Let’s recap the Jussie Smollett saga, which reached a head on February 21.
Late last January, Jussie Smollett, a black and openly gay actor known for his role on FX’s Empire, reported to the Chicago Police Department a series of hate crimes directed at him. On January 22, a homophobic and racist letter threatening his life was sent. One week later, January 29, Smollett reported being assaulted by two men in Chicago. They reportedly shouted a variety of slurs, wrapped a noose around Smollett’s neck, and said “This is MAGA country!” The same day, Chicago PD began investigating these incidents as hate crimes.
There is no such thing as “racially charged.”
This attack was not “possibly” homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack.
If you don’t like what is happening to our country, then work to change it. It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes. https://t.co/QAi0IYtSeR
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 30, 2019
But as the investigation turned up little, skepticism mounted.The first turn in the story came on February 16, when Chicago PD detectives told the Chicago Tribune that they were investigating whether Smollett paid two brothers $3,500 to stage the whole incident. Smollett and his attorneys denied this vehemently. Four days later, Chicago PD and the Cook County state attorney charged Smollett with filing a false police report, a felony offense.
Finally, on February 21, Smollett turned himself in to Chicago PD, was arrested, his mugshot taken, and later released on $100,000 bond. The superintendent of the Chicago PD held a press conference on the case and stated that Smollett staged the attack and threatening letter because he was “dissatisfied with his salary on Empire.” Future court proceedings will eventually determine the fate of Jussie Smollett the man. The narrative ended February 22, exactly a month after the letter was allegedly sent, when Empire executives officially dropped Smollett from the show, leaving him stained likely forever.
Jussie Smollett is a visible figure, a (former) actor on a popular TV show. He is black, openly gay, vocal about his support for LGBTQ issues. The story of this targeted, explicit, chilling hate crime occupied queer media, social media, and mainstream news for nearly a month. It felt “perfect:” an incident that captured an intersection of race, orientation, political affiliation, in a major American city. It was a visible, volatile, tense flashpoint for a tense, volatile country in a tense, volatile time.
And it was a hoax. A goof. A sweeping piece of performance art that an actor engaged in to gain some publicity and boost his salary. Undoubtedly, Jussie Smollett did an inflaming, selfish, very serious thing that undermined not only the victims of actual hate crimes, but the LGBTQ communities and communities of color that he associated with and spoke for. Jussie Smollett’s stunt may have set these communities back years, and he deserves every ounce of blame and shame set on him.
Like most of you, I've seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I'm sad, frustrated, and disappointed. pic.twitter.com/91OHOymShi
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 21, 2019
Now that we’ve gotten the question of blame out of our system, we need to ask: what do we do now?
What do we do now that every report of a hate crime against a person of color or a queer person will be met with skepticism and doubt? Victims of real hate crimes, abuses, and assaults are all going to face the familiar stonewall propped up again by this farce: “I don’t believe you.” In the long run, that disbelief and doubt will excuse future hate crimes. “That Jussie Smollett guy faked it; you could be faking it too.”
Two days after Chicago PD detectives reported that Smollett may have staged what he staged, Scott Nevins from NewNowNext said about believing Smollett’s story and not apologizing for believing it: “I come from the school of always believing the victim, whether it be from sexual assault, violent hate crimes, hazing, or bullying, until proven that I shouldn’t. It’s the safest way to ensure we protect real victims.”
That was when allegations of a hoax were fresh. Now, with Smollett arrested, surrendered, charged, and dropped from Empire, should be the time to jettison him from the conversation. The longer we, as a community, continue talking about this story, the worse we will look.
But this whole debacle reveals a vulnerability that’s latent in any community, like a queer community, with a history of being marginalized, victimized, and oppressed. We, as a community, are constantly vigilant for injustice, ready to passionately defend ourselves and our own when we feel it. The fact that Smollett’s stunt garnered the response it did from queer media outlets, this one included, speaks to this.
Nevins isn’t wrong in suggesting we continue to support and believe victims of injustice, big and small, until proven that we shouldn’t. Of course we should listen to victims and support them and seek justice. But we also need to be careful, a little more on guard, and prepared to accept the possibility that we’ve been played. Because the story of Jussie Smollett could embolden more opportunists looking to stoke a fire, and actual committers of hate crimes finding a new excuse.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.