The hate crime had everything that makes generous, good-hearted citizens recoil in horror and brim with sympathy: a noose, violence, antigay and anti-African-American slurs, and some “this is MAGA country!” thrown in. But did it really happen?
Empire actor Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack grabbed the hearts of many Americans, especially those who know that such crimes have gone up starkly since our hater-in-chief’s 2016 election. For example, earlier this year, a group of political scientists wrote in The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post that counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally witnessed a 226 percent increase in hate crimes in the years since. As they wrote, “it is hard to discount a ‘Trump effect’ when a considerable number of these reported hate crimes reference Trump.”
While it’s true that the number of hate crimes — reported and unreported — vastly outnumber the hoaxes, a handful of people still do fake them for a variety of reasons. And for those of us who’ve watched the circus of faked hate and bias crimes before, something about the Smollett report smelled off. No security camera footage, anywhere — not just of the crime but of two men fleeing? No reports of MAGA-hatted white guys nearby? No burns from that “unknown chemical” that Smollett said his attackers poured on him?
Then the police questioned two men, Abel and Ola Osundairo, one of whom had worked with Smollett. According to police arrest records, the two said that Smollett had paid them to stage the attack themselves.
By now, unless you’ve been under a rock for the last year, you know what came next. Police arrested Smollett on 16 felony charges of making false police reports. When the nation first heard that police believed he’d staged it himself — so elaborately that he’d actually paid acquaintances to attack him — sympathy soured as many felt shocked, revolted, and betrayed. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson led the chorus of mocking I-told-you-so’s from right-wing skeptics who think that queers, people of color, women, and religious minorities constantly lie, exaggerate, and whine. Now they had one more reason to sneer that we’re snowflakes or alarmists or literally faking it when we mention the casual cruelties, the disgust dressed up as religious conviction, the queer teenagers whose families throw them away when they come out, the real nooses coworkers use to threaten or even choke African-American men in their own workplaces, or the attacks that turn deadly — particularly against trans women of color.
And then prosecutors stunned us by dropping all charges against Smollett — which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a “whitewash of justice.” Chicago police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson had originally said, outraged, “Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” In response to the prosecutor’s move, he insisted on Smollett’s guilt, saying, “It’s Mr. Smollett who committed this hoax. Period.”
Chicago police ended up suing the actor in April for three times what the investigation allegedly cost. A Cook County judge has ordered the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the alleged hoax and how prosecutors came to the decision to drop charges. As of print date, Smollett still says he was attacked. Truly, if the actor indeed manipulated our goodwill and sympathy, he’s guilty of theft — perhaps not a kind of theft you can charge in a court of law, but moral theft, a theft that’s just as profound. He stole from all those who’ve worked countless hours trying to teach others that we — LGBTQ people and people of color — are human beings whose civil and human rights should be respected by all. He stole from any cops assigned to investigate the attack and from the Chicagoans whose real crimes weren’t investigated as a result. He stole from everyone who in the future suffers a real hate crime and decides not to report it or who is doubted when they do.
But while Smollett’s alleged fraud may have been especially elaborate, he would hardly have been the first to lie about enduring a hate crime, as I’ve previously reported in Vice.
He wouldn’t even be the first LGBTQ person of color to do so in a somewhat spectacular fashion. The most stunning one I remember, the one that first made me realize we have to wait for all the facts before we judge, came during the horrifying Oregon Measure 9 fight in 1992, an antigay referendum that was roiling the state and prompting real attacks. With that background, when Azalea Cooley reported that vandals had painted a swastika and “Burn, N---, Burn” on her house, sympathy and outrage poured in. The incidents continued — a cross burned on her lawn, an African-American doll with a bullet in its forehead — until police finally filmed her staging it all. After that, I noticed them elsewhere: the young gay man who claimed he’d been attacked on his way home from the bar, but who — surveillance camera footage later revealed — had been so drunk he’d fallen into a parking meter. Or the lesbian couple who claimed their antigay neighbor had set their garage on fire, but had done it for the insurance money.
Why? Because people lie. Every group has liars trying to get something over on the rest of us, taking advantage of our preconceptions, fears, and sympathies for their own private gain.
Consider a story that’s the flip side of this one. In 1989, a white man named Charles Stuart called Boston’s 911 to report being carjacked as he drove his pregnant wife home from a birthing class by an African-American man who shot them both when the robbery went south. Stuart was hospitalized and survived; his pregnant wife died. Boston erupted with outrage and sympathy. Police, backed by the city’s political establishment, launched a brutal citywide search for the perp, assigning 100 cops who ended up harassing just about every African-American man in the nearby mixed-race neighborhood for days. Stuart’s loss and grief got center stage at memorials, at rallies, in daily reporting, making him the cause of the moment.
But it was all fake. All of it. Just before prosecutors charged a homeless African-American man, Stuart’s brother confessed that he’d helped get rid of the murder weapon. Charles Stuart had killed his wife and shot himself before calling the cops. He collected the insurance money — and the city’s grieved sympathies. Before he could be arrested, he jumped off the Tobin Bridge to his death.
Boston’s white establishment — investigators, journalists, politicians, business leaders — had credulously rallied to Stuart’s side — and were rightly shamed for falling for a racist lie that African-American Bostonians had suspicions about all along. Stuart had taken advantage of that tough-on-crime era’s ugly assumption that African-American men are dangerous and ready to shoot “innocent” middle-class white people at any moment. Like Smollett, if the allegations are true, Stuart manipulated others’ preconceptions for his own private gain.
Here’s what’s different: When Stuart lied so he could — literally — get away with murder, he leaned on a racist falsehood. If the Smollett incident was a hoax, he got away with nothing — and his lies leaned on reality. Reported hate crimes actually are on the rise. The FBI logged reports of 7,175 hate crimes in 2017. (That’s generally considered an undercount, but let’s go with it anyway.) Even so, it was a 17 percent jump from those reported in 2016, with a person’s (perceived) race and ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation the top three reasons they are targeted. Yes, a few of these reported incidents are exaggerations or fakes. But the vast majority are all too real.
But wait, there’s still more lying out there. Consider cops who lie to get away with bullying, beating, and shooting suspects because they’re inflated with their own sense of power. In Boston, a new district attorney recently took three such liars to court, saying their lies “undermine the hard work of countless honest, professional police officers.” Of course in some police departments, the bullying approach metastasizes, treating communities with contempt and violence — enough so that poor people of color are at best skeptical about what the police say. But if you’re someone who reflexively assumes that most cops are dirty liars out to beat up the powerless, you know how Tucker Carlson felt about Smollett’s alleged fraud.
Every group has its liars. They don’t represent the whole. We may never know for sure whether Smollett was attacked by haters or tried to stage an attack for his own gain. With a 24-hour news cycle and the blizzard of social media, it’s easy to get things wrong. Investigators (both in law enforcement and the media) and ordinary citizens alike have an enormous responsibility to take their time and get things right, as best they can.
But we don’t have to get defensive when we stumble over a fraud. Rather, we must condemn the fakers — and quickly redirect attention to the thousands of people who’ve genuinely been targeted by hate, whether those are small individual attacks or high-profile horrors like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. In Florida, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith had the right reaction when he used the Smollett attention to come forward to tell about how, in college, he and a friend were brutally attacked by another man who called them “faggots.” Others have used the moment to point to the 24 trans women (disproportionately of color) who were beaten, shot, burned, stabbed, choked, and otherwise murdered in 2018.
No matter what happened to Smollett, we simply move back to the real work of making the world safer for us all. Because that’s no lie.
E.J. Graff is an award-winning journalist, commentator, and author.