If Jussie Smollett faked his hate-crime attack in the early morning hours of January 29, 2019, as the Chicago Police Department seems confident is the case and claims to have corroboration to back up that confidence, did he think he’d get away with it? And how could he think that when it was all performed so sloppily, if the police are correct. Why hire black guys to play white Trump supporters in ski masks—ski masks that leave some skin showing? Why position such an attack under a street cam (which, apparently unbeknown to Smollett, was pointed in the other direction) whose footage would undoubtedly be scrutinized? Why hire guys he knew, guys whose association with him would surely be a red flag whenever it was discovered? Why did he pay them by check instead of cash? Why did he do the hiring on his discoverable personal cell phone instead of a burner device? Why did they buy the rope they fashioned into a noose around Jussie’s neck instead of, I don’t know, finding one somewhere that wasn’t traceable?
The whys just keep piling up and I’m paranoid that we’ll never receive answers to all of them. After following this news closely since it broke, my yearning for them at this point feels bodily, like a craving for some nutrient I’m lacking.
Over the past week, especially, I’ve been struck dumbfounded so many times it’s starting to feel like I’m in a narcotic state. From a pure spectator perspective, divorced as much as possible from the politics of the situation, this has been riveting theater. A generally well-liked, if not (yet?) A-list, celebrity survives an attack that epitomizes our country’s divide and its regard for marginalized identities at a time when hate crimes are on a reported rise. That’s to say that, increasingly credulity-testing developments aside—Smollett’s refusal to hand in his phone to the police, for one; his numerous public appearances following trauma for another—the skeleton of his story seemed entirely plausible. And it took only weeks for his story to fall apart in the eyes of a rapt public. If this were a novel, the entire narrative would scan as unrealistic. If it were a plotline on the reliably lurid night soap on which Smollett stars, Empire, it’d be pushing it. And yet here it is happening, still happening, everyday happening. Who could tear their eyes away?
I keep coming back to the letter, which looks so much like something a serial killer would send in a ’90s thriller. How terribly unconvincing. “You will die black fag,” it says, in letters of varying fonts cut out from apparently a magazine. The return address on its envelope reads, “MAGA.” The Chicago P.D.’s current story regarding Smollett’s motive is that he concocted the letter, which arrived at the set of Empire about a week before the hate attack he alleged. Echoing reporting that appeared in the media this week via anonymous police sources, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said during Thursday’s press conference that the intent of the letter was to “gain attention” and that “when that didn’t work,” Smollett took to more extreme measures for said attention. (On Friday, TMZ reported that the FBI hadn’t yet confirmed the Chicago PD’s claim that Smollett orchestrated the letter.) But if this is true, what kind of attention was he supposedly looking for with the letter that he didn’t receive? News of the letter broke the same day as the attack—the press didn’t even have the opportunity to ignore it.
If the attention Smollett was seeking was from his immediate circle, well, his Empire co-star Terrence Howard, who was presumably on the very set to which the letter arrived, suggested that he hadn’t heard of the letter until the attack was announced on set. “Jaws dropped to the ground,” Howard said, recalling the emergency cast meeting. “And then when we learned that there had been letters sent to Fox as threats about the potential for something like this and then we became much more frightened.”
How did the website ThatGrapeJuice, a popular blog but one whose content is largely based on aggregation and thus doesn’t typically break news, come to post the letter so early, possibly before any other news outlet? (TMZ’s initial report on the supposed attack linked back to ThatGrapeJuice and it has continued to credit the site as the letter’s origin.) ThatGrapeJuice’s post makes no mention of how it received the letter, which it posted with a watermark claiming ownership. “Details are incoming, however it appears the horrendous incident was premeditated. For, sources say Smollett first received this chilling threat through the post,” reads the site’s pithy report on the attack. (Earlier this week, I reached out to ThatGrapeJuice’s shadowy, semi-anonymous founder/editor Sam A., for clarification on this matter. As of press time, I haven’t heard back.)
In the 24 or so hours between the announcement that former persons of interest in the alleged attack, Ola and Abel Osundairo, had been released from police custody on February 15 and CNN’s breaking announcement that the Chicago PD believed Smollett had orchestrated his own attack, my appetite became insatiable. I must have refreshed my Twitter search on Smollett’s first name at least every 10 minutes. It was something like a thrill, the dawning realization that it was all a hoax, like a mystery solved in front of our eyes. Whatever its eventual political implications were secondary to the dopamine-spiking, real-time reveals. It was apotheotic extreme human behavior, a stunning display of audacity in its own right, but even more stunning when said political implications were finally considered: What Smollett was playing with, if he manufactured his attack, was the credibility of victims of actual hate crimes. He was providing fodder to the right, a well-known example to hold up as evidence of liberalism’s supposed lies. Selfish conservatives deserve no such gifts.
I noticed a certain vigor from right wing Twitter. Conservative news outlets like Breitbart that don’t seem to care much for black lives, and certainly never gave Smollett much attention, were all over the story. As details trickled in, I almost clicked on a Gateway Pundit post that seemed to have new, plausible information. (I’m happy I restrained myself.) The chatter on both sides of the political divide made for a strange sort of unity—for admittedly different reasons, it seemed that everyone was rapt. We all get hungry, we all need to eat.
Of course, the conservative cheering for Smollett’s downfall cascaded into its own kind of absurdity and tall tales. “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” tweeted Donald Trump. Ann Coulter said Thursday on Twitter, “Alright, this particular hate crime turned out to be a hoax, but let’s remember, ALL OF THEM are hoaxes.” She isn’t even bothering with the illusion of an attempt to make sense at this point. On Thursday’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight (which I happened to catch a few minutes of as I scanned the TV in front of my treadmill at the gym), a commentator named Chadwick Moore took the liberal media to task for believing Smollett initially. He was both ironic and incorrect in his telling—the former because he’d decided to “come out” as conservative after a completely credulous and fluffy profile of Milo Yiannopoulos that he wrote for Out in 2016 was widely denounced online.
Moore was wrong in his fundamental claim—that sources like the Associated Press, CBS News, ABC News, The Guardian, and The Washington Post misled the public into a questionable trust of Smollett because they “never said ‘alleged attack,’ they never said ‘claimed,’” in their early reporting of the Smollett incident. He told Carlson to look it up—had Carlson done that, he would have seen this January 30 report from The Washington Post that mentions an “alleged assault” in its lead, or The Guardian story that labels the hate crime “apparent” and uses “alleged” in its lead, or the AP’s early story whose headline reads, “Empire cast member alleges homophobic attack in Chicago,” or NBC News’s initial report that is careful with the attribution of the known facts: “Empire actor Jussie Smollett has reported being assaulted in Chicago on Tuesday by two men hurling racial and homophobic slurs at him and wrapping a rope around his neck in what police are investigating as a possible hate crime, officials said.” Carlson, taking Moore at his word because it complemented his agenda, decried the “deeply corrupt business of journalism.”
Easily disproved lies about the demonstrably careful way the “liberal” media had handled Smollett’s claims were being held up as examples of how the media was “gaslighting” the American public. Talk about spectacle. I know Fox News plays fast and loose with the truth, but surely the Carlson segment is among the most flagrant examples of lying about lying, gaslighting about gaslighting, and how corruption drives people to accuse others of corruption that the network has offered in recent memory.
The left’s misguidedness was far less nefarious—the only agenda at hand was to include Smollett as another example of a casualty of the kind of cancerous hatred our society is sick with. The point was never that the attack was the final word on the existence of racism and homophobia; it was merely more proof in a culture that is ever populating with examples. It was more reasonable at first to assume that Smollett had been assaulted—something that happens to people in this country everyday—than it was to assume that he had made this up, something that rarely happens and almost never by someone as famous as Smollett. (I saw conservatives last weekend having to reach all the way back to 1987—32 years ago!—to invoke Tawana Brawley as an adequate comparison to Smollett.)
Claiming Smollett as an example, though, is looking more and more like folly on both sides. His story is a total aberration, which is why it’s ultimately so watchable and addictive. It’s testing the limits of acceptable behavior from a public figure, it’s testing the limits of the truth and reality as we know it. I suspect that if Smollett is guilty of perpetrating the hoax and eventually comes clean, the explanation will involve some sort of extenuating issue (TMZ reported that Smollett told the police he has issues with drugs during his arrest). But will that even be satisfying from us watching on the sidelines? And will it even happen? Through his lawyers, though, Smollett is maintaining his innocence: In a statement, his legal team referred to Thursday’s press conference by the CPD as a “law enforcement spectacle” and that Smollett “fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
In the absence of further proof from Smollett’s side (and in light of the unsuccessful “Hail Mary” call his lawyers made on Tuesday that did not deter the police from charging Smollett with a felony of disorderly conduct), it is my suspicion, though, that the Chicago P.D. has not concocted its own narrative, that what it has reported to the press is indeed based on a weeks-long investigation. (I understand a mistrust of police in general, particularly those in Chicago, who have a long history of corruption allegations, but there have been too many eyes on this for me to suspect that they’ve launched their own hoax in the claiming of Smollett’s hoax.) “To insinuate and to stage a hate crime of that nature when he knew as a celebrity it would get a lot of attention, is just despicable,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a press conference. “It makes you wonder what’s going through someone’s mind to do something like that.” It does. It makes you say, “Why?” over and over. Addiction? Greed? Celebrity privilege? Is it just the harebrained scheme of a sick guy? Is it some kind of performance art to further expose divisions in our country? I don’t know how artful it is, but this above all else is a performance for the ages.
Smollett’s crime may be a failure but his spectacle is an astounding success. It will test the adage that no press is bad press, seemingly illustrated by Trump’s presidency, but already it’s having a negative impact—on Friday, Empire producers announced Smollett was being written out of the last two episodes of the show’s current season.