As TV actor Jussie Smollett told the tale, he was the victim of a politically motivated hate crime on a downtown Chicago street at 2 a.m. on a January morning. That's the story the Chicago Police Department investigated for more than three weeks.
But on Wednesday night, authorities disputed that version of events. The Cook County state's attorney's office charged Smollett with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false report that described an attack with racist and homophobic elements. If that's true, it would mean Smollett manufactured a nonevent — an elaborate, irresponsible hoax. It would mean he created a sympathetic role for himself as the target of an ugly, bigoted attack. It would mean the two men he identified as his assailants didn't perpetrate any such assault. It would mean Smollett, who appears on the Chicago-filmed show "Empire," invented this incidence of evil and then stuck to his story, even as suspicions arose that he was responsible.
Smollett's story about a hate crime riveted America. Smollett said he was attacked by two men who hit him and yelled slurs. They wrapped a rope around his neck, he said, splashed a chemical akin to bleach on him and shouted "This is MAGA country!" as if to connect their deed to President Donald Trump via his "Make America Great Again" campaign catchphrase.
As suspicions about his story began to build, Smollett doubled down, appearing Feb. 14 on ABC's "Good Morning America" to reiterate his victimhood. But amid that face-saving interview, he spoke an understated truth: "You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this," Smollett told Robin Roberts.
A disservice? That and much more. Smollett hasn't been found guilty of a crime here. But if the police contention that he lied is borne out, that would mean he is guilty of shameful injustices at great cost to other people: That he fabricated a vicious assault, thus wasting police resources in a city that is struggling to contain gun violence and solve crimes. The police clearance rate for homicides and shootings in Chicago is atrociously low. Yet CPD spent three weeks investigating Smollett's report, siphoning attention away from legitimate victims.
If Smollett's story was bogus, the damage goes deeper: Smollett's celebrity status generated intense national interest in his shocking allegation, exploiting the bleak narrative that America in 2019 is a place where intolerance not only occurs, but flourishes. If police are correct, Smollett's deceit put Chicago on that map when it wasn't warranted.
Some in the national news media pushed the story without professional skepticism, as if his claim didn't need to be verified. On social media, people with political or ideological agendas fanned the flames. Presidential candidates sounded off. His story took them all in. We're grateful that reporters at the Tribune and other Chicago outlets avoided speculation and stuck to the facts in a murky situation. For its part, CPD maintained message discipline, allowing detectives to work the case without publicly challenging Smollett's account until Wednesday afternoon.
Smollett has received emotional support from family and friends, and we hope they stick with him. But if it turns out that he concocted his story, he should explain himself. The point wouldn't be to humiliate Smollett but to make clear that falsely reporting a vicious crime with racial and homophobic overtones aggravates divisions and stokes mistrust. The point would be to make this clear to this city and America: There was no "MAGA country" attack in Chicago on Jan. 29.
— Reprinted with permission from the Chicago Tribune