The news that Empire star Jussie Smollett may have orchestrated his own hate crime certainly came as a shock to much of America. Joe Jervis, however, wasn’t exactly surprised.
Jervis, creator of the news blog Joe.My.God, has been covering LGBTQ-related news and events for 15 years. Several years ago, he decided he would only report on alleged hate crimes if at least one of three criteria were met: There had been an arrest, there was conclusive video evidence, or there were uninvolved eye-witness accounts. The recent assault of a gay man in Salt Lake City, which was captured on film, fits the bill. Jussie Smollett’s alleged assault—with no eye-witnesses, arrests, or video evidence—did not, but because Smollett is famous and the national media was already reporting the story, Jervis made an exception to his own rule. Still, not all his readers—whom, he says, are “overwhelmingly older gay men”—were buying it.
“I didn’t want to weigh in on if it was real or not, but from the comments and the emails I received, a lot of my readers were immediately skeptical,” Jervis told me in a phone interview. And while plenty of the comments on his posts about Smollett are sympathetic—gay men of a certain age tend to have experiences with hate—quite a few commenters anonymously expressed their doubts. "As a Chicagoan—this is odd,” one comment reads. “Certainly, weirder things have happened, but this in downtown Chicago? Color me a Suspicious Susie—but hope Jussie is okay no matter what went down.”
The saga began three weeks ago, after Smollett reported to Chicago police that he was beaten and doused with bleach by two masked men shouting racist and homophobic epithets. Smollett was treated in the hospital, and early the next morning, TMZ broke the story, reporting that the attack occurred at around 2 in the morning on a sub-freezing night on the actor’s way home from getting a late-night sandwich at Subway. TMZ, on a tip from an unnamed source apparently close to the actor, claimed that the two perpetrators shouted, “This is MAGA country,” and tied a noose around Smollett’s neck. In a photo posted to the website, there’s a laceration on Smollett’s cheek, rope burn on his neck, and his face looks puffy and swollen.
The outcry was immediate. Nearly every national publication in America picked up the story and there was a massive outpouring of support for Smollett from fellow Empire stars and celebrities as well as gay rights groups, activists, and politicians. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and a bevy of Democratic presidential hopefuls weighed in with their horror and support. Even Trump condemned the attack—and, for once, he didn’t immediately shift the attention to himself.
Of course, not everyone jumped to Smollett’s defense. While on the left, the response was largely to take Smollett’s claims at face value, plenty of right wing commentators and critics expressed doubt from the very beginning. And of course they did: Smollett blamed Trump voters. They had clear motivation to question the narrative he put forth: His story made Trump supporters look not just racist, but violent (which, indeed, some Trump supporters are). These conservative doubters are now gloating.
At the same time, those on the left who had misgivings mostly kept quiet. It’s a lot more socially acceptable to express your support of the victim of an alleged hate crime than it is to question whether it happened. Doubting the apparent victim of a hate crime was just too toxic a position to take.
Privately, though, people expressed skepticism, especially as strange details emerged. According to news reports and police statements, Smollett initially didn’t want to report the attack but he still left the noose around his neck until the officers arrived to take his statement 40 minutes after his manager called the police, because, Smollett said, he wanted to preserve the evidence. But if he didn’t want to report the assault, why in the world would he keep that rope around his neck? It just didn’t make sense.
The same day that the news broke, I started having off-the-record conversations with people—most of whom were some form of queer, none of whom were remotely close to being fans of Donald Trump—about why this story seemed so fishy. It was just too perfect, like a soap opera's version of a hate crime. A famous person was randomly targeted in the middle of a freezing cold night by two racists with a noose screaming, "This is MAGA country" in Chicago? Chicago has certainly had more than its share of racism both today and throughout American history—Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to it as the most segregated city in America—but Hillary Clinton won Chicago in 2016 by nearly 84 percent. Obama won it by even more. While there are undoubtedly both racists and Trump supporters in Chicago, "MAGA country" it’s not.
The details kept getting stranger. There was a complete lack of video evidence even though nearly every street in Chicago has some sort of surveillance camera. And the story kept changing: First I read that Smollett broke a rib, then I read that he didn’t. First the Chicago police said that Smollett hadn’t mentioned anything about "MAGA country"; then, when they interviewed him a second time, they said that he did. Were the attackers wearing MAGA hats, as MSNBC first claimed, or were they wearing black ski masks, as was later reported? A neighbor reported seeing “rednecks” loitering outside Smollett’s apartment building that no one else seemed to notice. A security guard reported that Smollett walked past him with a rope around his neck and didn’t say anything at all. None of it made sense, and my bullshit meter was wildly pinging.
I even wrote something about it on the day the first story broke. This was soon after Covington had faded from the news, and in light of everything the media got wrong in the initial coverage of that story, it seemed wise to wait until the investigation had proceeded before extrapolating something larger from this alleged attack. I didn’t say that I didn’t believe Smollett, but I did say we should withhold judgment until more information came forth. This post ultimately wasn’t published after my editor expressed some hesitation. While I did not agree with this decision, he was right: At that moment, anyone on the left who offered less than full support of Jussie Smollett was going to be attacked. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Certainly, I’d prefer to live in a world where the default position is to believe victims than to just assume that they are lying. Of course, we don’t have to choose one or the other. Some victims are genuine, some are not, and the only way to determine what’s real and what’s fake is to actually investigate.
Unfortunately, hate crime hoaxes in the LGBTQ community are hardly new. In the early years of Joe Jervis’s blog, he dutifully reported on alleged anti-gay hate crimes when they occurred. And then, after a number of them—for instance, the case of a Tennessee couple that burned down their own house and claimed they were targeted for being lesbians—ended up being either untrue or wildly exaggerated, he decided not to report on allegations unless they were backed up by evidence.
Jervis had good reason for caution: Violence, like many social phenomena, can be contagious. This is true of suicide and mass shootings, which have been shown to spike after high-profile incidents. The more the media publicizes hate crimes, the more likely they may be to happen. And this includes hate crime hoaxes as well.
“Some messed up people see the attention others get from being the victim of a hate crime and they want some of that for themselves,” Jervis told me. “It’s a way of helping their hurt.”
Of course, the repercussions of falsely reporting a hate crime are enormous, and not just for the perpetrator, who can be (and, in Smollett’s case, may very well be) charged with false reporting. Hate crime hoaxes have the same effect as actual hate crimes: They create panic and terror. Often, as in Smollett’s case, it’s the perpetrator's own community that suffers. Queer black people in Chicago were led to believe that there are racist white men roaming the streets with nooses and bleach looking for victims, and, as multiple think pieces argued in the days after the attack, if Jussie Smollett isn’t safe, who is?
If Smollett did make this story up, his lie will be used to dismiss the actual victims of hate crimes going forth.
According to the FBI, reports of hate crimes increased 17 percent between 2016 and 2017. It’s important to note that there were 1,000 more law enforcement agencies reporting hate crimes in 2017 than there were in 2016, as Robby Soave pointed out in Reason, and that likely accounts for some of the rise. But as we saw in the deadly shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, hate crimes do happen in the US. Just Monday, Maajid Nawaz, a writer and former Islamic extremist who now works as a counter-extremism expert, was reportedly attacked in London by someone who allegedly called him a “fucking Paki.” (There were, according to Nawaz, multiple witnesses as well as CCTV footage of the attack.) These reports should be taken seriously. But hoaxes make all claims of hate claims less likely to be believed. We're seeing this in real time: The Oregonian reported on two alleged hate crimes in Portland on Monday and most of the comments on the post reference hoaxes or Jussie Smollett. (In one case, the police say the alleged victim was "intoxicated and appeared to have fallen,” but a GoFundMe reportedly set up for the alleged victim has, as of this writing, raised almost $10,000.)
At this point, it looks as though Smollett paid two Nigerian American friends to help him stage the attack. (While I'm all about diversity in casting, in this case, it seems like the director would have been wise to cast villians who were a little more white). If this ends up being what happened, Smollett has given a tragic gift to the conservative right and the Trump administration. He tearfully claimed on Good Morning America that if his attackers had been black, Mexican, or Muslim—and if he weren’t an outspoken Trump critic—everyone would have believed him, no doubt. When Trump screams “fake news,” this is the kind of thing he is talking about, and while most national and Chicago reporters did a very good job of simply reporting the facts as they changed, the vast majority of hot takes and opinion pieces—which are not the same as reporting—were squarely on Smollett’s side. When Chicago reporters covering the story did cast doubt on Smollett's story, some were accused of spreading misinformation or of being homophobic and racist themselves. Trump and his cronies at Fox News will use this event as further evidence that the mainstream media is irreparably biased, and plenty of people will believe them.
The penalties for filing a false police report vary by jurisdiction and can include both fines and time in prison. As of this week, Jussie Smollett’s lawyers were still claiming he’s the victim, but as more details emerge, it seems less and less likely to be true. There could be, however, one small silver lining to this whole sorry tale, and that's this: Jussie Smollett wasn't actually attacked and beaten by noose-wielding bigots in Chicago. No matter his reasons or the consequences of this charade, if an assault didn't occur, that's something Americans across the political spectrum should be glad about.