Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson appear at a news conference in Chicago, Tuesday, March 26, 2019, after prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, abandoning the case barely five weeks after he was accused of lying to police about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack in downtown Chicago. The mayor and police chief blasted the decision and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged a hoax. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

Smollett saga shook public trust, heightened racial tensions

Jussie Smollett had reported a late-night attack by assailants shouting racial and anti-gay slurs

In the two months since Jussie Smollett reported a late-night attack by assailants shouting racial and anti-gay slurs, the “Empire” actor and activist went from victim to defendant. Police and many in the black community rallied to his defence before condemning his account as a hoax.

On Tuesday, Smollett was a defendant no more after prosecutors dropped the criminal case that had loomed over him for weeks. He expressed gratitude to fans and maintained his version of events.

“I am a man of faith, and I am a man that has knowledge of my history. And I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this. I just wouldn’t,” he told reporters after an emergency court hearing that cleared his record.

The decision to drop charges has sparked a backlash that prompted the actor’s attorney to issue a blistering statement Wednesday accusing Chicago officials and police of trying to “smear” Smollett even after the case is closed.

“We are disappointed the local authorities have continued their campaign against Jussie Smollett after the charges against him have been dropped,” said attorney Patricia Brown Holmes, “We should all allow Mr. Smollett to move on with his life as a free citizen.”

Smollett’s bizarre saga has shaken the public trust, exposed the country’s deep racial wounds and damaged his acting career and his advocacy for African-Americans and LGBT issues. Left behind are hurt and blame and many questions that will likely go unanswered.

“Black people will see this as a black mark,” Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson said. “Given what the consequences are, this does not help anybody. It doesn’t help the police department. It doesn’t help black activism. It doesn’t help Mr. Smollett. Everybody loses and nobody wins.”

Smollett, who is black and gay, reported to Chicago police that he was attacked around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 on his way home from a sandwich shop. He said his attackers threw some kind of chemical on him, looped a rope around his neck and beat him up while hurling slurs and yelling “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

READ MORE: All charges dropped against ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett

READ MORE: Smollett attorney wants focus on brothers’ role in attack

The initial reports were frightening for many people, prompting a rush to judgment led in large part by black Americans and fueled by social media, with politicians, entertainers and the general public weighing in.

“Social media allows all of us to be skeptics, and it allows all of us to ask questions and probe in public,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online civil rights organization Color of Change. “There’s the incentive to be first, to be loud, to be different in order to drive your visibility. The information that first came out was so visceral and scary for so many.”

Within days, a new narrative emerged. Investigators claimed Smollett made a false report to police because he was unhappy with his pay on the Fox television show and believed the attention would promote his career.

Since the charges were dropped, many of those same voices have been reserved, reluctant to chime in or exhausted by the whiplash developments. Their silence stood in contrast to both outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who blasted Smollett as an opportunist who conjured a hate crime to enrich himself at the expense of the city and actual victims.

“This casts a shadow of whether they’re telling the truth, and he did this all in the name of self-promotion,” Emanuel told reporters at a news conference. “And he used the laws of the hate crime legislation that all of us collectively over years have put on the books to stand up to be the values that embody what we believe in. This is a whitewash of justice.”

It was a surreal moment for some activists still angered over Emanuel’s handling of the 2014 Laquan McDonald case in which a Chicago police officer fatally shot a black teen 16 times and city officials withheld video footage of the killing for months. The shooting and coverup were on the minds of many in the black community who questioned whether Smollett would be treated fairly by the department.

But Tuesday’s developments left some observers wondering if, in the end, Smollett’s celebrity trumped his race. Prosecutors dismissed all 16 felony counts and expunged his record. In return, authorities said, he agreed to forfeit the $10,000 he put up to get out of jail, and he completed community service.

“Only black celebrities, and only occasionally, are treated with the same kind of privilege that white people who are anonymous can take for granted,” Dyson said. “Due process would be to let the facts come out. We had a public hearing with little evidence.”

Without a resolution by jury, the case returns to the court of public opinion. Conservatives are already decrying what they perceive as hypocrisy from Black Lives Matter supporters. Fox News host Tucker Carlson addressed the situation in his Tuesday night monologue: Smollett “may claim to fight for marginalized people, but he is not one of them. In fact, he occupies the highest rank of privilege in our society. He is above the law.”

“Increasingly, there seem to be quite a few people like that in this country,” Carlson continued. “You will recognize them because they are the ones always lecturing you about how bigoted and unfair America is. What they don’t understand is that they are proving that point.”

___

Errin Haines Whack, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

UPDATED: Demonstrators plan to shut down Pat Bay Highway Wednesday afternoon

Adam Olsen, MLA, says issue should be taken to province, not communities

Wear your rose-coloured glasses for the second annual Pink Shirt Gala

Anti-bullying event promises pink drinks, food and shirts

Pink Shirt Day originator to speak at Monterey school in Oak Bay

Travis Price continues anti-bullying movement with Island tour

Pink Shirt Day uplifting for West Shore RCMP

Members of the West Shore RCMP have scheduled a variety of activities with students Feb. 26

Rail disruptions expected to continue after new protest sites emerge

Nationwide rail and road blockades have been popping up for weeks

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 25

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

51 health professionals send letter to Trudeau, Horgan panning northern B.C. pipeline

They point to studies about the health and climate change risks from pipeline

Fake meat and a latte? Starbucks adds Beyond Meat in Canada

The Seattle roaster has talked about introducing plant-based patties in the U.S., but has yet to do so

Groundhogs got it wrong: spring isn’t coming soon, Weather Network says

The only part of B.C. to warm up early will be Victoria

Protecting privacy key to stopping spread of COVID-19, B.C. health officials say

The number of coronavirus cases in B.C. remains at seven

Toffoli scores OT winner as Canucks beat Habs 4-3

Demko makes 37 saves for Vancouver

Most Read