The news hit Kansas State University like a thunderclap — just months after students found a noose hanging from a tree on campus, someone painted racial slurs on a car parked at an apartment complex near campus with messages like "Go home n****r boy," and "Whites only."
Police opened a criminal investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in. The images hit the news media and social media alike and caused a storm of controversy.
But in the end, the incident was a hoax. A local man, Dauntarius Williams, 21, of Manhattan, Kansas, had painted the words on his own car. He had intended it to be a Halloween prank, police said, but a neighbor saw it and thought it was real. Soon the images would be splashed across the national news media, becoming the next viral controversy.
Hali Rowland, public information officer for Riley County Police, told us:
Our director encourages people when things like this happen to wait until all the facts come out before reacting. In an instance like this, where the facts changed, it’s important to not make rash decisions.
Although Williams was initially widely reported to be a KSU student, university officials said he is not in their system and is not a member of the student body.
The incident was so wrenching for the local community and university that the campus's Black Student Union is calling for criminal charges to be filed against Williams. Authorities, however, declined to do so after investigating. Riley County police said in a statement that charging Williams for filing a false police report "would not be in the best interests of the citizens who comprise the Manhattan community." Brad Schoen, the police department's director, said in a statement:
While Williams’ mistake had a decidedly negative impact on the community, please recognize that he, like many of us when we were young, is a young man who made a mistake and is now doing his best to own up to it.
Williams released a public apology:
I would like to deeply apologize to the community. The whole situation got out of hand when it shouldn’t have even started. It was just a Halloween prank that got out of hand. I wish I could go back to that night but I can’t. I just want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for the pain and news I have brought you all.
It's not the first time this year a racial incident has sent shock waves through the campus. In May 2017, students discovered a noose made from a shock cord hanging from a tree on campus. University spokesman Jeff Morris told us that the white supremacist alt-right movement has been actively trying to recruit KSU students, approaching people on campus and posting fliers overnight urging them to racist web sites like ThePuritySpiral. On the topic of the graffiti, Morris told us:
Even if the incident wasn’t real the reactions are real. The good thing about our community is people get together and talk about this stuff. But the tensions here are a direct reflection of national mood right now.
In response to the incident, the university will be cancelling classes and closing offices on 14 November 2017 from 1 to 3 P.M. to hold a "Unity Walk" to promote "diversity, inclusion and equity."
Morris said it's not the first time flawed information about an alleged racist incident at K-State went viral and stoked tensions. Just one month earlier, local media reported a sukkah (a structure used to observe the Jewish festival of Sukkut) was destroyed in an act of anti-Semitic vandalism. Investigators subsequently discovered that the hut was destroyed by wind from a storm, and that there had in fact been no vandalism. Morris said that misinformation was enabled by social media:
I will say social media has been a real nemesis in this. We track how stuff goes viral and it goes fast.
Nevertheless, Morris said, the racial tensions and climate in the United States, especially after a racist rally turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, have people on edge. Morris told us that the university is working hard to address it:
We see that our values are being attacked and people are trying to turn us against each other. That’s not how we do things there.