The Jussie Smollett saga may now be technically over after a Chicago jury found the actor guilty Thursday of five of the six counts he faced, but its impact will be — and has already been — felt for years to come. It doesn’t matter if the actor, who starred on “Empire,” really was beaten up by people yelling “This is MAGA country!” and is wrongly being punished or if he did stage an elaborate hoax, as the jury decided he did by finding him guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct.
The indisputable victims of hate crimes will now carry an even heavier burden of suspicion.
Instead, the seemingly never-ending questions over the almost three years regarding the truthfulness of his account means the indisputable victims of hate crimes will now carry an even heavier burden of suspicion.
The only winners found as the dust settles are the members of the right who have declared themselves America’s real victims of hate and discrimination — people who have strategically made the Smollett case their go-to example for how the left operates and how it wrongly makes villains out of Donald Trump supporters.
Meaning Smollett’s guilty verdict is their new crowning jewel as our culture wars rage on.
When the actor said in January 2019 that two men wearing masks subjected him to a racist and homophobic attack near his home in Chicago, an overwhelming outcry followed. The actor initially garnered sympathy across the political spectrum, which, during our current era, is uncommon.
Trump denounced the attack as “horrible,” activists took to the streets to march and Smollett’s story was used to introduce new anti-lynching legislation on the floor of the U.S. Senate. For many, the reported attack on Smollett was par for the course in an America that was already seeing a rise of violent hate crimes from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Chicago amid Trump’s presidency. Thus, Smollett’s story of being attacked was seen as a call to action.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that “the racist, homophobic attack on @JussieSmollet is an affront to our humanity,” and then-Sen. Kamala Harris labeled it a “modern-day lynching” before the passage of her historic legislation expanding federal penalties for hate crimes. The case was seen by many as evidence that no one was safe under Trumpism — not even celebrities.
But just as quickly as the story broke, it took a turn and then another as evidence produced by the Chicago police swayed supporters to abandon Smollett (who was charged with filing a false police report, then had those charges dropped, then was charged anew) just as fast as they had rushed to support him.
As the tide turned against Smollett, the right was excited that it had a smoking gun illustrating how “fake” the media is and how Democrats only cared about issues that would hurt the then-president.
Donald Trump Jr. launched an all-out social media campaign by taking over the hashtag #JusticeForJussie and perverting it.
When Smollett was first charged, Donald Trump Jr. launched an all-out social media campaign by taking over the hashtag #JusticeForJussie and perverting it by trolling seemingly every high-profile person who had defended Smollett: from Harris to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. Even now, #JusticeForJussie is used as a weapon against the left.
Trump followed his son’s lead and called Smollett’s case a “disgrace to our nation” and an “embarrassment.” During his impeachment inquiry, Trump used the allegations against Smollett to describe how unfairly he had been and was being treated.
“Then you have the case of this wise guy Jussie Smollett, who beat up … himself,” Trump said in late 2019 to a group of police chiefs in Chicago, Deadline reported then. “And he said MAGA country did it. MAGA country. That’s a hate crime.”
“It is a scam. A real big scam. Just like the impeachment of your president is a scam,” he said.
Given Trump’s unchecked racism and his White House being hostile LGBTQ people, it’s obvious why the Trump family loved the case against Smollett: a “fake” hate crime reported by a high-profile Black, gay celebrity was the perfect shield in a country where identity is everything. Just like how in the beginning, the story Smollett told was the perfect weapon to attack Trump.
This case has been one I have found myself entrapped in for years. When Smollett reported being attacked, I was serving as editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the world’s oldest and longest-running magazine for LGBTQ people. Smollett’s team had called me a few weeks before the alleged attack to pitch me on a cover for late 2020 in advance of a storyline on “Empire” where he’d marry an HIV-positive character.
The planned storyline was too far away for me to plan coverage, but we had created a channel of communication between us to keep the conversation going. So when news broke the morning of Jan. 29, 2019, that Smollett had been attacked in Chicago, a town in which I had spent years reporting on violence and police for The Guardian, we as a magazine were well situated and well sourced to make the alleged attack our biggest story.
We couldn’t help but cover the story of a Black, gay celebrity who said he’d been attacked by Trump supporters. This wasn’t just because it was a story involving a famous member of the community we covered, but also because for many of us who had been reporting on anti-LGBTQ crimes for years, we believed his case might help shine a light on the fact that LGBTQ folks — especially trans people — were dying at historic rates in the streets. Smollett claimed to have been attacked in those same streets.
Since journalists began accurately reporting trans homicides in the early 2010s, we have consistently seen a rise in anti-LGBTQ violence, with 2021 being the deadliest year on record, specifically for trans people. Black people in this country, regardless of their sexuality, also find themselves over-represented in FBI data documenting hate crimes in the U.S. each year.
With this guilty verdict, it’s really those people who lost — not just Smollett — with the winners being people who are now more emboldened in demanding even more from victims before receiving justice. Sure, Smollett may have lied — or at least was found guilty of it. But statistically most people who report these cases do not lie and are rarely ever believed.
What is so important for us to do in this moment, as we look to what’s next, is to ensure work is done to stop the epidemic of hate facing folks who look like Smollett. Trump supporters are not being subjected to hate crimes for supporting Trump on any level — full stop.
Trump is an expert in gaslighting America, and if we continue to allow the Smollett case, no matter where one stands on it, to detract attention from everyday people impacted by hate in this country, it would be the greatest gaslight moment of all — and a signal of more to come.