It’s an odd sign of progress to see that a black man with enough wealth and the right connections can receive the same sort of special breaks from the criminal justice system that used to be reserved with a nod and a wink for rich and well-connected white men.
Sure, that’s a cynical way of looking at the bizarre twists and turns of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s alleged hate crime hoax, but repeated exposure to a hypocritical system can make cynics of us all.
I made a similar observation after football star and comic actor O.J. Simpson’s nationally televised acquittal of double homicide in 1994 by a mostly black jury in Los Angeles, despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence of guilt. Regardless of the many complicated facts in that case, the televised split-screen reaction shots of gleeful blacks and heartbroken whites spoke volumes about the racial divide in our perceptions of the criminal justice system.
Flash forward. Smollett, a black, gay and liberal political activist, was facing 16 charges for lying to police about an alleged attack at 2 a.m. in the bone-chilling cold of Jan. 29. Smollett claimed two white men in the “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA” hats of Donald Trump’s campaign assaulted him, used racial and homophobic slurs, put a noose around his neck and doused him with a liquid described as bleach.
Smollett told police that the two also shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a description so inappropriate for Democratic Chicago that it offered one of many clues to those who are familiar with Chicago that this story was a phony.
As the story went national, numerous celebrities, including Democratic presidential hopefuls Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, called the attack an attempted modern-day “lynching.”
But almost three weeks later, the story sharply turned as the alleged victim turned into a suspect. Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false report and staging an apparent hate crime hoax.
Then, almost two weeks later, Chicago prosecutors abruptly dropped all of the charges. In exchange, Smollett agreed to forfeit the $10,000 he’d posted for his bond and perform a couple of days of community service — at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH headquarters, as it turned out.
The deal apparently was arranged too hastily for such interested parties as Mayor Rahm Emanuel or police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to be notified — and they weren’t by any means pleased. A “whitewash of justice” was how Emanuel described it, an accusation he has heard leveled against himself in the city’s police misconduct issues.
Attention also turned to other curious events, such as Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx saying she’d recused herself early from the case because of contacts she had with a Smollett family member when the actor-singer still was viewed as a victim.
The contact had come through lawyer Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, who later said she had contacted Foxx only to help the family reach her. Tchen knew the Smollett family from previous legal work with them, she said in a statement.
That’s an old Chicago story. As a local friend told me of the narrow degrees of separation between Chicagoans shortly after I moved into town, “Everybody here knows everybody else, no more than one person removed.”
An email exchange obtained by Chicago Tribune reporters shows Foxx assuring a family member that she had relayed their request to ask Chicago police to move the case over to the FBI. That was on Feb. 1, three days after the alleged attack, as some media outlets were beginning to quote unnamed police sources who questioned the actor’s story.
Foxx made “no guarantees, but I’m trying.” Chicago police kept the case and built a pile of evidence against Smollett, including video footage, red caps and two alleged accomplices, both of African descent, who reportedly cooperated with investigators.
Unfortunately the appearance of conflicts endures. Even President Donald Trump got into the fray, tweeting that he would tell the FBI to investigate how Smollett’s charges were dropped. Emanuel called on the president to “just sit this out.”
And Smollett prepared himself for the NAACP Image Awards, where he lost the award for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, still maintaining his innocence despite impressive evidence that his story was a hoax.
“I hope he wins,” said the awards show host Anthony Anderson of “Black-ish” fame, before the show. “I’m happy for him that the system worked for him in his favor because the system isn’t always fair, especially for people of color.”
No, but more troubling is the possibility in this instance that Smollett exploited his race and sexuality more than he was penalized for it. Even the appearance of impropriety makes an ugly image.