Over the past several weeks, the case of Jussie Smollett’s assault has been at the forefront of national news. Around 2 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 29, the actor was allegedly attacked by two masked men who hung a noose around his neck and doused him in bleach while beating him and shouting slurs.
There was skepticism surrounding Smollett’s case from the beginning due to holes in the story and timeline, as well as the lack of concrete evidence. For instance, the actual assault was not caught on any surveillance cameras, and there were no witnesses other than Smollett’s manager, who only heard the encounter over the phone.
It was classified immediately by authorities as a hate crime, as it should have been. On Feb. 1, early on in the investigation, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson commented on the progress and nature of the case by saying that they were treating Smollett as a “victim,” and that the Chicago Police Department had “no reason to think that he [was] not being genuine.”
On Feb. 13, two suspects were ascertained from a surveillance image which corroborated Smollett’s description of his assailants: brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo. The police raided their home and found items of interest, most notably an “Empire” script and a black ski mask. The police questioned the brothers but released them two days later, stating that they were no longer suspects in the investigation.
At this point the police were fairly certain that the attack on Smollett was staged. The brothers provided statements and evidence claiming that Smollett had hired them to play out the assault. They turned over texts exchanged with Smollett where they agreed to meet face-to-face after the actor asked them to help him with something that he said needed to be done “on the low.” They also provided a check made out by Smollett to the brothers, dated Jan. 23 for a total $3,500.
On Feb. 21, Smollett surrendered himself to police who had issued him a class 4 felony charge for disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. His bail was placed at $100,000, which he later posted and was released.
Chicago Police Superintendent Johnson, who initially gave Smollett the benefit of the doubt in his case, held a news conference Thursday where he stated that “Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” and that he “wish[ed] that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Smollett’s selfish actions must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. He capitalized on the fear and weakness of Black and Queer Americans, who he claims to represent and support, and exploited legal and police institutions, which are often accused of not doing enough for the easily silenced and ignored voices of minority citizens. The impact of Smollett’s crimes on the Black and Queer communities in America, as well as on the collective minority populace, will be felt for years to come at best.
Smollett’s publicity stunt has also provided ammunition for the right-wing media and the Trump base, who both assert that liberals will go to any lengths to demonize the president. Within hours of Smollett turning himself over to the police, Trump called out the actor on twitter, tagging him and writing, “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” The tweet ended with the hashtag, “MAGA,” and garnered well over 200,000 likes.
I do not think it is possible to accurately gauge the extent of the damage that Jussie Smollett has done to minority communities and their efforts to reach equal social and legal footing in the United States. He took advantage of our social progress. In doing so, he has enabled racist structures in our country, which will use his case as justification for doubting or disregarding the claims of hate crime victims.
It is also important to note that our political atmosphere fluctuates hourly. With federal investigations, government instability and the impending presidential races, it will likely only become more volatile. Trump and other right-wing figure heads have already seized on Smollett’s actions for their agendas. Our unsteady political and social landscapes will likely destabilize further as people cite the case in debates about topics such as police brutality and immigration, key issues for minority communities in the United States.