In late January, "Empire" star Jussie Smollett said he was brutalized in a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago. His story captured the attention and support of many. But as the days went on and the investigation unfolded, damning information leaked to the media and skepticism muddled Smollett's original account. The gradual unraveling of Smollett's story culminated in his arrest Thursday morning for filing a false police report, according to the Chicago Police.
Anthony Guglielmi, the chief spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said Wednesday night that "Jussie Smollett is now officially classified as a suspect" and shortly afterwards he said that "federal criminal charges have been approved." Guglielmi added this morning, on a lengthy Twitter thread that documented updates to the investigation, that Smollett was in police custody.
Smollett, who is black and gay, said he had ventured out for food late one night in Chicago when two men in ski masks approached him, yelling racist and homophobic slurs, as well as, referencing President Donald Trump's Make America Great Again slogan, "MAGA country." He claimed the two men physically attacked him, poured bleach on him and tied a noose around his neck before running away. (Smollett also said that he had received a racist threatening letter containing a white powder a week prior to the alleged attack, which the FBI is investigating.)
From celebrities to politicians to activists, social media was awash with support for Smollett. As I wrote back in January, the alleged hate crime came after a particularly grueling and vicious month for the LGBTQ community, from the Supreme Court-approved transgender military ban to the horrific allegations against director Bryan Singer, in which vulnerable queer boys were at the center. Also, the mention of "MAGA country" put a spotlight on the rise in hate crimes in America and abroad, as well as the rhetoric, policies and players of Trump's administration. As comedian Mohanad Elshieky told me, and many share his assessment, "hate now has a more amplified voice and it has very strong support in the White House."
But then, with no surveillance footage or eyewitnesses to the attack, Smollett's case began to fall apart. As the investigation progressed and a seemingly unending amount of information leaked to the press — attributed to anonymous Chicago Police sources — the alleged hate crime morphed into another round in the "culture wars," in which Trump supporters chided the media for reporting what Smollett and the police had initially said, and used the developing story as more ammunition to distrust the "liberal press" more generally. What did or did not happen to Smollett quickly turned into the Covington Catholic Washington Mall debate all over again, used to litigate or substantiate already-existing political beliefs.
Through Smollett's attorneys, he denies the charge. "Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked," his lawyers said in a statement. "Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense."
But in a press conference Thursday, Eddie Johnson, superintendent of Chicago Police, alleged that the entirety of Smollett's story, including the threatening letter, was a "publicity stunt" motivated by Smollett's dissatisfaction with his "Empire" salary, according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Sam Charles. Calling the alleged scheme "shameful," Johnson claims Smollett sent the letter to Fox and when that didn't get traction he paid two brothers $3,500 to fake the attack.
In Illinois, filing a false police report, categorized as disorderly conduct, can carry a misdemeanor or felony charges, according to the New York Times. Smollett, charged with the latter, faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison if convicted.
However, whatever the outcome of Smollett's individual case, the damage is done. Those hurt most by this will likely be other victims who try to come forward, and especially queer black people who are not wealthy or famous and remain vulnerable to multiple forms of violence. If Smollett lied, it doesn't diminish the overarching brutality of racism and homophobia, but his case will be used to dismiss it anyway.
Those who didn't need any incentive to be skeptical, especially about stories concerning violence and abuse against anyone marginalized, will forever hold up Smollett's story, whether he is proven guilty or not — as happened with Tawana Brawley, the Duke Lacrosse team, and the Rolling Stone UVA rape story before him — listing off examples of hoaxes that can easily be counted on one hand and tweeted out with room for commentary to spare. It's worth remembering that if we tried to tally those who come forward with credible stories that are proven to be true, we will run out of fingers and lose breath very quickly.
I don't regret believing someone who said they were victimized. I don't regret acknowledging that racism and homophobia continue to thrive and intersect, and that crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color remain underreported because of a general lack of trust of the police. I don't regret remaining skeptical about the motives of the Chicago police, a department notoriously and historically anti-black. I don't regret being initially wary of the unnamed sources leaking details about Smollett's story and insinuations about his character, knowing it's a routine we have witnessed repeatedly when black people, violence, and the police interact. My only regret is what happens to the other queer black people whose stories come after Smollett's alleged hoax, who are without his many resources, whose pain could be discredited because of him.
On Feb. 14, Smollett sat down for an interview with Robin Roberts on ABC's "Good Morning America" to address the ongoing skepticism and conflicting media reports about his claim. "You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this," he said to Roberts. This is one thing about this story that Smollett has said that we can know is true. Unfortunately, others could suffer greater consequences as a result.