Say what you will about hate crime hoaxes, they aren’t usually dangerous.
A noose in the lavatory, some rebarbative slurs scrawled on the walls, a story about being jumped in the wee hours on a cold night in Chicago — they’re manipulative and unpleasant, they may be seized upon by cultural ambulance chasers, they may sow division, but they don’t threaten lives. Usually.
That can’t be said for what accused Viterbo University student Victoria C. Unanka is alleged to have done.
According to the La Crosse Tribune, Unanka was released on bail Monday after La Crosse, Wisconsin, police arrested her for starting a fire in a residential hall while most of her classmates were sleeping.
Unanka had been the target of two purported incidents of racism in the recent past and was apparently looking to frame the fire as a third one; a resident adviser told police Unanka had sent a friend a text in the wake of the blaze, saying that it was another potential hate crime because the fire was right next to her room.
.@Viterbo_Univ was rocked by shocking racist hate crimes, sparking mass protest. Then last week the hate escalated to an arson attack near room of black race activist, Victoria C. Unanka. Following police investigation, the student was arrested. #HateHoax https://t.co/t6tYMU8M95 pic.twitter.com/0xI6rHB8tg
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) April 22, 2021
Unanka’s undoing, it seems, may have been the very cameras that were installed in the dorms after those purported hate crimes. One of the graffito read “Your [sic] ugly black girl I’m not joking,” the LaCrosse Tribune reported on March 11. Those incidents led to campus protests.
“Two times in a row her door was vandalized with some really hateful speech, telling her to leave the campus, that she wasn’t welcome here, that she was ugly based off the color of her skin,” Lauren Johnson, who was one of the protest organizers, told the paper.
“It was really, really aggressive and targeted,” Johnson added. “While this community is very inclusive, there are some microaggressions that happen. But this was a very blatant act of racism, which I think has taken everyone by surprise.”
Several hundred students, staff and allies gathered at the Viterbo University campus on March 11 to protest incidents of hate targeted at students of color. Here is our full coverage leading to Monday’s arrest of a student who said she… https://t.co/Wjm1AV6f9T
— La Crosse Tribune (@LaCrosseTribune) April 19, 2021
On Sunday, April 18, told police she had been out with friends and returned to her dorm at about midnight. She said she went into the kitchen to make food, went into the lounge to wash her hands and went straight to her room, the Tribune reported. When the smoke alarm sounded shortly after 2 a.m., the newspaper reported, she and a friend knocked on people’s doors before leaving the building.
Police noted discrepancies between her stories and the footage on the camera, however.
“The video reportedly shows Unanka left her room around 2:09 a.m. and could be seen glancing around and checking the area for other people. During the next five minutes, she entered a lounge area and a bathroom before returning to her room,” the LaCrosse Tribune’s Steve Rundio reported.
“The report says after the camera picked up images of smoke around 2:14 a.m., Unanka frantically knocked on multiple residents’ doors and pulled a fire alarm. When police arrived at the scene, several students were discussing concerns that the fire was another hate crime incident.”
That may well have been exactly the impression Unanka was trying to create.
When confronted with evidence from the videos, Unanka’s story changed.
She claimed she meant to start a fire by leaving the stove on intentionally, telling police that she was upset “no one was listening to me anymore,” the Tribune reported. However, she said she regretted the decision and returned to the lounge from the bathroom, where she found some food remnants on fire on the stove. When she tried to clean them up with paper towels, those caught on fire; she said she threw those in the garbage.
Whether or not you buy this malodorous story, it gets closer to the truth, one assumes, than the first version did.
“This is a complex situation that involves a series of concerning incidents,” said Glena Temple, president of the Catholic university, according to the Tribune.
“We continue to investigate the incidents earlier in the semester and any potential link between them and this fire.”
I don’t necessarily know for certain whether the earlier incidents were fake, but I’d wager this wasn’t the only hoax in the series.
Unanka was arrested Monday on charges of arson and negligent handling of burning materials, and released on a signature bond. While the LaCrosse Fire Department was able to successfully contain the alleged arson, there was a “fair amount” of smoke damage and the dorm needed to be ventilated, the Tribune reported.
That, fortunately, is where it ended. If the fire hadn’t been controlled, we could have been talking about loss of life. And for what?
If the police report is to be believed, it was so that we would listen to Unanka. It was of such vital importance that she be heard that she was willing to risk the lives of sleeping students — the same students, in all probability, that rallied to her defense the month before.
You’ve got to risk breaking a few eggs, I suppose, to make an omelette.
Unanka is hardly alone in hate hoaxes. Earlier this month, at Albion College in Michigan, a black student is alleged to have scrawled a series of hateful messages that led to similar campus protests and walkouts, including “KKK white power” and “White lives Matter Rally at 4/7/2021 Let’s Kill all N****** on this Campus.”
Those are merely ugly words, however. Fake hate crimes are one thing, but you can’t fake arson.
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