The last few weeks, in addition to the usual Trump administration shenanigans and celebrity gossip that have become the norm, news outlets have been increasingly transfixed on the bizarre and confusing tale of Jussie Smollett and the attack Cook County, Ill., prosecutors say…never was.
On January 29th when news first broke of the alleged assault, many people rallied behind the actor, sending messages of love and support and demanding justice. To hear Smollett tell it, he was minding his business late one night, trying to get a sandwich at Subway, when two white men in MAGA hats accosted him, poured a bleach like substance over his head, tied a noose around his neck, and screamed some haphazard warning along the lines of, “This is MAGA country!”
At the time, Smollett was generally considered to be an even tempered, well spoken entertainer/activist, who was slowly but surely gaining recognition for his social justice work. He comes from a show business family that has been in the industry for decades, but thanks to Empire was finally being acknowledged by the mainstream media. And as an out gay man, countless people looked to him as a role model and a beacon of hope for the LGBT community.
All in all, the brother’s life seemed to be on a steady, upward trajectory the last five years. And if you asked most people what they thought of Jussie Smollett even 30 days ago, they probably would have said, “He seems like a really nice guy.”
But a lot can happen in three weeks. And since the report of the attack was originally made, there has been a growing tide of suspicion around the story, the timing, the location, and the two MAGA hat wearing assailants who just happened to be walking around Chicago with a noose and gallon of bleach at 2:00 a.m.
On the surface, the whole thing sounds fantastical and a bit campy, not unlike a Lee Daniels script. But the one thing that made it credible was Jussie. We knew him. He’s one of the good guys. He fights for injustice. He stands up against oppression. If there was one person who had legitimately earned the benefit of our doubt over the last 20 years, it was him. And so we did what we always tell folks to do in instances like this, we did what was morally sound, we “trusted the victim.”
So what exactly went wrong? How did this end turn into what feels like an extra long episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror?
In the last week alone, this whole case has become a s**t show, taking all sorts of strange twists and turns that do not entirely make sense. And while this may be an unpopular opinion, I don’t believe that’s entirely because of Jussie. In fact, in the same way that both the Twilight Zone and Black Mirror always end up being a social commentary on what’s wrong with society (taken to the extreme) – I can’t shake the feeling that this situation is doing exactly the same thing.
Coming this fall… The story of a poorly staged hate crime that rocked a nation: Jussie’s Lie pic.twitter.com/iGXmETn8m6
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) February 22, 2019
Instead of just ripping the mask off a young man who may (or may not) have concocted his own assault as a publicity stunt, what the Smollett case is more brilliantly highlighting is everything wrong, fractured, or distorted about us. And by “us” I don’t just mean “the media” or “the internet” I mean all of us; the viewing public that consumes and disseminates information with an ever growing need to be sensational, regardless of pesky things like fact checks, due process, or “innocent until proven guilty.”
We come out of this looking like donkeys just as much – if not more – than Smollett does. And if we want to prevent this from happening again, or at the very least make sense of all the confusion, we’re gonna have to pull back the curtain and call out all the co-conspirators in this mess. And by co-conspirators I don’t just mean Nigerian brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo who keep popping up as hyper-sexualized Black stereotypes on the news.
The list of people it took for things to get this bad is long. But for the sake of being concise, I’ve quickly broken this analysis down into four major food groups of failures. Let’s start first with the homophobes.
It is impossible to be objectively look at the initial response to Jussie’s hate crime claims, without acknowledging the undercurrent of homophobia that immediately made its presence felt. Much in the same way that misogynists often have a hard time believing and/or validating violations against women, homophobes have a hard time feeling empathy for those they consider “other” and often dismiss anything that happens to gay people as “gay s**t” or “not my problem” even if the person is literally a part of their direct community.
“There’s nothing wrong with questioning things,” someone said to me after I noted how often folks were slipping anti-gay rhetoric into otherwise valid discussions about the case. “Why can’t we question him?”
Not only is having questions fine, it’s something I strongly promote. The world would be a better place if we all more thoughtfully assessed our surrounds. However, from an emotional intelligence stand point, timing, delivery and intention all matter.
If you hear someone was brutally attacked and your first response is: “Hmmmm, you sure you got attacked tho?” that speaks volumes about how you perceive the aggrieved party.
And both the timing and ferocity of the disbelief shown to a gay man saying he was attacked, was notable.
"As an openly gay black man in the media, I am incredibly frustrated, angry, upset that someone would use their platform in this way to promote only themselves," says @LZGranderson on the Jussie Smollett case.
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) February 21, 2019
People who have a knee jerk reaction to blame or attack any alleged victim before details can be investigated and confirmed, are quite literally at an emotional distance from that person’s humanity in the moment of their inquiry. They aren’t “just asking questions,” they’re also itching to discredit a “thing” they don’t trust rather than an actual person who may have been hurt.
And the irony is, if these same people heard the exact same allegations made by someone whose humanity they did acknowledge, they’d suddenly have no problem being sympathetic.
Homophobes who didn’t like Jussie and what he stood for anyways, were the first ones to start stoking this flame. And then they were emboldened by the next group…
It’s easy to dismiss a random hotep on your timeline, but what if that hotep is an incredible musician, artist etc and has millions of fans? Suddenly their problematic stances and glaring double standards have the power to shift mindsets on a much greater scale.
A perfect example of this is Erykah Badu.
I’ve made no secret in the past about how I love Badu’s artistry and respect her as a musician, mother and fellow Black woman, while also grappling with feelings of deep disappointment about some of her social views.
When speaking about keeping young girls from being raped, she mentions that they need to wear longer skirts, further pushing the damaging narrative that what a woman wears has anything to do with her right to remain unharmed. She’s made bizarre statements about being able to find love for Hitler, and has a host of other sound bites that leave much to be desired.
But these controversial statements are made, they’re always done so under the guise of love and metaphysical enlightenment. However, when Jussie said he was attacked, the same Erykah who weeks earlier told her audience in Chicago to show compassion for R. Kelly (who now stands accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse), was suddenly interrupting people showing compassion for Jussie and warning them to instead be cautious.
Whatever happened to Jussie still has nothing to do with Badu and her R. Kelly defenses, chief.
— Donovan X. Ramsey (@iDXR) February 22, 2019
So let me get this straight, we’re supposed to “pray for” a man who has been allegedly violating Black girls for almost 30 years, but an actor – who to our knowledge has never hurt anyone – can’t even get a, “Get better soon” message without you publicly give the side-eye?
On what planet is that not a double standard?
Celebrity stroked the flame on the trending topic even more until finally, the police started acting a fool too.
The Chicago Police
It’s one thing for messy celebrities and bored social media followers to spread rumors, but when the police start falling victim to gossip, grandstanding, and leaking misinformation, that’s when a small flame blows up into a full fledged fire.
The Chicago Police Department has been publicly blasted for corruption for as long as I can remember, and all you have to do is Google the case of Laquan McDonald to see why that feedback is warranted. But even folks who never believed Jussie’s story have been taken aback by how many conflicting reports and increasingly sensational accounts from “anonymous sources” have come from the Chicago PD in the last few weeks.
Usually in a high profile case authorities are very methodical and cautious and make sure they have all their ducks in a row before speaking to the public, but that can not be said for Chicago police.
Just today, there have been reports that while Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is going around telling anyone who will listen that Jussie sent that letter eight days before the “attack” — various law enforcement sources have confirmed that the chief was out of line and overstated where they really are in their investigation.
WATCH: Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett staged an attack on himself last month because he was dissatisfied with his salary. pic.twitter.com/XoTEe9KwlT
— KRCG 13 (@KRCG13) February 22, 2019
In fact, the Feds have confirmed that they are still looking into the matter, and unlike the boys in blue in Chicago, they’re taking their time and refusing to jump to conclusions.
If by some plot twist, we find out Jussie’s case isn’t as cut and dry as they say, he’d have a hell of a lawsuit against the folks in the windy city for the way they’ve raked him over the coals well before officially charging him yesterday. In fact, even if he did lie, I sincerely hope an investigation is launched into how all this was handled. It says a lot about the Chicago PD’s willingness to prematurely manipulate the court of public opinion.
Which bring me to the last group that contributed to the current mind-scramble we find ourselves in…
And by y’all I mean anyone who saw a juicy headline about Jussie, shared it, and wrote scathing opinions (without reading the article and/or checking the source), only to turn around and do the same thing the next day when another totally conflicting report came out.
I get it, the internet is where we mock for sport. But we need to be careful about not turning it into a blood sport.
Perhaps the biggest irony in all this is that some of y’all have fragile egos that can’t even handle only getting three likes on a selfie, and yet are going HAM on Jussie Smollett as if he’s not a human being who may have feelings just as paper thin as yours.
So yeah… cackle to the ugliest depths of your bored souls now if you must. But if God forbid Jussie hurts himself due to the understandable stress of this mob fueled dumpster fire you’re all dancing around… I hope you’re willing to acknowledge the full weight of your own complicity.
Confusion and a bit of laughter is fine. Thats human nature and what Black Twitter does best. But the response from the public is getting gross now, arguably more gross than the actual case itself.
But have fun with that. I guess.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric