Commentary: I’ll admit it. I believed him. A few weeks ago news broke that Jussie Smollett was assaulted on the streets of Chicago with racist and homophobic slurs hurled at him. It sounded like such a horrific crime that the prospect of it not being true seemed unfathomable.
As each day passed the Empire actor’s story developed more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. People began choosing sides. Was Smollett a victim or was he trying to get away with a whopper?
For the record, Smollett maintains that his story is true while Chicago police allege the events he described were a publicity stunt designed by Smollett to garner attention.
A condensed timeline pulled from Entertainment Weekly reads like an episode of a television drama, not too unlike Empire.
Jan. 21. A threatening letter addressed to Smollett and containing a white powder (it turned out to be aspirin) is sent to the Empire production offices in Chicago with a return address of “MAGA.”
Jan. 29. Smollett tells police that he was attacked at approximately 2 a.m. in downtown Chicago. He says he was walking back home from Subway when two unknown masked offenders approached him, yelling out racial and homophobic slurs (in a follow-up interview, Smollett says they also mentioned President Donald Trump’s slogan “MAGA”). They then attacked him, poured an unknown chemical substance on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck. Chicago Police Department says they are treating the incident as a hate crime.
Jan. 30. Police release surveillance images of two “people of interest” who were in the area around the time of the attack. The faces of the men are not visible in the photos.
Jan. 31. President Trump weighs in during a press conference in the Oval Office. “That I can tell you is horrible,” he said. “I’ve seen it. Last night. It’s horrible. Doesn’t get worse.”
Feb. 1. Smollett says, “I am working with authorities and have been 100 percent factual and consistent on every level. Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe that justice will be served.”
Feb. 13. Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo are detained by police and their house raided. We later learn that one of the brothers has appeared as an extra on Empire.
Feb. 14. Smollett sits down with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts for his first post-attack interview. He shares his detailed account of what happened and expresses outrage that some question his story. He also revealed why he won’t hand over his phone to investigators, noting sensitive information like the “private pictures” and numbers for his cast mates, family, and partner. Multiple local news outlets in Chicago report that police now believe Smollett worked with the other two individuals to stage the crime because Smollett was being killed off of Empire.
Feb. 15. The Osundairo brothers are officially identified as potential suspects by police, although not yet charged. Then, later that night, they are released as “detectives have additional investigative work to complete.”
Feb. 16. Chicago police say new evidence has “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” Reports suggest that Smollett is now suspected of paying the men behind the attack. The actor’s legal team subsequently releases a statement blasting such an idea and claim he has been further victimized.
Feb. 19. EW confirms that Empire scenes featuring Smollett are being rewritten and reduced.
Feb. 20. Fox maintains that Smollett is not being written off the show. Later that day Chicago police announced that Smollett is officially a suspect and that a grand jury is currently underway.
Feb. 21. Smollett turns himself in. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called Smollett’s actions “shameful” and that he “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote this career.” He further shared that the Empire star was behind the threatening letter that he had previously received and when that didn’t get the reaction he wanted, Smollett used a check, which is now in police possession, to pay $3,500 to the Osundairo brothers. Johnson says Smollett’s motive was dissatisfaction with his Empire salary. Smollett is released on $100,000 bail.
Feb. 22. Empire producers reveal Smollett’s character is being removed from the final two episodes of the current fifth season.
Feb. 28. Gloria Schmidt, an attorney for Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, releases a statement on behalf of the brothers: “My clients have tremendous regret over their involvement in this situation, and they understand how it has impacted people across the nation, particularly minority communities and especially those who have been victims of hate crimes themselves.”
While Smollett is entitled to a presumption of innocence, the evidence seems pretty damning. He has made it more difficult for actual victims of hate crimes to report. He has given anti-gay forces enough ammunition to last through next year’s election. He has provided bigots with talking points to use against actual targets of hate crimes.
If what the police say is true, Jussie Smollett has set back race relations, the victim’s rights movement and LGBTQ efforts for equality. He owes all three groups an apology and if found guilty he should receive the maximum penalty.