The Hate Crimes of Jussie Smollett

The Hate Crimes of Jussie Smollett
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
The Hate Crimes of Jussie Smollett
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
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Let’s be clear: A hate crime did take place in Chicago. It’s an ongoing crime, too.

Yes, a hoax occurred -- more like two or three hoaxes -- but deliberately stoked racial animosity can’t be washed away with the forfeiture of a $10,000 bond, a few hours of dubious “community service,” or the sealing of public records in a criminal case. If history has taught us anything, it’s that hate tends to fester, especially when aided by fraud and abetted by government.

The latest chapter in America’s dispiriting culture wars began Jan. 22, when television actor Jussie Smollett reported receiving a letter with homophobic and racial invective, accompanied by a nasty threat: “You will die, black fag.” The letter also included a stick figure hanging from a tree and a white powdery substance. As its author knew, ever since the 2001 deadly anthrax letter attacks, sending such powder through the mail to a famous and politically active person would result in first-responders in hazmat suits, which is what happened.

Yet this reaction wasn’t enough to satisfy Jussie Smollett. When the white powder turned out not to be anthrax spores but crushed acetaminophen tablets, the incident attracted little attention, even in Chicago. This apparently irked Smollett.

So even as law enforcement officials came to see the Jan. 22 letter as a hoax -- they believed it was sent by Smollett to himself -- the actor came up with a gambit that would be harder to ignore. A week later, he famously recounted being punched by two white thugs who yelled racist and anti-gay slurs while touting Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan and tying a rope around his neck, then dousing him with a caustic liquid.

The cops concluded this “attack” was also a sham -- one orchestrated, staged, and financed by Smollett, who managed to convince two hapless Nigerian-American brothers to play the heavies. Police soon found a link between Smollett and the brothers, Ola and Abel Osundairo, who were caught on camera buying the rope and ski masks used that night. Confronted with this evidence, the brothers confessed and said it was all Smollett’s idea, and that he had paid them $3,500 to carry it out.

These facts were unearthed only because the Chicago Police Department diligently investigated Smollett’s claims, which is more than can be said for much of the media and a host of elected Democrats – including several running for president – who accepted Smollett’s absurd story at face value.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker called it “a modern-day lynching” and used the story to drum up support for a federal anti-lynching bill he was sponsoring. An hour-and-a-half later, California Sen. Kamala Harris repeated the “modern day lynching” line while describing Smollett as “one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” She added: “We must confront this hate.”

Confronting hate, at least in the minds of a third Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, entailed more than extolling Jussie Smollett. It also meant firing a warning shot across the bow of anyone tempted to treat his account with the skepticism it deserved. “We are all responsible,” Gillibrand tweeted, “for condemning this behavior and every person who enables or normalizes it.”

In the real world, it must have taken some effort by the street-wise detectives who took Smollett’s original statement to keep a straight face. How is it, they surely wondered, that two racist, homophobic Trump supporters happened to be wandering around a toney Chicago neighborhood at 2 a.m. -- in zero-degree weather -- rope and Clorox at the ready, waiting in ambush for a B-list actor from a black soap opera? Why did Smollett wait 40 minutes to call it in? How did he manage to hold onto – and keep intact --  the sub sandwich he was carrying with him? And what’s with the “This is MAGA country!” battle cry – in Hillary Clinton’s hometown, a city she carried overwhelmingly in 2016 against Donald Trump?

Ah, but I have corroborating evidence, Smollett told the cops: I was on the mobile phone with my manager when I was attacked and he heard the whole thing. Great, said the detectives. Can we have the phone? Not gonna happen, replied the alleged victim. When Smollett finally consented to provide a pdf file of his call logs, he’d tampered with them, presumably to delete the calls to his accomplices. The most obvious tell was that when police arrived at his door, Smollett was still wearing the rope he claimed the attackers wrapped around his neck. Jussie Smollett was still in costume, in other words, wearing the prop he thought made his self-created character -- a hate crime victim -- more believable to the audience.

The real-life audience, however, wasn’t limited to Smollett’s gullible Hollywood allies or ambitious politicians or a press corps that has lost its way in the Era of The Donald. It also included the public and the police, and they were inclined to look behind the curtain even if Democratic presidential wannabes were not. When cops found the actor’s complicit stagehands, Smollett was arrested and charged with making false police report. A Cook County grand jury indicted him on 16 counts.

As the hoax unraveled, the commentary turned to speculating about why the successful actor, who seemingly had everything to lose and nothing to gain, would do such a thing. The Osundairo brothers themselves told police that Smollett was indignant that his fake-anthrax gambit didn’t get more attention. Chicago police were also told that Smollett was dissatisfied with his $125,000-per-episode salary on the Fox show “Empire,” and figured a hate-crime plot line would strengthen his negotiating position – a rationale Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson found “despicable” and “shameful.”

It turned out that those asking why a rich, successful guy with the world at his fingertips would stoop this low were asking the wrong question.  After the criminal charges were suddenly dropped against him, without explanation, it seems that a better, and more disturbing, question to ask is this: What did he have to lose? Did their 1987 fake rape and kidnap hoax hurt Tawana Brawley or Al Sharpton? Did Fox even formally fire Smollett from “Empire”? So far, the only ones who lost their jobs were some 50 Northwestern Memorial Hospital employees accused of accessing Smollett’s medical records or, in some cases, simply checking to see if he’d been admitted under an assumed name. Since his “injuries” were self-inflicted or fake, you might think that hospital administrators would be forgiving. You’d be wrong.

Although it’s a story line that only the conservative media seem to be following, it turns out that racial hoaxes are disturbingly commonplace in this country. Worse, the mainstream media often stokes them, or in some cases, takes the lead in pushing them. Their very frequency suggests a couple of disquieting deductions: First, in our victimhood culture the demand for such outrages may now exceed the supply. Second, it turned out that Jussie Smollett may have understood the political zeitgeist far better than those outraged by his scam.

This became clear Monday when the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Smollett without bothering to offer any explanation to the court and then joined his defense lawyers in offering a series of deceitful, contradictory, and specious explanations to reporters. Adding to the perception that the fix was in, the prosecutor then stood mute as a judge acquiesced to a defense motion to seal the entire matter. The only reason journalists found out this was happening at all was that the publicist for one of Smollett’s attorneys tipped off the local media.

Because this happened in famously corrupt Chicago, the thought immediately occurs that a bribe was paid. That would be easier to accept. Sadly, the truth appears to be that racial politics taints this case. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx initially said that she recused herself from the case after a politically well-connected Chicagoan reached out to her privately on Smollett’s case. But Foxx did not recuse herself. She pretended to, while secretly pulling the plug on prosecution. The after-the-fact snippets of explanations she provided were an insult to the intelligence of her listeners.

A crime like this wouldn’t always result in a jail sentence, she seemed to be saying, but instead would result in community service – and Smollett already did community service. This is nonsense. A premeditated offense this malicious that took precious resources away from a police department overwhelmed by violent crime might well have earned the perpetrator some time behind bars. As for the “community service,” it turns out that Jussie Smollett spent a day and a half at Chicago’s Rainbow PUSH office. The PUSH employees present thought he was just hanging out with them.

Even a prosecutor willing to accept a diversionary disposition to this case – one that didn’t entail incarceration -- would have made the offender plead guilty and pay restitution to the city, which would have been far more than the $10,000 bond Smollett forfeited. A guilty plea would have likely necessitated a public apology, which in turn would have vindicated the police department and presumably served as a warning to future hoaxers. Instead, the nation was treated to the spectacle of this shameless scam artist saying, “I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused.” Hearing this made a normal person cringe – and wonder if there is something wrong with Jussie Smollett’s mental makeup. But what is Kim Foxx’s excuse?

These were not victimless crimes. Smollett’s staged “MAGA hat” attack was a calculated slander against every American who voted for Donald Trump. I wasn’t one of those voters, but they number some 63 million. What Jussie Smollett was trying to do with that phony 2 a.m. attack in the street and his fake anthrax letter was stir up animosity against every one of them. Let’s be blunt: He was trying to foment racial unrest in this country. One can only assume he’d have been pleased if some actual MAGA hat wearers were physically attacked in retaliation. Those are his hate crimes. They certainly seem worthy of some jail time, if only as a deterrent.

The third hoax -- the dropping of charges against this man for no reason that makes sense under the law -- assures that the malicious seeds Smollett planted will linger and take root. Millions of people will believe him. “The charges were dropped,” they’ll say, and they won’t be wrong. This, too, is a kind of hate crime, this one committed under color of law by elected officials.

Shortly after Donald Trump’s election as president, the venerable Washington Post adopted as its mantra “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Some Trump supporters chafed at this slogan, seeing it as a subtle dig at their guy. Maybe it is, but the newspaper’s sentiment is undeniably true. In Chicago, democracy also dies in the daylight. In the middle of the morning, in open court.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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