In a mind-boggling reversal of what initially seemed like a horrendously hateful attack on a black gay TV star in Chicago, police there have arrested Jussie Smollett on a felony charge of disorderly conduct for filing a false report to law enforcement.
The arrest came shortly after two brothers, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, told a grand jury that Smollett hired them to stage the attack in the early morning hours of January 29 in a tony section of Chicago just north of downtown.
Smollett had told police that two masked men had approached him in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street and yelled, “Aren’t you that faggot ‘Empire’ n*****?” and attacked him, including putting a noose around his neck. When they fled the scene, the “Empire” actor had alleged, the men yelled, “This is MAGA country.”
Days before the incident, a letter addressed to Smollett arrived at Fox Studios, which produces “Empire,” reading,” You will die black fag,” with “MAGA” written on the envelope’s top left-hand corner.”
Those allegations, of course, immediately created a storm of controversy over the hateful climate created in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, and the surge in hate crime violence across the US in the past several years was widely noted. On February 1, a crowd of more than 100 activists turned out in frigid temperatures in Midtown to decry the increase in hate crimes, placing particular focus on the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color.
As doubts about Smollett’s account increased, however, numerous commentators on the right pointed to the credulity that Trump’s critics automatically bring to even the most improbable stories about what his supporters are capable of.
Chicago police were initially stymied in efforts to develop leads in their investigation of Smollett’s allegations. They finally found video footage of the Osundairo brothers in the vicinity of the alleged attack, and the two men were arrested at O’Hare Airport when they arrived back in Chicago from an out-of-town trip. After lengthy questioning by the police, the two men were released and said to no longer be suspects.
News leaked that one of them was identified as having purchased, at a local hardware store, the rope Smollett said was put around his neck during the alleged attack. One was also identified as an employee of the “Empire” production company, and Smollett said one was his personal trainer, though it was unclear if both were the same brother.
Even as reports surfaced in the media last week that the Osundairo brothers told police that Smollett staged the attack, Smollett appeared on “Good Morning America” to reiterate his initial claims, describing himself as “heartbroken” that people did not believe him.
“It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more. A lot more,” he told journalist Robin Roberts.
Over the weekend, the Chicago police declined to confirm or deny any of the leaked reports about where the investigation was taking them, saying only that its “trajectory” had changed in the wake of their questioning of the Osundairo brothers.
Gloria Schmidt, an attorney for the brothers, released a statement saying, “I think Jussie’s conscience is probably not letting him sleep at night, so he should probably unload that conscience and just come out and tell the American people what actually happened.”
On Thursday morning, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told a press conference that Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” Police maintain that Smollett concocted the alleged hoax because he was “dissatisfied with his salary.”
Prior to his arrest, attorneys for Smollett, Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, released a statement saying, “Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
The felony charge facing Smollett carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
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