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The LGBTQ and Black communities deserve real answers about the Jussie Smollett case
The resolution feels as unresolved and disheartening as the Mueller report.
Those were the first words offered by the Chicago Police Department on Tuesday morning after news broke that Empire actor Jussie Smollett is being cleared of charges he faked his own hate crime. Smollett had been charged with 16 counts of lying to police regarding the alleged Jan. 29 attack, in which he claimed he was targeted by two men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. Smollett—who is gay and Black—said they called him “that Empire faggot,” poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck.
Representatives with the Chicago police force initially declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding his sudden vindication. This was quite a change of pace for the department, which had not been shy about discussing the incident until now.
On Feb. 21, the day of Smollett’s arrest, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson accused the 36-year-old actor of taking “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” During a press briefing, he further claimed that Smollett had mailed himself a threatening letter filled with anthrax-like powder to Fox Studios, where his hit TV show is filmed, and that he paid his attackers $3,500 to stage the crime. Smollett would plead not guilty.
While the police’s narrative was accepted as truth just as quickly as Smollett had been held up as a national hero in the days following the alleged racist, anti-LGBTQ attack, both accounts rapidly unraveled.
Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, the Nigerian brothers who initially claimed Smollett wrote them a check for their alleged roles in the incident, recanted their story twice. First, the Osundairo brothers stated that the payment was actually for training Smollett for an upcoming music video, before claiming they had “tremendous regret” about the media attention the controversy received.
As the story continued to unfold, there were repeated leaks from the Chicago Police Department at every twist and turn. By mid-March, so much information was pouring out of its offices and into the coffee cups of local reporters that the department began conducting its own investigation to track down the leakers.
But this morning at least, all was quiet on the lakefront. When Tanya Chen, an editor for BuzzFeed News, reached out to Chicago law enforcement, she claimed they “deferred” to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office on the matter.
Chicago PD told me they have "no comment" on this breaking Jussie Smollett motion and deferred once again to State Attorneys office. when I pressed, saying the PD has been involved in the case, they again said "no comment" https://t.co/qD4IXNnKly
— Tanya Chen (@Tanya_Chen) March 26, 2019
The subsequent statement from the state’s attorney’s office wasn’t any more enlightening on the subject of why someone who was at the center of a nationwide scandal was suddenly let off the hook with no explanation. Kim Foxx, a representative for the office, claimed prosecutors feel this “is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case.” Foxx cited Smollett’s “volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago.”
While Smollett is a free man, little feels resolved about this case. In fact, its lacking resolution is similar to the anti-climax of the Mueller report. On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr said the 22-month probe did not conclude that President Trump had colluded with Russia during the 2016 election but that the investigation “does not exonerate him” either. However, no one outside of the Justice Department has seen the full report, and it’s likely no one will. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already blocked a proposal to release the report in its entirety, and congressional Democrats continue to call for answers. Meanwhile, Trump has spun the Barr letter as a “total and complete exoneration” ahead of his 2020 reelection campaign, even though it says the opposite.
A similar bifurcation is already occurring after Smollett’s release. Right-wing critics like C.J. Pearson cited the lack of prosecution as evidence of “black privilege” and Jack Posobiec insinuated it was because of “progressive privilege.” Fox News contributor Kat Timpf called the situation “a slap in the face to real victims of real hate crimes,” and conservative actor James Woods suggested Smollett is the new O.J. Simpson.
Although Smollett has maintained Tuesday’s release is proof of his innocence, others disagreed. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the decision not to press further charges as a “whitewash of justice.” Borrowing the language of the Mueller report, first assistant state’s attorney Joseph Magats told the Chicago Tribune that Smollett was not “exonerated,” claiming a deal was struck with the state attorney’s office.
Johnson, meanwhile, claimed in a 1pm CT press briefing that Chicago “is still owed an apology” from Smollett. Offering little insight into behind-the-scenes developments, he likewise blamed the current situation on “prosecutorial discretion.”
If that characterization is true, no one can seem to answer why the state’s attorney would trade over a dozen felonies for community service. It makes no sense.
The only sure thing right now is that the still-unfolding quagmire is a gift to the right—which will exploit the uncertainties surrounding the case to paint Smollett both as an opportunist and a symptom of a larger issue. Without a full explanation about what happened and why, conservatives will continue to use the Smollett case to push an agenda that dismisses and discredits LGBTQ and Black hate-crime victims as liars and frauds.
The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., told Fox and Friends in February that there are “many more hoax hate crimes” than there are real attacks. Just days before that appearance, he retweeted a listicle from the conservative news site the Federalist detailing 15 hate crimes that were allegedly disproven. The article claims liberals are so “addicted… to the narcotic of outrage that the mere fantasy of the attack is all they need to believe it true.”
As outlets like USA Today, Quillette, National Review, Fox News, Reason, and the Daily Caller lambasted the alleged epidemic of hate crime hoaxes, that narrative stuck: A poll conducted last month by Rasmussen Reports found that 40 percent of respondents believe “more and more hate crimes [are] hoaxes.”
However, the vast majority of bias attacks continue to be very, very real. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, approximately 1 percent of hate crimes are later found to be false. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) estimates the ratio of fake hate crimes is a bit higher: between 2 and 8 percent. Meanwhile, harassment and physical attacks on U.S. minorities rose 17 percent during the first year of Trump’s presidency.
The Chicago Police Department and state attorney’s actions will be used to further erode the reality of what hate crime victims go through every day—especially LGBTQ survivors. Queer and trans people of color are the most likely group to be targeted for a bias attack, but now these populations will be met with added scrutiny every time they choose to report an incident or find the bravery to tell their story.
Just as Americans deserve to know the full details of our president’s relationship with a hostile foreign power, the LGBTQ and Black communities deserve more information. If Smollett is vindicated as he claims, why did authorities go out of their way to discredit an innocent victim in a heavy-handed spectacle? If he isn’t vindicated, why won’t the Chicago Police Department and state’s attorney’s office be more transparent about the circumstances that led to what would then be an egregious miscarriage of justice?
Whatever the answers are, it’s LGBTQ people who will bear the heavy burden, especially queer and trans people of color. It’s LGBTQ people who will face the consequences. It’s LGBTQ people who will have to fight for their right to be believed and heard, who will be erased from continued attacks on their community, and who will have to find a way to move on with almost no closure.
It’s been a brutal two months to be LGBTQ, let alone LGBTQ and Black in America. If today proved anything, it’s that the queer community’s pain and disappointment continue to be the norm.
Correction: In a previous version, the quote attributions of C.J. Pearson and Jack Posobiec were unclear.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.