One year ago, I received my first online death threat. I was told by an internet user that I should be raped by a pack of white men and burned alive. This individual also hoped that my husband pulls out the "lynch rope soon, when he gets bored" of me. This was backed up by another individual repeatedly saying, "I will rape you." This scenario was horrible, but all too common for female writers, activists and gamers online, where anonymity breeds the lowest level of disgusting human behavior laced with unwarranted vitriol.
Being an activist, writer, and performer who has been in the public eye for nearly 20 years, I have taken my fair share of (unwarranted and sometimes warranted) criticism and attacks. I can laugh at a spirited back and forth with a troll and love impassioned debates with people who think differently than I do. I have never taken what people I don't know have to say online about me very seriously, until my life was threatened in disturbing and sick detail. There was something about that moment, reading how someone felt that I should be sexually assaulted, burned alive or lynched by my own husband, that was surreal and awful. I found the individual's IP address and I called the Los Angeles and Houston Police Departments. Unfortunately, I was told by both agencies that there was nothing I could do to pursue action against someone who said I should be raped and burned alive. The person who threatened me was 19 years old. After getting no help from the Los Angeles or Houston Police Departments, I ended up consulting with a private investigator to locate the individual, but because the threats stopped, I felt no need to persue any further action (even though that has been a huge regret for me). I said nothing about it. I "let it go."
A year later, I sat in horror, shaking, as I read one of the most heinous and detailed racially-motivated death threats I have ever read online -- only this time it wasn't against me, but a New Jersey woman named Heather Smith. Smith allegedly received unsolicited contact from a 24-year-old man, Matt Walters, who is a Cypress, TX resident. He attacked her for her support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The content of this message was far more than someone expressing dissent or feverishly debating conflicts in ideology; it came from a far more sinister place deeply rooted in ignorance, violence, misogyny and racism. He goes into a very methodical and grotesque rant about the exact ways he would kidnap, torture, and kill Smith.
Here are the threats that were directed at Miss Smith by Walters. Please be aware that this is extremely graphic in nature.
When asked about her reaction to reading these threats, Smith had this to say:
Reading the messages was surreal. I've gotten hateful messages before but as I read his incredibly detailed and vivid description of how he wanted to harm me, my heart sank. I haven't had that sort of thing happen to me ever in life. I was astounded and terrified. Just my words made this person want to end my existence in the most horrible way possible.
Smith immediately took action and contacted both Harris County and the Houston Police department in Texas, as well as filed a police report in East Orange, New Jersey. She had this to say about her experience dealing with the police to have this matter investigated:
The police seemed very annoyed. They didn't take it seriously. Houston PD wouldn't even listen to me. I tried to read the message to them and they said, 'No. That is OK.' I informed them that the Harris County PIO (Public Information Officer) urged me to call, but they said no. That person gave me the wrong information [and said] they can't help me because I don't live in Houston. The police here in East Orange, New Jersey did take my report but only after I insisted that this be taken seriously. Several times in the station I had to ask officers not to laugh this off. They were literally half chuckling and saying , 'Oh he's probably just some jerk'. Some jerk that left a detailed description of the vile things he wants to do to me.
The news of the alarming threat against Smith's life spread after her post was shared on a popular Facebook page called "The Love Life of an Asian Guy" (LLAG), which has a very strong following with over 71k supporters. LLAG was created by writer and activist Ranier Maningding. His page focuses on issues pertinent to people of color which includes institutional racism, sexism, politics and pop culture. I asked Maningding why he chose to share this story in an attempt to expose Walters and he said:
I shared this post as a way to supplement Facebook's historic inability to address racism and anti-Black harassment. More than anyone else, Black women are at the receiving end of death threats on Facebook -- through private messages and public comments. Despite the number of Black women who have received death threats on Facebook, they have also received zero support from Facebook's reporting system which is supposed to stop this type of harassment. And sometimes Facebook does step in and bans the harasser -- but only if the victim is white (from what I've seen.) So, if Facebook won't take action to protect people off color, the community needs to step in.
To add insult to injury, Facebook's response to Smith posting her death threat on her own page was to allegedly ban her for seven days due to "Violations of Community Standards". This type of response to someone who has received a very serious death threat conflicts with the media hype that Mark Zuckerberg caused by announcing his commitment to diversity by publicly affirming that his employees were not allowed to cross out "Black Lives Matter" and replace that saying with "All Lives Matter" on their signature wall in the main Facebook office.
Zuckerberg made a public statement on the matter:
I was already very disappointed by this disrespectful behavior before, but after my communication, I now consider this malicious as well. 'Black lives matter' doesn't mean other lives don't. It's simply asking that the black community also achieves the justice they deserve. We've never had rules around what people can write on our walls -- we expect everybody to treat each other with respect. Regardless of the content or location, crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person's speech is more important than another's.
Ranier Maningding is skeptical of Facebook's current stance on racism, due to their inconsistent monitoring and reporting of online harassment against people of color. He stated:
As for Facebook, they need a serious reevaluation of their reporting policy and their community standards. It's ironic that Mark Zuckerberg came out in support of Black Lives Matter during the incident at the Menlo Park office, yet the actual website of Facebook is littered with racism ten times as bad. The Facebook team responsible for reporting, processing account suspensions and determining what posts are deemed racist or not needs to be removed and replaced. They are failing at their job and they are failing the users of Facebook. Since none of us know who is on that team, the responsibility falls back on Mark.
I contacted both Matt Walters and the Houston Police Department and neither parties were available for comment; however, several online conversations with both Matt Walters and his brother were screen shot dismissing his terrible threats as "just a joke", even though he has Facebook posts like this...
Facebook users were also able to contact Matt Walters via text message and he admitted that these attacks were based upon her support of #BlackLivesMatter. He stated that he made these threats against Smith to show his "disgust" for the movement. Walters's terrible lack of foresight in making these types of threats on an account that is linked to his real name, family members, and professional affiliations may now cost him his job, reputation, and possibly some jail time.
Trolling, debating and even fighting occurs online every single day. We have come to expect human beings to have some uneasy discourse when communicating about ideas. I thoroughly support free speech, which includes unpopular speech. But the question I ponder is, when does free speech end and a crime begin? Legally speaking, it can be very unclear. Each state has different laws and penalties regarding cyber-bullying, terroistic threats, harassment, and rape threats online. Texas State Penal Code 22.02 considers placing any person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury a type of terroristic threat, so many online activists and Facebook users are calling for the Houston PD to treat this case as such.
Ranier Maningding and his followers have been very clear on their demands. He stated:
We would like the Houston PD to take full action and address Matt Walters's death threats with the full weight of the law. This isn't a simple 'I hope you die' comment said by a fifteen-year-old boy on XBOX Live. This private message was gruesome, detailed and thought-out by an adult male. The descriptions of prolonged torture and kidnapping cannot be taken lightly and I'm genuinely afraid of the well-being of Black women in the Houston area. We recently reported a man in Seattle for making similar threats and he was arrested the next day with his bail set at $60,000. Houston PD can and should do the same.
Miss Smith has no intentions of letting this issue go and demands that Walters be charged to the fullest extent of the law:
I want Matt arrested and charged for this terroristic threat. This is not OK to do to people. To have people fear for their lives all because they speak out against racism or have a different opinion than you. This sort of intolerance and terrorism should be taken very seriously.
Threats like these are common placed and anti-racism activists are often targeted. I spoke to a well-known West Coast anti-racism activist (who chose to remain anonymous due to the death and rape threats she receives on a regular basis), and she had this to say about why she feels the internet masks hidden racism that individuals don't feel comfortable expressing in their day-to-day lives:
Anonymity is powerful and racists are notorious cowards. The Internet is the hood The KKK hides under. There is also a large population of people (most of them young) who don't necessarily live the hate they share online. They say what they do because, for one brief moment, it makes them feel powerful. I guarantee that the majority of their moms, wives, and girlfriends would be shocked and horrified if they knew. Of course that's not an excuse.
This horrifying story does have a silver lining. Because Smith's account was banned, her original posts were taken offline. Due to hundreds of people capturing screen shots and thousands of supporters recirculating them online, Smith's story did not fall by the wayside. With deep gratitude, she remarked:
The public's reaction has been amazing. I'm floored at the level of support I'm receiving. The positive vibes and messages are so appreciated as well as all the shares, posts, tweets and blogs.
Ranier Maningding spoke with great pride about the online community of activists that have worked to bring attention to this matter:
I'm very proud of the community for rising to the occasion because they have always taken action, every time I send out a warning signal similar to this. It's not just my page that has amplified this story, over 2,000 pages and people have shared this. And we share it because we all get it. As people of color, we understand that Facebook and the justice system don't care about us, so we're taking measures into our own hands. Critical to our ability to spread the word is through screen shots which allow us to get everyone up to speed on what's going on. The proof is in the screen shots.
A year after receiving my very first death threat, I felt extremely guilty for never speaking out publicly. I was afraid of the repercussions of coming forward. Today, I finally can admit: Yes, someone threatened me with rape and that I should be burned alive. Heather Smith did something that I couldn't do until reading her story, which is come forward and speak out against online death and rape threats and talk about how receiving them impacts our life experiences.
Thank you for your bravery, Heather.