A timeline of the Jussie Smollett case and why it matters for survivors
On January 22, Jussie Smollett, an actor best known for his role on the Fox TV show Empire, received a death threat. The letter depicted a stick figure hanging from a tree with a gun to its head with “Smollett, Jussie you will die” and “MAGA” written below the image. The letter also included a white substance, which authorities later identified as Tylenol.
A week later, on January 29, Smollett reported to the Chicago Police that he had been attacked early in the morning outside his apartment. He claimed two masked men assaulted him while yelling racial and homophobic slurs and telling him that “this is MAGA country.” The assailants poured an unknown liquid on Smollett, he reported, and then placed a noose around his neck before the actor was able to fight them off. Smollett was later treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
In the wake of this news, Smollett received an outpouring of support and love from the likes of presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, actresses Yara Shahidi, Zendaya, and Viola Davis, as well as many other celebrities of color. The incident was investigated as a hate crime and hundreds of news headlines began to pick up the story and praise Smollett for his strength in the face of such adversity. Some social media followers expressed skepticism that the claims were true, to which Smollett replied that if his attackers — who he had identified as white — were black, Mexican, or Muslim, “the doubters would have supported me much more” and that “that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.”
On February 13, Chicago police raided the home of two Nigerian brothers and found bleach and other items linked to Smollett’s case. The Chicago Police Department reported that they were holding the brothers — who had not only been extras on Empire but had trained at the gym with Smollett — in custody and were now investigating whether or not the attack had happened at all. Three days later, on February 16, Chicago Police found evidence that indicated Smollett had paid his alleged attackers $3,500 to stage the hate crime. The brothers were even seen on a store’s security camera buying the gloves and ski masks and asking specifically for a MAGA hat. Police also found evidence that Smollett had sent himself the death threat.
On February 20, Smollett was charged with his first felony, for filling out a false police report, and on March 8, he was indicted on 16 counts of making false statements to the police.
Many believed Smollett staged the attack in order to gain media attention that painted him as a hero of the black and LGBTQ+ communities. But his actions have had the opposite effect: He has been removed from the final episodes of Empire and ridiculed on media outlets such as The Daily Show and across social media.
The worst thing about Jussie Smollett’s hoax is not that he lied, and in doing so wasted the Chicago Police Department’s time, embarrassed those who publicly supported him, and broke his fans’ trust. The most damaging part of Smollet’s lie is that he has reinforced long standing myths that marginalized victims are liars, and has made it harder for future survivors of real hate crimes to be believed. When we talk about sexual assault, we often discuss the ways in which victim blaming occurs. Victims of sexual assault, who are primarily young women, are often doubted and discredited. Thanks to Jussie Smollett, the same damaging expectation has now been reinforced for the already marginalized victims of hate crimes, too.
The important thing to remember in light of Jussie Smollett’s felony indictments is that we must keep believing victims and supporting them in their struggles to seek justice. It is still true that the number of hate crimes is rising and that Trump supporters across the country are harassing minorities. Despite such a prominent figure letting down black and LGBTQ+ people alike, therefore, it is necessary to stick together and make each other feel heard, seen, and loved.
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