Weeks of outrage and speculation about an alleged homophobic and racist attack reached a tipping point Thursday when police in Chicago arrested actor Jussie Smollett on a charge of felony disorderly conduct.
Smollett’s arrest elicited an extraordinary rebuke of the actor from Chicago’s top police official, who said he “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” It also sparked a sense of betrayal among some of Smollett’s initial supporters and added kindling to the nation’s already precarious racial and political tinderbox.
“What he did could make it harder for the straight, gay, black, white, rich, poor folks here in Chicago and in the nation,” said the Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, a pastor with Chicago’s New Hope Baptist Church. “How much more cautious are [police] going to be to extend credibility and resources to a real hate crime?”
The felony charge carries a maximum three-year sentence. Smollett was released on a $100,000 bond Thursday. The actor, who has been an outspoken advocate of social justice issues, has vigorously denied wrongdoing.
“Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system,” a statement from his lawyers issued Thursday said. “The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett and notably, on the eve of a Mayoral election. Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
Last month, Smollett told police that two men wearing ski masks recognized him from “Empire” and attacked him in the middle of the night, throwing a noose around his neck and pouring bleach on him while saying “This is MAGA country!”
Two brothers were taken into custody last week during the investigation and released. The pair testified before a grand jury Wednesday, hours before police announced that Smollett was a suspect. According to officials, Smollett orchestrated the attack, paying the brothers $3,500 and giving them an additional $100 to buy supplies, including rope and red hats.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Thursday that Smollett was dissatisfied with his salary on his Fox show.
“The Chicago Police Department will continue to investigate all reports of these types of incidents with the same amount of vigor as we did with this one,” Johnson said. “My concern is that hate crimes will now be publicly met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”
The Smollett case has heightened tensions in the already fragile relationship between police and the black community in Chicago, where federal investigators in 2017 concluded that police had routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents, particularly those of color. Some now criticize authorities for pouring resources into investigating Smollett’s claim amid high homicide rates.
Robert McCottrell said he “almost went through the roof” at the news of Smollett’s arrest as he thought of how those resources could have been spent on other cases — including the 2016 killing of his son, 24-year-old Martell Howard, who was gunned down on the West Side of Chicago.
“It was like they pushed it to the side. It’s in the ’hood, so it’s another shooting,” McCottrell said. “When I looked at the Smollett case, I was just upset.”
The Rev. Jamie Fraizer, founder and pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago, which he describes as a “predominantly black, queer church,” said Thursday that his congregants “are angry, betrayed, disappointed because ours was a community that continues to believe victims, and we are going to continue to do that.” He is concerned “their stories could potentially be invalidated because of his hoax.”
Those stories, Fraizer said, often go unheard. “The violence in this city that is targeted against LBGT folks of color is very real,” he continued. “We have had several reported killings of trans women of color that have gone unsolved. The one redemptive move in this whole situation would be for us to use this to cast light on [these victims].”
Smollett’s reported attack had prompted Fraizer to hire a security detail for the church, which was a “significant bill” for the community. “It represents the ‘black tax,’ like it’s one more additional thing we have to do to ensure our safety as a predominantly black, queer worshiping group,” he said.
Smollett’s claim initially drew immediate support from several prominent celebrities, activists and politicians, who issued statements of solidarity against homophobia and called attention to the prevalence of hate crimes. According to the FBI, the number of hate-crime incidents reported to federal authorities increased by 17 percent in 2017 as more agencies participated; the majority related to race, and a significant chunk related to sexuality. (One study found that only 0.3 percent were falsely reported.)
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a candidate for president, cited those statistics in a statement Thursday, saying she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” in the developments in Smollett’s case after being one of the most prominent politicians to first speak out in support of him.
In the weeks since Smollett first reported the alleged attack, a trickle of anonymously sourced reporting cast doubt on his story, inciting arguments from conservatives who criticized the media as fueling a narrative that Trump supporters were predisposed to violence. On Thursday, President Trump tagged the actor in a tweet, writing “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Smollett rose to fame through his role as gay R&B singer Jamal Lyon on “Empire,” one of the most popular television shows of the past decade.
When it premiered in 2015 on Fox, many in the black and LGBTQ communities lauded it as signaling progress in a network television landscape struggling with diversity.
“You’d have to go back to ‘The Cosby Show’ in the ’80s to find a show that’s that popular and based on the stories of black people,” said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. Smollett’s role in particular was an anomaly for network TV, where gay characters have often been relegated to the background. His presence touched off wider conversations about how homosexuality is portrayed and discussed within the black community.
“He was one of the regulars, with a major role and his own story line,” Hunt said. “That’s valuable to encourage dialogues within a community that were either taboo in the past or discussed in a nonconstructive way.”
Smollett had said that the social significance of the role is what drew him to playing Jamal. Homophobia “is so real and it is happening to so many people, has happened to so many people,” the actor said in 2015 on a press tour for the show. “To children and young people that are questioning their sexuality or know for certain their sexuality, if they can look at someone and see themselves in Jamal, that’s incredible. I embrace that fully.”
One of the show’s recurring themes involves the barriers Jamal faces as a gay black man, including when his ardently homophobic father, played by Terrence Howard, essentially disowns him — at one point he tells his son, “the day you die from AIDS, I’m going to celebrate.”
Smollett has long been involved with activism, including volunteering since his teenage days with the Black AIDS Institute and eventually serving on its board of directors.
Activism runs in the family, he and his siblings have said, beginning with their mother, who was active in the civil rights movement. The six siblings starred in a short-lived ABC sitcom together in the 1990s. The children auditioned by singing Public Enemy’s “Shut ’Em Down.”
Since then, Smollett and his sister, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, have taken on numerous acting roles, including the latter’s turn on “Friday Night Lights” and “Underground.”
Smollett’s first passion, though, was music. His role on “Empire” allowed him to collaborate with some of pop’s biggest stars, including Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey, and earned him a record deal with Columbia Records. He’s since left the label and self-released his debut, “Sum of My Music,” last year.
But Smollett’s report of such a horrific attack and the ensuing fallout has likely irreparably impacted his career. Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Entertainment said in a statement Thursday that they are “evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that 0.03 percent of hate-crime reports in 2017 were false, a figure calculated using statistics compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The correct figure is 0.3 percent.
Mark Guarino in Chicago and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.