Last month, news broke about Jussie Smollett, a gay African- American actor, best known for his work on ‘Empire’. In the early hours of 29 January, Smollett reported to the Chicago police that he had been punched in the stomach, had bleach poured on him, a noose tied around his neck and had racist and homophobic slurs shouted at him by two masked attackers. He had been victim to horrific and appalling hate crime. The men were also said to have shouted ‘MAGA Country’ during their attack on him.
The shocking and harrowing criminal attack was thrust into the spotlight, due to its uncomfortable relevance, with an immediate outpouring of support. Seemingly, it tapped into every fear and tension generated since the 2016 American election.
In the following weeks, there has been mounting skepticism surrounding the events of the attack, and more specifically in regards to Smollett’s role in the whole affair. The skepticism began with unnamed police sources and unfounded tips. And then on 21 February, Smollett was arrested by the Chicago Police after being indicted for the felony of disorderly conduct in the filling of a false police report. There is now growing evidence that two brothers, who had both worked on the set of ‘Empire’ were paid to take part in the attack at Smollett’s behest. There are also questions surrounding the threatening letter that was sent to Smollett in the weeks prior to the attack.
Of course, in retrospect, the attack seems somewhat theatrical. When the police arrived at Smollett’s, he still had the noose hanging around his neck, some 45 minutes after the attack. Smollett then took the police to the scene of the crime and pointed out a surveillance camera that would have captured the whole event, though it turned out to be pointed away from the criminal action. We must not forget the assailants’ shout of that, unfortunately, iconic phrase. It seems to be just too perfect, too timely, too orchestrated and perhaps seeking mass media and political attention. Indeed, Chicago Police Department have now officially come to the conclusion that Smollett choreographed the event, with the purpose of furthering his career.
But really, whatever the outcome, this has been nothing but damaging and devastating. Damaging to the notion that Donald Trump’s presidency has given rise to hate crimes. Devastating to the very real victims of hate crimes who will likely endure even more disbelief and distrust when it comes to telling their stories.
Similarly to when it comes to hoax race accusations, fabricating a hate crime only hurts the most vulnerable. It does a great disservice to victims and gives vindication and justification to those who refuse to believe victims out of deliberate ignorance.
Reports have found that there has been a nearly 17% jump in hate crimes in the United States during Trump’s first year of presidency. Anti-Semitic crimes rose 37% in 2017, with Jewish people being subject to 60% of hate crimes in 2017. The fabrication of an event like this is insulting to the victims of hate crimes, to the victims of crimes that do not gather as much media attention, to those who are routinely subject to racial discrimination and prejudice. This case is disheartening and disappointing. What a place we have come to, that people are now staging their own attacks in the knowledge it will strike a chord with the media in a very real, very scary narrative.