Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you’re familiar with the controversial story of Empire actor Jussie Smollett who claimed to have been the victim of a homophobic and racially-motivated assault. Since then, Chicago police and prosecutors have stated that they have evidence that proves Jussie orchestrated the attack. They’ve even arrested and charged Jussie with filing a false police report, a felony.
I need to make one thing abundantly clear: I have no idea whether Jussie is telling the truth or some version of the truth or whether he orchestrated the whole thing. But as someone who has been accused by law enforcement and news media of fabricating a tale of racially-motivated abuse, I’d like to share my perspective.
In 2011, following an incident of harassment at the hands of campus police during my last semester of law school at U.Va. in Charlottesville, VA, dozens of news outlets released articles which stated that I had admitted to fabricating a story of racial profiling and harassment at the hands of campus police. Major news outlets like the Washington Post and The Atlantic quoted from a press statement released by the University, which recited a recantation which had been signed by me. Members of the U.Va. community and the larger public widely condemned what news outlets reported was an admitted case of race-baiting. I was labeled the Boy Who Cried Wolf, a Race Hoax Hustler.
But there was more to my story. In actuality, during the campus police department’s so-called investigation into my claims against their officers, two lieutenants and an FBI special agent secretly interrogated me, threatened consequences to my friends and family, and pressured me for over two hours. I was terrified. And I am ashamed to say that, after the agent’s lengthy questioning, I ultimately capitulated and signed a statement, recanting my claims against the campus police. But my recantation was not genuine.
News outlets reported widely on my admitted recantation, but were themselves never informed about the FBI’s secret involvement, not to mention coercive tactics. Consequently, the general public was left flabbergasted with the story of a young black law student, with everything to lose, who had admitted to lying about a claim of racial profiling and harassment.
The reporting on the Jussie Smollett matter bears a striking resemblance to the reporting on my experience back in 2011. Of course, Jussie is a famous actor on a hit television series, so the breadth of reporting on his story dwarfs mine. But regardless of the obvious and extreme differences in notoriety, the main thrusts of the news reporting on our stories is remarkably similar.
I do not have inside knowledge or insight into the veracity of Jussie’s claims or the Chicago police department’s case against him; however, I can offer a perspective on the matter which can come only from someone who, like Jussie, has been publicly accused of fabricating a racially-motivated incident.
It’s perfectly natural for members of the public to experience strong emotional reactions as new allegations develop. And that’s okay. But despite the confusion, conflicting narratives, and the importance of the larger social issues implicated by Jussie’s story, we would all do well to keep the following points in mind as the story continues to unfold:
1. Try to be empathetic.
Whether he orchestrated his attack or was actually the victim of the crimes he described, Jussie is suffering right now. He’s already suffered reputational and professional consequences, which are nearly impossible to fully recover from. If you’ve never had news outlets write negative stories about you, it might be hard to imagine how difficult an experience it is. Network pundits openly opining about your mental health, among other things, as they are with Jussie and as the head of the NAACP Charlottesville did with me, is traumatic. It’s natural to be upset with the allegations Chicago police and prosecutors have set forth about Jussie. Be upset. But also try to have empathy.
2. Just because police, investigators, or prosecutors assert a claim or theory, does not make it true.
As we has been shown clearly in recent history, law enforcement officials routinely lie, change their stories, falsify and plant evidence, and coerce confessions or recantations. In my case, prosecutors announced that I had admitted to fabricating a tale of racial profiling at the hands of police, failing to share that the FBI had secretly interrogated me for over two hours and pressured me to recant. They also made multiple false claims, including claiming possession of video surveillance footage, which they refused to release, that somehow proved I had fabricated my claim. Just because Chicago police and prosecutors claim they are are in possession of certain evidence, statements, or other information relating to the Smollett matter does not make it true.
3. Jussie will be punished.
If Chicago prosecutors handling the Smollett matter prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he fabricated a tale of racial and homophobic violence, rest assured, he’ll face criminal liability (despite America’s rich history of permitting white people to falsely accuse black people of crimes without facing criminal consequences).
4. We may not know the truth for a long time.
There are likely multiple (legal and non-legal) reasons that may cause the truth may remain obscured. In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, we have grown accustomed to clear and instantaneous answers. But when a matter has legal implications, it’s quite common that the parties involved may choose not to (or may not be permitted to) share the full story. In 2011, my attorney advised me not to attempt to clear my name, not to speak publicly about the FBI’s secret involvement, for at least five years (the statute of limitations on crimes federal prosecutors threatened to bring against me). I did not share the full story of the FBI’s involvement until 2017. New developments in Jussie’s story will continue to emerge, but we may not know the truth about what happened for some time, even if we think we do.
5. Even if Jussie orchestrated the whole thing, we should still err on the side of believing victims of abuse and hate crimes.
It’s vital that we believe and treat seriously the claims of future victims. If anything, prosecutors ultimately proving that Jussie fabricated the incident should only strengthen our resolve to treat every claim as genuine and (as long as the alleged victim wishes to pursue the claim) investigate each thoroughly. After all, a thorough investigation is the best way for us to know whether Smollett staged his attack.
6. Hate crimes are an issue of national importance, warranting our attention, even if it’s proven that Jussie fabricated the incident.
If Jussie staged his attack, it doesn’t affect our duty to prevent and combat these horrific crimes. Hate crimes are not only prevalent in America—they are getting more common, not less. Jussie orchestrating his attack, doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump’s rhetoric and tepid condemnation of hatred and bigoted violence against historically-oppressed groups has emboldened those who seek to commit those crimes.
7. Why does this upset you?
If you’re more upset about the possibility that Jussie orchestrated his attack than you are when you hear news of other hate crimes, or news that law enforcement murdered an unarmed black man, or that a powerful man sexually assaulted or otherwise took advantage of a woman, or that Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” or that a white supremacist went on a shooting spree at a place of worship—ask yourself why. Sit with that question and be honest with yourself.
To reiterate, I don’t know whether Jussie is telling the truth, whether he orchestrated the entire thing, or whether the truth lies somewhere in between. But what I do know, as someone who’s been publicly and wrongfully accused of fabricating a racially-motivated incident, is that it’s impossible for any of us to know the truth, at this point in the investigation—or perhaps ever.
Until and after all the facts in Jussie’s story are established, I hope you’ll join me in not only making certain that this story doesn’t lessen the seriousness with which you view hate crimes, but also in making a commitment to showing compassion and thoughtfulness, no matter how upset you might be and no matter how little you think Jussie deserves it.