By EMMA BRUSTKERN
On Jan. 29, when news of the alleged attack against Jussie Smollett broke, I was utterly outraged. Smollett, well-known for playing Jamal on the hit television show “Empire,” was reportedly the target of a hate crime.
Smollett reported the details of his alleged attack to the Chicago Police Department, stating that he was assaulted by two individuals who yelled out racial and homophobic slurs and told him this was “MAGA country” in reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Additionally, Smollett told police that his attackers poured an unknown chemical substance on him and wrapped a noose around his neck.
The surge of support following the incident was massive. Fans, as well as activists, rallied around Smollett, posting messages on social media praying for his well-being and praising him for his strength. Many people viewed it as a prime example of the society we live in, given that the number of hate crimes in the United States has gone up in recent years. According to the FBI, hate crimes rose 17 percent in 2017 alone. Furthermore, a 2018 study by the Human Rights Campaign shows that 67 percent of black LGBT youth surveyed had been verbally insulted and 30 percent had been physically threatened. Many people are aware that it’s a dangerous world for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially when an individual exists at the intersection of those identities. Even so, the fact that someone with a certain degree of fame had been targeted felt like a punch in the face. If even celebrities like Smollett weren’t safe, how could anyone like him feel comfortable roaming the streets?
So when police said they had taken suspects in for questioning, I had hope that there would be justice for this situation, that the queer community and people of color could at least have one win under their belt. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the story.
The details that came next were among some of the most baffling I have ever seen. After a pair of Nigerian brothers who were assumed to be the attackers were taken into custody, the police released them and said they were no longer suspects. Instead, police identified Smollett himself as a suspect in the case, claiming that the entire attack was faked because Smollett was unhappy with his salary. The police allege that Smollett paid the brothers, one of whom was an extra on “Empire,” to stage an attack against him. Smollett turned himself in on Feb. 21. He faces a felony charge for disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a fake police report. Although his lawyers say that they are going to mount an aggressive defense on Smollett’s behalf, his situation is arguably dismal as police say they found phone records that show he talked to the alleged attackers before and after he was allegedly assaulted, and a text from Smollett that shows he paid the brothers $100 to buy supplies.
Smollett is innocent until proven guilty, and that is something I will maintain until a verdict is come to. However, if Smollett did lie, it is a complete and total betrayal of the communities he has strived to fight for and represent. The pain and anguish I felt for him, that the communities who were affected felt for him, has turned to confusion and anger. The fact that someone would use hate as a weapon to promote their own career is beyond despicable. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I am deeply concerned about the repercussions of Smollett’s alleged falsehoods. This one highly publicized story is already serving to discredit hate crimes as a whole. Even prior to this case, victims of violence have had to answer to critics regarding the credibility of their attacks, only serving to further traumatize them. If Smollett’s story is false, as law enforcement believes it to be, then he is only causing more trauma for some of our countries most marginalized communities. The backlash resulting from his potentially made-up attack could likely discourage other victims of hate crimes from coming forward for fear of not being believed or helped.
After news broke that Smollett might be lying, I immediately felt disheartened. And yet, at the end of the day, I am not sorry that I believed Smollett’s story. No one, especially those from the black or queer community, should feel shame or guilt for believing him. The fact of the matter is, whether or not the attack on Smollett is real, hate is alive and well in America. The Matthew Shepherd Foundation reports that since Smollett came forward with his version of the story, 410 hate crimes have been documented. Those numbers should alarm you, and they need to be given the same amount of energy and passion that we originally gave Smollett.
I think it’s important for anyone following this story to remember that false reports are the exception, not the rule. If Smollett did lie, that is truly detestable, but it won’t stop me from continuing to believe victims. There are people out there who are suffering due to the hatred of others. Those individuals are in need of compassion and sympathy. I’m proud to say that I will continue to believe victims, and I will continue to speak out against homophobia, racism and any kind of bigotry. I hope you all will do the same.
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