Minnesota Rep. Nick Zerwas, a Republican from Elk River, announced last week that he was going to crack down on one of life’s great injustices: fake hate crimes.
“Hate crimes are among society’s most heinous and despicable acts,” he said in a press release on Wednesday. And those that commit them “deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” But, he continued, “false claims of victimization” are a scourge that needs to be dealt with.
That’s why Zerwas is introducing a bill that would elevate false reporting of a hate crime -- which is already a misdemeanor in Minnesota -- to a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail or a fine up to $3,000, or possibly both.
Some of you might be wondering if Zerwas is trying to solve a problem that, by and large, is not really a problem. After all, in Minnesota, hate crimes are generally underreported, not the opposite. The Star Tribune reported last year that nearly two-thirds of our state’s law enforcement agencies -- including those in some of our largest cities -- routinely report zero hate crimes.
In fact, the 2017 bombing of Bloomington’s Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center by a couple of white nationalists, which was declared an “act of terrorism” by then-Governor Mark Dayton, was never reported as a hate crime.
The inspiration for this legislative push is a recent alleged high-profile hate crime hoax in Chicago. Empire star Jussie Smollett was charged with falsely reporting a hate crime last month. Police say he had a list of “vivid instructions,” according to the Boston Herald, for a pair of hired men -- that he gave them $3,500 and told them to yell racist and anti-gay slurs at him, put a noose around his neck, and smack him around.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” and that the city of Chicago hadn’t deserved the “scar” left by the incident. Smollett’s attorneys maintain that none of these allegations are true.
“As news reports continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that the highly publicized alleged hate crime in Chicago last month was a hoax,” Zerwas said in Wednesday’s release. “We need to send a message that similar hoaxes are not welcome in Minnesota as they only seek to divide us and distract from legitimate acts of bias-motivated violence.”
His plan has gotten tepid reviews, including from his colleagues in the House. Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat, went as far as to call it “an attention-getting bill from a member of the minority,” according to a report in the Star Tribune. He mused that we probably don’t need a “chilling effect” on reporting hate crimes.
On Twitter, criticisms were a little shorter and glibber. In the words of one user: “Electing Zerwas was a hate crime, tbh.”
Zerwas sent the following statement on Monday:
“False hate crime reports can cause significant division and upheaval in a community. Following what was later determined to be a false report on the campus of St. Olaf minority students reported being too afraid to leave their dorm rooms. These are serious incidents and false reports cause real harm.”