'Free hugs guy' with autism who punched tourist harassed by NYPD for years

Jermaine Himmelstein has been misunderstood for years. © Normal Bob Smith
A man with autism carrying a ‘Free Hugs’ sign in New York City’s famed Times Square punched a female Canadian tourist in the face after she refused to tip him.

Some media outlets and social media users ended up 'pulling a 50 Cent' by trolling the young man, either unaware or uninterested in his clinical diagnosis.

Jermaine Himmelstein is well known in the Big Apple as the "Free Hugs Guy," and because of the low level of financial support given to Americans struggling with mental health issues, he relies on tips in exchange for photographs to survive.

While some criticized him for this, Times Square is full of giant billboards with people who get paid to pose in photos.

Tourist Sophie Violene Dauvois may not have been aware of this background when she refused to give him money three times and the 24-year-old man punched her, the Toronto Star reported.

Himmelstein was arrested and charged with robbery and "fraudulent accosting", according to a New York Police Department spokesperson.

NYPD Chief James O’Neill told the press, “He is no stranger to this. He’s got multiple prior arrests.”

His latter charge, "fraudulent accosting," is defined as "when that person accosts another person in a public place with intent to defraud such person of money or property by means of a trick, swindle, or confidence game," which is how some would describe what happens south down Broadway on Wall Street.

There are conflicting accounts as to what happened, with CBS reporting that the tourist had been taking a photograph and Himmelstein jumped into the picture and “demanded $5,” while ABC and other sources said that Dauvois posed with Himmelstein.

While the media has focused on the irony of a person offering free hugs assaulting someone, many failed to mention Himmelstein's autism.

The New York Times featured the young man in 2013 and detailed his condition. which detailed his autism and his parents’ comments on him. The article explains that while Himmelstein’s hugs are free, he charges for photographs.

At the time, Himmelstein, then 21, had been offering free hugs in Washington Square Park and Greenwich village for a few months.

Video of him being bullied in Union Square emerged that same year.

The article describes Himmelstein persistence and his tendency to resort to “badgering when he is told no,” a common autistic trait.

The Times details an incident when a student refused to take a free hug, saying she had a boyfriend. Himmelstein became upset as the girl was “thinking I’m desperate, having no friends.”

He told the Times he filled a can with water and threw it in her face, along with a cup of ice coffee.

“I’m a little bit disappointed in me,” he said.

His mother, Denise Himmelstein, told the Times that he had said, “I want to be like the Cowboy Ranger and the Cookie Monster," referring to the Times Square characters that pose for tips.”

A number of videos show Himmelstein as an innocent and vulnerable young man, being chased by a homeless man in one instance and accusing an NYPD officer of ripping up his "Free Hugs" sign in another.