“One day you’re the cock of the walk, the next you’re a feather duster.” – Piers Morgan
It’s amazing how things change in an instant. One moment you are the victim of a hate crime, attacked on the basis of race and sexual orientation. The next, you are invited by the police for questioning, accused of disorderly conduct, with your reputation at stake.
For a minute, U.S actor Jussie Smollett appeared to be at the centre of a potential watershed moment in the struggle for equal rights of racial and sexual minorities. On January 29, the “Empire” star who has been open about his sexual preferences, filed a report with the police claiming that he had been attacked in Chicago by two men including one who was masked. According to him, they tied a rope around his neck, yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured an unknown substance on him and also made reference to MAGA (Make America Great Again), U.S President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
The report sparked outrage within and across the country, and fierce arguments ensued from a political and cultural perspective. Racial tensions in the U.S do not take long to boil over, and with the touchy relationship that has existed between African-Americans and Caucasians under the Trump administration, the atmosphere was heated. There were angry shrieks from the LGBTQ community too: if a celebrity could be subjected to violence simply because he was gay, then no queer person was safe.
Smollett received huge support in the wake of the alleged attack, with celebrities and politicians speaking up against the apparent expression of (systemised) racism and homophobia. However, things began to appear shady when police authorities stated that they could not find video evidence of the incident from surveillance cameras in the area. Two Nigerian brothers, Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, were arrested in connection with the alleged attack, but were later released “without charge.” There was also the discovery of a surveillance video, wherein the two men connected with the incident were spotted paying in cash for items purchased from a Chicago beauty supply store on the day before the alleged assault. Police investigators said that the items included a ski mask, a red hat and sunglasses.
There has since been a twist in the tale, with more damning evidence that seems to point to the fact that Smollett’s claim was a hoax, and ultimately, a felony charge has been brought against the man who plays the role of Jamal Lyon in one of Fox’s biggest hit series. Support has since degenerated into disappointment, and he faces an imprisonment term of one to three years if found guilty under Illinois state law. This has certainly escalated quickly, but the issues go beyond a celebrity’s (allegedly) false claims.
For decades the LGBTQ community has clamoured for equal rights, and while huge strides have been made (in the 1960s homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness), institutionalised homophobia is still a genuine concern in the U.S and beyond. African-Americans also feel (and not without good reason) that they are not protected enough and that the justice system is skewed to work against them, add the enabling of police brutality in the mix. If Smollett’s claims are found to be false, the activism for civil rights would be taken a step backwards, as such an outcome would create an impression that queer people and people of colour (sometimes) resort to crying wolf in advancing their agenda, and that does not exactly attract much sympathy to the cause. False claims and staged incidents make it significantly difficult for real victims, just ask why women who are found to have made false accusations of rape are regarded with disdain.
In any case, it is too early to dismiss Smollett’s allegations, afterall, a letter containing white powder was sent to the Chicago set of Empire a week before the alleged incident. Whether or not he is eventually adjudged to have orchestrated the whole episode, this is beyond a situation that resembles primetime television, it is a symptom of how toxic the socio-cultural atmosphere in the U.S.A still is, even to this day.