University of Iowa diversity official says hate-crime hoaxer deserves 'empathy'

Marcus Owens, the black University of Iowa freshman who plunged the college town of Iowa City into turmoil after falsely claiming to have been the victim of a hate crime, deserves to be treated with “empathy,” said a top diversity official at the University of Iowa.

Sherry Watt, an associate professor of education and a faculty fellow for the school’s Chief Diversity Office, made her comments as the University of Iowa on Wednesday hosted a “community conversation” about the hate-crime hoax at the student union.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen, a morning newspaper, quoted Watt as saying: “I hope there is some understanding about how people can make really big and not wise mistakes in college. I hope there is some empathy for that process – for the fraternity members (involved in the fight) as well as for Marcus.”

She added, “We always hope that people will learn from those mistakes. I hope there will be that kind of sentiment offered to Marcus ... if he chooses to come back.”

Owens, 19, had claimed that three white men yelling racial slurs had jumped him on the night of April 30, after he came out of a downtown bar.  But on Tuesday, Iowa City police revealed that an exhaustive investigation, which had relied upon surveillance video and eyewitnesses, showed that Owens had in fact instigated multiple fights – and that the drunken mayhem he provoked that night, and injuries he received, were his own fault.  Although somebody did indeed utter a racial slur during the altercations, police said that didn't rise to the level of a hate crime.  Whether the person who uttered the slur is black or white was not reported.  Owens and his family – who had given several media interviews, and even met with University of Iowa president J. Bruce Harreld – subsequently issued an apology.

Prosecutors decided not to charge Owens for filing a false police report, believing it was more important to get out the truth about what happened, instead of undertaking a prosecution that would have prevented some material from being immediately released, the Press-Citizen reported.  Apparently, Owens will not be expelled.  His lawyer told the Press-Citizen his client plans to return to the University of Iowa and complete his business degree.

Referring to Owens’s tall tales, Watt pointed out that the young man's claims were nevertheless believable because of the undercurrent of racism that, she claims, exists in Iowa City and across the country.

“It wasn't out-of-reach to think that something like that will happen,” she said.  “Regardless of how people feel, it was easy for those feelings to bubble up given the state of things right now and the bias that is perpetuated nationwide.”

Reporting on Wednesday's “community conversation,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette relayed that the event attracted nearly 100 people from the University of Iowa community, who discussed “social justice issues affecting the campus – including this week’s news that a student’s hate-crime report was fabricated.”

According to the Gazette, graduate student Ruth Bryant said Owens’s entire account should not be entirely discredited just because portions of it were wrong.  After all, she observed, a racial slur was used.

“He was horribly injured – those white boys weren't injured,” Bryant said. “Racism is rampant in this town, and the level of victim blaming and victim denying that’s happening as a result of this is horrifying and outrageous.”

Another man said he’s frustrated by those who ignore the news that Owens fabricated the story and would rather there have been a hate crime.

After the event, UI staff member Micah Ariel James said she felt the discussion was productive and hopes it doesn't stop just because Owens’ report was false and the spring semester is over.

“I think it’s good to have these sorts of conversations, especially in these heated moments,” James said.

Upon learning that Owens made up the story, James said her feelings didn't totally change.

“I just felt like even if it wasn't a hate crime, there was definitely hate involved,” she said. “And I was frustrated that I knew people would use those doubts to dismiss the whole concept and idea that there could be that kind of hate and that people do actually feel uncomfortable on campus and in town.”

There sure is a lot of hate in Iowa City – as reflected in how some people (who seem to feel uncomfortable in their own skins) are reacting to Marcus Owens’s hate-crime hoax.  Imagine a different hate-crime hoax – a white student who falsely claims that black students attacked him while yelling racial slurs.  Somehow, it seems doubtful that university officials would be calling for members of the university community to treat him with “empathy.”

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