The Smollett Saga

If you need to know one thing about me it’s that I never finish TV shows. I love the Office, The X-Files and That '70s Show, but I can’t make it from beginning to end. The one show that I have intentionally seen from beginning to end (Friends doesn’t count, it’s literally always on) is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I have always loved the ‘ripped from the headlines’ plots and the unconventional twists and turns that always leave me reeling. Lately, following the news has been like watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit when following the case of Jussie Smollett.

Jussie Smollett is an openly gay, African-American actor in the Fox hit television show, Empire. He was recently attacked in the early morning of January 29 in Chicago by two men who allegedly called him racial and homophobic slurs, beat him, wrapped a noose around his neck and shouted, “This is MAGA country.” This hate crime is disgusting and horrifying, and this kind of behavior and attitude has no place here or anywhere else. However, this incident may have never happened. Smollett was just arrested on the morning of February 21 and charged with disorderly conduct for filing a false police report about one month after his alleged attack.

Things began to not add up from the start. First, the police were unable to find any surveillance footage that captured the attack. Secondly, rumors on social media appeared, stating that Smollett was not being cooperative with the police and that the attack was made up. Then, police stated that Smollett wouldn’t turn over all of his phone records and the ones he did turn over weren’t enough. Smollett rebutted this by saying he was protecting the privacy of the people in the redacted parts and it was irrelevant.

Next, the police reported the two suspects they had in custody, two Nigerian brothers in their 20s, were released. A source revealed that Smollett was being investigated for hiring the brothers to attack him. It was then published that one of the brothers was Smollett’s personal trainer and the other one was an extra on Empire. Finally, it was announced that Smollett was a suspect in the felony investigation of filing a false police report and then he turned himself in February 21. The superintendent of the Chicago police stated that Smollett faked the threatening letter he received predating the attack, and the attack was staged because his salary was too low on the show.

Jussie Smollett is currently out on bail. He was also recently dropped from Empire by Fox. On February 25, the Chicago police came forward and said they had more evidence against Jussie Smollett, including the $3,500 that Smollett apparently used to pay the brothers. Smollett claims that this was used to pay them for personal training. He and his family have maintained his innocence throughout this ordeal, but everyone else has not been kind.

Across the political spectrum there has been outrage, anger and pain at Smollett’s behavior. Responses range from Donald Trump tweeting, “@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA,” to Kamala Harris tweeting, “When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.” Celebrities have also weighed in with Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and 13th, tweeting, “Despite the inconsistencies, I can’t blindly believe Chicago PD,” referring to the Chicago Police Department cover up of the shooting of Laquan McDonald, and Ira Madison III, a podcaster, tweeting, “If white people wanna go tit-for-tat about false crimes on this here app we can open up a history book and look every lynching that occurred in America.” Tyler Perry, the filmmaker behind the Madea film franchise, posted on Instagram that he wished that the disappearance of Terrance Williams and Felipe Santos received as much attention as Smollett’s case, and Yvette Nicole Brown, an American actress, reminded people that standing by the victim is important.

It’s important to remember in the midst of all of this that Smollett is absolutely presumed innocent before guilty and more details have yet to unfold. If Smollett is found guilty he may face up to three years in prison, be forced to pay for the investigation and have this story follow him for the rest of his life. That’s a high price to pay. While the sensationalism of a celebrity faking a crime to get a bigger salary is enticing, it must remain in focus that hate crimes in the country have in fact increased, even if this one turns out to be a hoax. The most recent data from the FBI finds that hate crimes have increased by 17% from 2016 to 2017, and 28% of the over 7,000 hate crimes were against African Americans.

It is absolutely reprehensible to commit a hate crime hoax because it makes it less likely for others to come forward and be believed. It also distracts from the bigger picture that hate crimes have increased. The conversation around hate crimes has also changed. Now, when the next gay, black man is attacked for his race or his sexual orientation or both, he may have less of a chance of being believed, and that's the biggest crime here.