How Media and Public Officials Perpetuated a ‘Hate Hoax’ at Charlottesville High School
A recent race-hyped incident at Charlottesville High School (CHS) has put the beleaguered city back into the national news cycle briefly, but significantly.
Unbeknownst to the general public, a cliché-ridden meme was posted in an online forum, threatening to kill “ni**ers and wet**cks” at CHS and warning “white” students to stay home. Replete with a picture of “Pepe the Frog” and rhetorical dog whistles, the threat was a near-Hollywood portrayal of a “white supremacist” commination.
It should have been taken seriously … and it was. It also was handled extremely irresponsibly by the media and the government-education complex.
Initially reported benignly on March 20 as an “internet threat against Charlottesville High School,” the characterization of that threat intensified rapidly, as local officials intuited a valuable politically opportunity at hand.
In a March 21 update from Charlottesville City Schools, Community Relations Liaison, Krissy Vick, was quick to exploit the fundamental racial dynamic in the threat and issued a presumptive message to school families, copied later to media [emphasis added]:
Subject: Important Update from Charlottesville City Schools-3/21/2019
From: Krissy Vick
Date: March 21, 2019 at 06:32:47 PM EDT
To: Krissy Vick
The following message was sent to city schools families and staff a few moments ago…
Thank you for understanding our decision to close today. We heard clearly that you, too, want us to prioritize the safety of our students and staff.
The police and other state and federal authorities have told us that this remains an active investigation. We will keep you posted of developments as we learn more. Based on extensive conversations with law enforcement, we have decided to remain closed on Friday, 3/22. Police have asked anyone with information to contact 434-970-3280.
We would like to acknowledge and condemn the fact that this threat was racially charged. We do not tolerate hate or racism. The entire staff and School Board stand in solidarity with our students of color — and with people who have been singled out for reasons such as religion or ethnicity or sexual identity in other vile threats made across the country or around the world. We are in this together, and a threat against one is a threat against all.
We know that many of you have questions about how to talk to your students about why schools are closed. We suggest a brief acknowledgment of the situation. (For instance, for young students, you might say, “Someone said they wanted to hurt some students, and the people who run the schools decided that it would be safer for for students to stay home.”) Then follow your child’s lead as they ask questions or show emotions. We have links to additional resources, below.
Have a good evening. We will give you any further updates as we learn them, but in the meanwhile, we appreciate your patience as we continue to place safety first.
- Overview of Safety Services at Charlottesville City Schools
- Helping Children Feel Safe During Uncertain Times: A Caregiver’s Guide (from school counselors at Charlottesville City Schools)
- Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers (from the National Association of School Psychologists)
- How to Talk to Your Children about Race: Books and Resources that Can Help (this is one of the items on the Resources page our staff compiled in the wake of August 12, 2017.
Community Relations Liaison
Charlottesville City Schools
In her virtue-signaling memorandum, not only did Vick draw and disseminate an unsubstantiated inference about the genesis of the threat and the intent of the perpetrator, she also took opportunity to conflate this “racially charged” incident with unrelated, amorphous events involving “religion” (read:Muslim), and “sexual identity” (read:LGBTTQQIAAP).
Sensing a salacious headline, frenzied local media was quick to run with an assumed-“white supremacist”-perpetrator narrative—an account conforming to Charlottesville’s reputation as a flashpoint for racial animus following the August 2017 Unite the Right rally.
In its March 21 edition, the Charlottesville–based Daily Progress perpetuated the assumed “white supremacy” angle of the threat, even making a gratuitous reference to a recent and entirely extraneous shooting at a mosque in New Zealand [emphasis added]:
A screenshot of a post from a separate online forum appeared Wednesday on Reddit. The post threatened an ethnic cleansing in the form of a school shooting and told white students at CHS to stay home. The person who posted the threat claimed to be a Charlottesville student.
Police have not confirmed that that threat is the subject of their investigation. An email sent by a city schools spokeswoman Thursday afternoon “acknowledge[d] and condemn[ed] the fact that this threat was racially charged.”
According to the Reddit thread, the original post came from “the Chans,” referring to the message boards 4chan and 8chan, parts of which are frequented by white supremacists. The sites were banned in New Zealand in the wake of last week’s mosque shootings for hosting video of the massacre.
In the same story, Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent, Rosa Atkins, did her part to foment [emphasis added]:
Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said hate and racism aren’t tolerated in the school system or the community.
“I think we all have to keep in mind a threat against one student, no matter what the ethnicity, is a threat against all of our students and a threat against our teachers and our community,” she said.
Local NBC affiliate NBC-29 joined the fray, furthering the hate-narrative aspect, with elucidation from Charlottesville Police Chief, RaShall Brackey:
“It’s not enough to just consider that how the students may feel, this is an entire community that’s been rocked by violence and hate,” Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said. “So that the students, the staff, and the community at large, this is a really disheartening turn of events for us here after the past two years.”
National news outlets, assuming that the incident was indeed white-supremacy-based, also ran with the story of Charlottesville schools being shut down over what was certainly a racist threat by a white supremacist.
When an arrest was made in the early morning hours of March 22, things changed—at least behind the scenes.
First, the Charlottesville Police Department issued a press release subtly foreshadowing (through use of the deescalated terminology like “biased-based language”) that the original narrative was unraveling [emphasis added]:
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA- This morning at 0600 hours, the Charlottesville Police Department made an arrest in connection with the online threats towards Charlottesville City Schools.
In the afternoon hours of Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the department was alerted to an online threat containing biased-based language targeting specific ethnic groups within Charlottesville High School.
An investigation was immediately launched and assisted by our local, state, and federal partners. CPD worked tirelessly over the past 48 hours to determine the source of the threat.
As a result, the Charlottesville Police Department has arrested and charged a 17-year-old male this morning with the following:
- Threats to commit serious bodily harm to persons on school property, a Class 6 Felony.
- Harassment by Computer, a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
The department commends the hard work of our detectives for their diligence and swift action in determining the source of the threat, and the cooperation received from Charlottesville City Schools, Albemarle County Police Department, the Virginia State Police and the FBI during this investigation.
Although the city schools were closed for two days as a precautionary measure, and while it may have caused some inconveniences, Chief Brackney stated, “The safety of our students and staff was the top priority for the department, the city, and the school district.”
We want the community to know that any potential threats made against our schools, credible or not, are taken seriously and will be vigorously investigated.
The department will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. at Charlottesville Police Department Headquarters, located at 606 East Market Street, Charlottesville, VA.
The fictitious racial narrative took another hit at a post-arrest press conference later that day, as Chief Brackney mentioned that the 17-year-old arrestee “identifies as Portuguese.” Although Brackney knew (or should have known) these details, she gave no further information regarding his appearance or background, thus allowing the public and the media to continue reveling in the established charade.
Brackney’s refusal to clarify relevant specifics led to a spate of race-based speculation by national news media.
ABC News referenced “race-based threats” and “ethnic cleansing” against the Charlottesville Schools.
Reuters joined in:
Police arrested a 17-year-old boy on Friday over a racist threat of violence posted online that prompted authorities to close all the schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, for two days.
City leaders have worked to ease racial tensions in the city since a white nationalist rally in August 2017 descended into violence, with a white nationalist killing a counter-protester and injuring others after he drove into a crowd.
A USA Today headline blared: Charlottesville teen arrested for online racial violence threat against students of color.
The Washington Post and CBS News were far more explicit in their agenda-driven mischaracterizations.
The threat was another jolt to a community still strained by the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 that turned Charlottesville into the site of America’s largest white-supremacy gathering in decades.
This week’s online episode did not surprise members of Charlottesville High’s Black Student Union, who say it is symptomatic of persistent issues in Charlottesville City Schools, including excessive police presence in schools and a lack of black students in advanced classes.
“We’re still allowing this kind of racism in our school,” said Althea Laughon-Worrell, an 18 year-old who attends Charlottesville High School. “It’s making it seem like it’s okay for whoever posted that to say that, to feel that way. .?.?. It is because of racism, and because we haven’t dealt with this, that this person decided to post this.”
Zyahna Bryant, president of the Black Student Union, has called on the community to reckon with white supremacy in the aftermath of the 2017 rally and confront gentrification and the paucity of affordable housing in the city.
Bryant, 18, wants the latest episode to encourage community members to grapple with racial inequities in the school system.
“There needs to be a real conversation about how students of color are being supported,” Bryant said. “It is dangerous to continue to categorize racism as just person-to-person experiences without calling attention to the systems that work to uphold and enforce racist policies.”
The Charlottesville episode stoked further scrutiny of the way social media is used to perpetuate hateful rhetoric and violence, drawing parallels to the use of social media to broadcast a massacre at mosques in New Zealand last week.
A 17-year-old boy was charged Friday with making online threats of “ethnic cleansing” against black and Hispanic students at the public high school in Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that was the site of a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017. The threats had shut down the city’s public schools on Thursday and Friday, drawing the community closer together but also sparking fear in a city that witnessed racial violence first-hand.
Aware that this college town has become synonymous with racial strife, city leaders used the press conference to speak out against racism and even rebuke past comments by President Trump. “We want the community and the world to know that hate is not welcomed in Charlottesville,” Brackney said. “Violence is not welcomed in Charlottesville. Intolerance is not welcomed in Charlottesville.”
She added: “And in Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating: there are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.” Brackney’s comment appeared to reference statements Mr. Trump made in the days after violence broke out in the city during the summer of 2017.
A loosely connected mix of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists had assembled to protest the city’s decision to remove a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Incidentally, Brackney—and others (including Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke)—have taken duplicitous political advantage of the Charlottesville High School threat in order to malign President Donald Trump, who explicitly excluded “neo-Nazis and white nationalists” from his “very fine people” remarks at an August 2017 press conference.
Despite a concerted effort by police and governing officials to conceal the identity of the suspect, the false “supremacy” narrative was inadvertently destroyed by a mistaken email release. Sent March 25 (and quickly recalled) by Charlottesville Police Department Public Information Officer, Tyler Hawn, the department’s “Daily Bulletin” contained the full name, address, and age of the suspect. Significantly, a “race” field on the form was marked “unknown.”
Upon release of the suspect’s name, close acquaintances described him online as obviously “brown-skinned.”
Questions from The Schilling Show about the detainee’s immigration status were unanswered by the Blue Ridge Detention Center (where he is being held) and by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who declined to comment. Off-record sources indicate that the suspect may not be in the United States legally.
Following The Schilling Show’s on-air exposure of Hawn’s error, the Daily Progress subsequently printed the suspect’s name, Joao Pedro Souza Ribeiro, in conjunction with a story on Ribeiro’s guilty plea to felony charges involving the threat against Charlottesville High School.
But, the truth revealed about Joao Pedro Souza Ribeiro’s ethnicity, appearance, and heritage did not stop local and national pundits from advancing their profitable “white supremacy” and “hate and racism” storyline in ongoing discussions of the threat and its aftermath.
A March 25 Washington Post follow-up story continued the deception. Covering a Charlottesville High School “student walkout” to “demand racial justice” in the aftermath of the school closing, the Post again featured remarks by Zyahna Bryant, president of the school’s Black Student Union:
The walkout, led by the high school’s Black Student Union, started at noon in McIntire Park and drew a few hundred people, said Zyahna Bryant, president of the organization and a senior at the high school. The protest unfolded after an online threat against black and Latino students forced the closure of schools Thursday and Friday.
Black Student Union members said the incident was emblematic of entrenched inequities and white supremacy in Charlottesville City Schools. Rather than focus on a single threat, Bryant said, the community must address the “whole systems and whole institutions” that perpetuate inequality.
“There cannot be any type of reconciliation without the redistribution of resources for black and brown students,” Bryant said.
The Albemarle – Charlottesville NAACP, in a March 27 press release stoked racial fires in again falsely coupling the Charlottesville High School incident to “racism and white supremacy”:
Recent events dictate that we take notice of what is evident in our city. The racial threats against Black and Brown students, followed by the ensuing student walk-out which may be considered as both being connected but possibly separate occurrences. However, we must take note of both occurrences and the cry for action on both fronts.
Why are our children charged with taking action? Why are we as adults, community leaders and especially parents, in the background. Our silence definitely not golden in this case. Our children are at risk. What does it take before we realize this fact!
A March 28 letter published by the Daily Progress—long after that paper was aware of the facts of the CHS case—and written by local progressive activist, Erik Wikstrom, focuses on the “racist nature” of the threat [emphasis added]:
Whenever someone says, “Black lives matter!”, you hear others saying, “Shouldn’t that be ‘All lives matter’?”
Yes … void of any context.
Yet we do not live in a world that is void of context.
This is a world where black and brown lives have regularly been, and are still, treated as mattering far less than the lives of those who identify as white.
“Race-neutral” and “color-blind” ideals obscure the very real inequities still present in our so-called post-racial nation. Yet simply choosing to pretend there is no monster under the bed doesn’t mean there is no monster. It just allows me to feel safe beneath my covers, while allowing the monster unfettered freedom to do as it likes.
Parents were recently alerted to an online threat made against Charlottesville High School. School officials wanted to assure all of us that they and the police took seriously their responsibility to keep all of our children safe. But this wasn’t a threat of random violence, but rather violence directed speci?cally at children of color. The anonymous poster was very specific, describing his intent as “ethnic cleansing,” using ugly racial slurs to describe the African-American and Latinx students who would be the targets. “If you white … you better stay home,” the post said.
What was gained by the whitewashing of this pointedly racial threat? Only the comfort of white folk in Charlottesville who want to keep saying that “all children matter,” so we can continue refusing to recognize the ugly reality that some of our children are treated as if they matter more.
Meanwhile, those African-American and Latinx students and their families are left wondering if anyone really cares that they were the ones being threatened, and only because of the color of their skin.
When those of us who are white refuse to a?rm the racist nature of such a threat, we also refuse to a?rm the importance of those who were being threatened. That’s why we need to keep saying that “black lives matter” … until they do.
The Rev. Erik Wikstrom, Albemarle County
However, Wikstrom failed to acknowledge (and the Daily Progress failed to insist that he do so) that the threat was not “racist” after all, nor could it possibly be. Social Marxist theory dictates that people of color cannot be “racist.”
Last week, Charlottesville High School responded to a hate-filled online post that threatened a shooting and “ethnic cleansing” against black and Hispanic students at the school. We, the members of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, decry this act of hate that terrorized the school district’s students, teachers, staff and families, and closed city schools for two days.
We are grateful for the work of the law enforcement community in apprehending the teen suspect from Albemarle county, ending a period of fear and allowing students to return to school. And, we are grateful for the work of Charlottesville City Schools in prioritizing the protection of students and staff during those uncertain days.
We resonate with Charlottesville City Police Chief RaShall Brackney when she said: “We want the community and the world to know that hate is not welcomed in Charlottesville.”
We also echo the sentiment of Charlottesville City School Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins: “We do not tolerate hate or racism. … [We] stand in solidarity with our students of color … [A] threat against one is a threat against all.”
In addition, we commend the establishment of a Police Civilian Review Board to address systemic injustice and to promote accountability and mutual trust between the community and the police. We are also heartened by Charlottesville City Schools’ outreach to neighborhoods and houses of worship to address racial inequity in public education.
We, the undersigned members of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, commit ourselves to work for racial equity and to pray for all who were affected by this incident and worked for its resolution, especially the African American and Latinx students who were specifically singled out as targets. As a community of faith leaders, we are committed to standing as witnesses for love, justice, and unity. We will continue to work for an end to racial hate and violence.
Rev. Will Brown, University Baptist Church
The Rev Dr Harry Kennon
Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, Congregation Beth Israel
Steve Johnson, Oak Chapel Baptist Church
Pastor Sarah A. Kelley, Faith, Hope And Love Church
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Emrey, New Beginnings Christian Community
Rev. Dr. Albert Connette, Olivet Presbyterian Church
Rev. Rabia Povich, Inayati Sufi Order, Charlottesville
Rev. Liz Hulme Adam, Tabor Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield, Cove Presbyterian Church
Manouchehr Mohajeri, Baha’i Faith
Rev. Sandra J. Wisco, Lutheran (ELCA)
Rev. Dr. Michael Cheuk
Racial hoaxes are not foreign to the Charlottesville community. In 2013, three young men of color were arrested and pled guilty to multiple incidents of spray-painting “KKK” and “white power” in Charlottesville’s Fry’s Spring neighborhood. News coverage of these events universally presumed the suspects were white, until arrests and confessions proved otherwise. With a light slap on the wrist and a gentle pat on the head, the “immature” vandals were let off.
With the bizarre and misguided intervention of Albemarle County Schools’ superintendent, Dr. Matt Haas, on behalf of Joao Pedro Souza Ribeiro (incidentally a student at Albemarle High School, who made the CHS threat from that school), history could repeat itself. Aided by education and legal system authorities, “justice” in this case may be applied based on skin color and ethnicity, rather than in spite of it.
Albemarle County Schools Superintendent Matt Haas reads a letter to the community from the county student who made the racial threat that closed city schools for two days. #Charlottesville pic.twitter.com/5gRJIA2rAW
— C-VILLE Weekly (@cvillenews_desk) April 18, 2019
Charlottesville officials and media, as well as national and international mainstream media, should have known better than to make racial assumptions regarding the Ribeiro incident without having facts in hand. From Jussie Smollett to Duke Lacrosse, Hate Hoaxes have become a national epidemic. There’s even a new book on the subject.
But, unfortunately, the damage from the Charlottesville High School case is done. Race relations are set back. Mistrust is renewed. Innocent groups are blamed.
A lie has become reality.