Activists worry that Jussie Smollett arrest will discourage hate-crime reporting by real victims

Kadia Tubman
Reporter
Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County Jail in Chicago following his release, Feb. 21, 2019. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

Actor Jussie Smollett was free on bond Thursday afternoon after being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly falsifying a police report of a hate crime — an attack police say he staged himself and blamed on supporters of President Trump.

In a press briefing after Smollett turned himself into Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said, “Mr. Smollett is the one that orchestrated this crime” because he was “dissatisfied with his salary.”

The dramatic turn of events in the case was treated by Trump as a vindication, and disheartened gay rights and civil rights advocates who fear that it will discourage future victims of hate crimes from coming forward.

Smollett, an openly gay actor who plays a gay character on the Fox series “Empire,” reported that he was attacked on Jan. 29 by two men yelling “MAGA country!” as well as homophobic and racist slurs while beating him, putting a noose around his neck and pouring bleach on him. Smollett claimed he had received a threatening letter a week earlier — which he is also suspected of having written and sent himself.

This surveillance image shows two men who had been “persons of interest” in the alleged attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett walking in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Chicago Police Department via AP)

Although there was an outpouring of support and sympathy from celebrities, politicians and LGBT allies, doubts soon emerged about the actor’s story. Within a week after the attack, Smollett in a “Good Morning America” interview said he was heartbroken by the people who questioned his story. And as more holes in his account emerged, Smollett stuck to his account.

After reports surfaced that Smollett paid two men $3,500 to stage the attack, Smollett continued to deny orchestrating it.

In his first statement published by Essence magazine on Feb. 1, he said he had been “100% factual and consistent on every level. Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe that justice will be served.”

At the press conference, Johnson, who called the attack a “publicity stunt,” said, “Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks during a press conference about the arrest of Jussie Smollett. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Bogus police reports cause real harm,” he said. “They do harm to every legitimate victim.” Johnson said he was “concerned about what this means moving forward for hate crimes.”

And so are civil rights and justice advocates.

“There’s more disappointment that’s surfaced since the full story and timeline has surfaced,” said Christian Nunes, who is a board member of the National Organization for Women. “It’s disheartening to think that this would take place in order to get publicity for his career when there are so many victims who are seeking justice and are disregarded or not given justice because of the fact that they are people of color and from the gay community.”

“We are dealing with so many issues from people of color to black girls to black men to black women to the LGBTQIA community to women in general who are not being believed for their victimization,” said Nunes, who believes Smollett “sensationalized the injustice” felt by these communities and helped confirm for others why the police should be hard on victims.

“This is devastating that someone would do this, that someone would go through these lengths to pretend that they were a survivor of hate violence,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told Yahoo News. “And at the same time, it doesn’t take away what we’ve been saying all along is that you know these incidents like these are real and are devastating to the survivors.”

When Smollett’s story broke, it was a “no-brainer that we would stand with Jussie as a survivor,” Tillery said.

“Many survivors don’t come forward. People for many reasons are either afraid to speak up or feel like there’s no point in it, that nothing will come out of it,” she said. “When people come forward and tell these stories whether it’s stories of sexual violence or stories of hate violence there’s always scrutiny.”

She added: “They treated Jesse as a survivor and a victim because that’s exactly how people should be treated when they come forward. They should be given respect. They should be believed until there’s any reason for them not to be.”

Jussie Smollett’s booking photo. (Photo: Chicago Police Department via AP)

Commentators such as CNN anchor Don Lemon worried that the debacle would become a talking point for conservatives who maintain that racism against blacks is exaggerated. “Sean Hannity’s going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second,” Lemon said. “Tucker Carlson is going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second. … The president of the United States is going to eat his lunch.”

David Johns, executive director for the National Black Justice Coalition, said evidence Smollett staged the incident “will elicit a visceral response” that will reinforce the tendency to not want to trust or to call into question the experiences that are associated sometimes with being [black and] queer.”

“But the sad reality is that this happens to black LGBTQ people every single day,” Johns told Yahoo News. “Every year there are around 30 black trans women who are murdered. Many if not all go unsolved, if acknowledged at all.”

Last year was one of the deadliest for trans people in the U.S., with at least 28 killed. Overall, hate crimes in the have seen an annual increase over the past three years. According to hate crime statistics from the FBI, the majority of reported incidents in 2017 were motivated by race or ethnicity, with anti-black or African-American bias representing the most. Of all the sexual-orientation-based hate crimes reported in 2017, 58.2 percent were against gay men.

Johns questioned why reports that two gay black men died in the homes of Democratic donor Ed Buck haven’t received more coverage. He also hoped Smollett will be treated as leniently as other celebrities who have made false claims, like U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte who made up a story about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio during the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Lochte was suspended from competitive swimming for 10 months, lost his sponsorships and was sentenced to community service, but was not jailed.

“If we allowed Ryan Lochte to apologize and not throw him in jail, we should allow Jesse to go through a similar process,” said Johns. “What’s not often afforded to black people, let alone black queer people, is due process. This should not be tried in the court of public opinion.”

Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte in Rio de Janeiro, August 2016. (Photo: Michael Sohn/AP)

Some activists rallied around Smollett.  “We have to still believe in him,” said Mario Benabe, who leads the Black Lives Matter New York youth chapter. “Although his claim turned out to be false or people are still questioning what happened, at the end of the day, what he described is a real situation that has happened to many people. Being young, indigenous, black, brown and [out], our bodies are constantly being threatened.”

Benabe wonders how the young people he works with will respond to Smollett’s story, but doubts it’ll prevent them from sharing their experiences. “Maybe they will ask the question, ‘Do you believe me?’” said Benabe. “And the short answer, the most righteous answer, is yes.”

He continued: “[Smollett] is still a person, his humanity is still there. I’m not going to dismiss who he is and the work that he’s done just because of this one claim. He is a leader. He is someone that has done work for his community.”

Brian Wenke, executive director of the It Gets Better Project, which was founded in response to gay teen suicides, knows how important it is to believe a victim’s story. “Our work is all about collecting and sharing stories of resilience and triumph from the LGBTQ community, and many of these stories are riddled with tales of abuse, neglect, rejection and fear — and we don’t question their validity,” Wenke told Yahoo News. “And when it comes to hate crimes, we as a society have an obligation to the victim to investigate their story thoroughly regardless of what we think is truth. If accusations prove false, then justice will ideally prevail. We expect the same when accusations prove true.”

Supporters of actor Jussie Smollett attend a rally in Manhattan, Feb. 1, 2019. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

“But let’s be honest,” he continued, “how many hate crimes are brushed aside or not reported because a victim is more fearful of police response or they’re so burdened by this systematized oppression that they’ve lost faith in society’s desire or ability to see justice served?”

He added: “False accusations are a very, very small percentage of the total investigated hate crimes, and I would hesitate to say that it would destroy a movement.”

“If anything, it’s more of a reminder of the vulnerability of people rather than calling into question their legitimacy,” said Bridget de Gersigny, communications director at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. “The biggest thing that we should be looking at is why attacks of racism and homophobia are consistently used to suppress people and attract our attention away from the real issues.”

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