When did you first hear about Jussie Smollett? Was it watching Empire? Was it when you heard he had been viciously attacked? Was it when you first heard the rumours that maybe he had lied about the attack, when he was arrested or even when he had the charges against him dropped? Maybe you don’t really know what happened to Jussie Smollett and you wouldn’t be alone. Even now, do we have all the answers? No.
In January, Smollett said two men shouting racist and homophobic insults, referencing Empire, had attacked him. They punched him, poured bleach on him and tied a noose around his neck. They shouted, 'This is MAGA country,' as they walked off. Smollett later recounted the story to Chicago police, who called it a possible hate crime. Days before the crime, Smollett had received a threatening later covered in a white powder: this was clearly the follow-through. Hollywood rallied round, 20th Century Fox released a statement of support from the Empire family and fans flocked to his Instagram to leave messages for him.
The crime was described as a ‘modern lynching’. It was brutal, it was awful, it was shocking, but was it surprising? There was an air of ‘what could you expect in Trump’s America?’ Smollett is a gay, black celebrity in a country that has recently seen white supremacist demonstrations (which the President refused to condemn). Surely, any questions about Smollett’s complicity were spread by the same people?
But there were questions and they were hard to ignore. Questions such as why wasn’t there CCTV footage of the attack, when there were over 20 cameras in the area, which did capture Smollett afterwards? Why did he ask police to turn off their body cameras when talking to him? What about the inconsistencies in the story, his refusal to hand over his phone, the lack of evidence supporting his claims? Besides, MAGA hat-wearers aren’t really Empire’s key demographic. Would they even know who he was?
Was he innocent after all?
There were two people the police were interested in, though: brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo. Brothers who had apparently appeared on Empire. They were arrested, then released and had their statuses changed to ‘witnesses’. Police said they believed the brothers had been paid to attack Smollett— by Smollett.
Less than two months after the attack, Smollett was arrested for filing a false police report and indicted on 16 counts of felony disorderly conduct. He pled not guilty and his hearing was set for April. But then, just as quickly, the charges were dropped. Was he innocent after all? According to Chicago police and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, no. The former have been on the record saying there’s more evidence that suggests it was all a hoax, including phone records that show communication with the assailants and a cheque written to the brothers by Smollett for $3,500. They have said the charges were dropped because of Smollett’s fame. The latter has accused Cook County State’s Attorney’s office of a ‘whitewash of justice.’ Some have even pointed to a link to Michelle Obama.
Smollett might not have been found guilty, but he wasn’t found innocent, either. The charges were dropped; he hasn’t been exonerated and future charges could still be brought. Which means, we still don’t know what happened. What we do know is that the damage that this has caused goes far beyond his injuries.
Issues that impact communities of colour are not always taken seriously.
In Trump’s America, the story was easy to believe. There was a huge rise in the number of reported hate crimes after Trump was elected and reports that the number rose by 17% in 2017. If Smollett did lie, none of that has changed, but it does provide ammunition for people to suggest otherwise, to cry ‘fake news’ and discredit the media and to disregard the hatred that is not even simmering below the surface in America anymore - but marching down the street waving swastikas. It reduces the impact of other accusations of hate crimes. Smollett has been accused of unfairly maligning Trump supporters; Trump himself has called it racism. Don Jr. said it was manufactured to make his supporters ‘look bad’.
Then there are the people in the communities Smollett could have once claimed to represent. Jussie Smollett is a prominent gay, black man—the ‘gay Tupac,’ to use his own words. He was a role model, but a hoax betrays that. And it goes further than that: it could actively harm those communities. As Malik Russel, spokesman for the NAACP, said to USA TODAY: ‘Issues that impact communities of colour are not always taken seriously.’ And if you wanted a reminder of what members of the LGBTQ+ communities face as victims of a crime, look no further than the ‘gay and trans panic defence’. It’s into this culture that this story has been dropped; these are the people that a hoax damages.
Which brings us to the real victims of this story, whether that includes Smollett or not: real victims. Not only have experts said that the case could discourage them from coming forward, but a hoax delegitimises their accounts if they do. Suddenly, there is precedence that their stories could have been made up (even if the percentage of false claims made is tiny). There’s a reason not to believe. And for what?
It’s important to remember that Smollett has consistently claimed his innocence. But what would have been his motives for a hoax? His contract with Empire was ending and there have been suggestions he did it to raise his salary. The fallout has ensured the opposite: his career has been essentially torpedoed. His reputation has been dismantled.
The fact is, we might never know the truth. But there are some facts—the cheque being a key one—that are hard to ignore. As it is, the consequences of a possible lie go far beyond this one actor. It has given fuel to some of the most hate-filled people and delegitimises the stories from real victims of hate crimes, as Smollett once claimed to be.