Victoria Will—Invision/AP/Shutterstock
By Ellen McGirt
February 21, 2019

It’s all so complicated.

The upsetting case of Jussie Smollett took another turn today, as the “Empire” star turned himself into Chicago Police before dawn after he was charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself last month. He made no statement to the police.

At the press conference, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson gave a masterful introduction, destined to be studied in communication classes on how to frame a difficult conversation.

“I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention, because that’s who really deserves the amount of attention that we’re giving to this particular incident,” he began, which I imagine elicited “hmmm-mmms” and “oh-reallys” from the thousands of advocates who fought to get justice for the family of Laquan McDonald, a black teen who was shot by a white Chicago officer in 2014.

See? Complicated.

Johnson referenced this history in his unflinching testimony, with anger in his voice:

This morning, I come to you not only as the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, but also as a black man who spent his entire life living in the City of Chicago. I know the racial divide that exists here, I know how hard it’s been for our nation and our city to come together. And I also know the disparities and I know the history. This announcement today recognizes that “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. I’m left hanging my head and asking ‘why.’

The Smollett story was an emotional one from the start, a dramatic tale of being beaten, splashed with bleach, and threatened with a noose by two men who used racist and homophobic slurs. Then the kicker: “This is MAGA country,” it turns out nobody said.

The story triggered an online outpouring of support from fans, celebrities, and political figures, and mocking jeers from skeptics, many of whom are avowed conservatives, determined to debunk a larger narrative that the current president’s divisive rhetoric is responsible for an uptick in hate crimes.

That it took place in Chicago, a city with a deeply troubling history of racism, police misconduct, and corruption triggered a different form of skepticism.

A 13-month Justice Department investigation, released in 2017, put into words what many already knew. Among other problems at the Chicago PD, “excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos,” said The New York Times of the blistering report.

This is the same police department, including Johnson, that many worried was incapable of giving Smollett a fair investigation.

Now it is Smollett himself, once a beloved inclusion advocate, who may have made it harder for victims of real hate crimes to be believed.

And yet, we know there will be more hate crimes.

As the Smollett story was unfolding, a white supremacist with hate on his mind was apprehended before he could execute a plan to kill as many people as possible. Christopher Paul Hasson, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and an extremist hiding in plain sight, dreamed of mass murder. According to prosecutors, he intended “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”

He did all the things: Abuse narcotics, stockpile weapons and bathe in hate speech from pro-Russian and neo-Nazi sites. And he wrote like he was rehearsing a manifesto. “I am a long time White Nationalist, having been a skinhead 30 plus years ago before my time in the military.” In addition to targeting media figures and Democratic officials, he hoped to release a lethal virus if he could get his hands on one.

Hasson’s plan was both horrifying and cartoonishly fiendish, as hate crimes often are. It’s part of what made Smollett’s story plausible to the ear, at least at first.

What drives a young star to commit a fraud that could only damage the community who loved him? What compels an otherwise privileged man to be so consumed by hate that he is prepared to kill indiscriminately?

There are many answers, and also none. It’s all so complicated, sometimes all you can do is hang your head and ask ‘why.’

And then, get back to work.


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