorities said, and police found the victim — an unidentified 18-year-old from Crystal Lake, a city northwest of Chicago — wandering the streets “in distress.”
A young woman films as two young men slash the sleeves of his shirt with knives and take turns punching him, slapping him and stomping on his head. At one point, one man can be seen cutting the victim’s hair and scalp with a knife, and the victim is later shown bleeding from his injuries.
While the victim can be seen cowering with his back to the wall, another voice can be heard repeatedly shouting, “F‑‑‑ Donald Trump” and “F‑‑‑ white people.” The four apparent attackers are black, while the victim is white, police said.
“Let me be very clear: the actions in that video are reprehensible,” Eddie Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, said during a news briefing Thursday. Johnson said there was “never a question” about whether or not authorities would investigate whether the attack was a hate crime.
Authorities said the four people, who were taken into custody Wednesday, all acknowledged their roles in the attack.
“We have the statements of the four of them,” Chicago Area North Detectives Commander Kevin Duffin said at the briefing Thursday afternoon. “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.”
Duffin said that hate crime charges were warranted 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.”
When asked whether the hate crime charges stemmed from the 18-year-old’s mental health or his race — both of which are factors listed in the state’s hate crime statute — Duffin said: “It’s half a dozen of one, six of the other.”
Duffin had said during an earlier briefing that a decision on hate crime charges would come after police determined “whether this is sincere or just stupid ranting and raving.”
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office said it had filed felony criminal charges against three 18-year-olds — Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper and Brittany Covington — as well as Tanishia Covington, 24.
The two Covington women are sisters, police say. Hill was listed as being from Carpentersville, Ill., a village near Crystal Lake, while the others were described as being from Chicago.
Police did not name the victim in the case; they said he is with his parents and expected to recover from his injuries.
The four people charged Thursday were taken into custody a day earlier. In addition to the hate crime charges, some of them also face additional counts of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated unlawful restraint. All four are scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon. It was not immediately clear if they had attorneys.
Throughout the 28-minute video — which focuses mostly on the young woman behind the camera — the group laughs, jokes and listens to music as the victim sits motionless on the floor. About halfway through, someone says the man “represents Trump,” and threatens to put him in the trunk of a car and “put a brick on the gas.”
It’s unclear what happened after the video cuts off.
Despite the comments about the president-elect, which prompted some online to refer to it as footage of a Trump supporter being attacked, police say there are no indications the attack was motivated by anything involving Trump.
“We have no evidence to suggest that the escalation of the attack was prompted by the President-elect or how the victim voted,” Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said in an email Thursday. “It certainly was part of the reprehensible comments but not what prompted the assault.”
Police officials on Thursday provided more details about what unfolded before officers found the victim walking on a Chicago street in a tank top, jean shorts and sandals, despite the city’s brutal January temperatures.
On Saturday, the victim’s parents dropped him off at a McDonald’s in Streamwood, Ill., where he met Jordan Hill, described by police as an acquaintance he knew from school and had socialized with before.
Police say Hill drove the teenager to Chicago’s West Side in what turned out to be a stolen van, and they spent the first days of 2017 traveling around that area. The victim was “voluntarily” with Hill, police said.
On Tuesday, they went to a home on West Lexington Street, not far from the city’s Homan Square, where the Covington sisters lived. The victim told police that at some point later that day, he had a play fight with Hill that escalated and the Covington sisters got “aggravated at him,” Duffin said.
“I believe it escalated,” Duffin said. “There was certainly no premeditation between Jordan and him when the initial fight broke out.”
Over the following hours, the teenager was tormented, police say, with at least part of the attack captured on video.
It is not clear how long this would have continued uninterrupted had a downstairs neighbor not complained about the noise. After this neighbor told the group to curtail the noise or she would contact police, some of them went downstairs and “started kicking her door in,” Duffin said.
Police officers were called for the report of damaged property, which enabled the 18-year-old to escape, Duffin said.
The police department said in a statement that officers “discovered signs of a struggle and damage to the property and were able to link this evidence to the disoriented male.”
After viewing a Facebook Live stream depicting the “battery of an adult male,” investigators said they concluded that the victim was the same person in the video. The department said that it believes the video is “credible.”
The granddaughter of Lula Williams, 89, who lives on the first floor of the building, called the cops. The granddaughter, Dominique Williams, said the Covington sisters have lived on the third floor for less than a year. She said her grandmother “heard a lot of noise. She saw them fighting in the hallway.” The neighbor on the second floor went up to the third floor to complain, but was intimidated and her door was kicked down, she said. Lula Williams was so scared she stayed out of the building for days, and was planning to return Thursday night, her granddaughter said.
Facebook said Thursday that it pulled down the video because it was not meant to condemn violence or raise any awareness of any violent issues.
“We do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook and have removed the original video for this reason,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
Johnson, the police superintendent, had described the victim as a man with “mental health challenges” during an earlier briefing.
“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,” Johnson said. He called the footage “sickening.”
Police in nearby Streamwood, Ill., said the victim’s parents had not heard from him since Dec. 31, when they dropped him off at a McDonald’s in the area, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. After reporting him missing on Monday, the victim’s parents received “text messages from persons claiming to be holding him captive,” the newspaper reported.
Conservative commentators and pro-Trump voices weighed in on the video Wednesday night and Thursday, with one Fox News host saying that Johnson, the police superintendent, was trying to “downplay it, almost.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) posted in a pair of tweets Thursday that “anti-white racism has to be opposed as firmly as anti-Black racism” and that the attackers “must be punished severely enough to signal others this racist behavior is totally unacceptable.”
“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,” Gingrich said Thursday on Fox News.
The attack was also repeatedly referred to online with the hashtag #BLMKidnapping, linking the attack to the Black Lives Matter protest movement that has demonstrated nationwide. Police said they had found nothing tying the kidnapping to Black Lives Matter or any other group.
“At this time, there is no indication that it’s linked to any specific group,” Frank Giancamilli, a spokesman for the Chicago police, said Thursday.
The incident comes as violence in Chicago has reached levels unseen for decades, with the homicide rate hitting a 20-year high last year.
The issue has caught Trump’s attention. Earlier this week, Trump called on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) to seek federal help to address the 762 homicides and more than 4,000 gunfire victims last year. The city responded that the mayor and Trump had previously spoken about the issue.
This is not the first time in recent months that people in Chicago have been captured on video attacking someone while invoking the president-elect’s name. In November, the day after the presidential election, a group of people were recorded beating a 49-year-old man while shouting, “You voted Trump” and “Don’t vote Trump.” Four people were charged with vehicular hijacking in connection with that incident.
Julie Tate in Washington and Mark Guarino in Chicago contributed to this story, which has been updated since it was first published.
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