Just weeks after Jussie Smollett reported being assaulted in a potential hate crime, the Empire actor is in police custody for allegedly orchestrating the attack. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett faked the incident, paying two brothers about $3,500 to join a “publicity stunt” staged by Smollett because he “was dissatisfied with his salary.”
“Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Johnson said at a news conference Thursday after Smollett’s arrest.
“I’m left hanging my head and asking why,” he continued. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?”
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has approved disorderly conduct charges against Smollett for allegedly filing a false police report. If convicted of the felony, he could face up to three years in prison.
Smollett has not publicly responded since his arrest, though his attorneys — Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson — released a statement Wednesday night saying they “intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
The company behind Empire, 20th Century Fox Television, had publicly expressed support for Smollett in the days following the original incident. Now, it is sounding a much more circumspect note.
“We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process,” a spokesman said in a statement released to NPR. “We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
The arrest Thursday represents something of a surreal twist to a story that first surfaced late last month, when Chicago police revealed that Smollett had reported being assaulted in a possible hate crime. The actor and musician, who is black and gay, said two individuals had accosted him with racist and homophobic slurs, beat him, and placed a rope around his neck before fleeing.
He also claimed that he received a threatening letter using racist and homophobic language a week earlier — though police say now that, too, was falsified in an attempt “to gain attention.” “When that didn’t work,” Johnson explained, “Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud.”
Detective Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki laid out an exhaustive timeline of how police arrived at this conclusion, saying they relied on security footage and tips from the community to identify the two brothers Smollett allegedly enlisted. They had flown to Nigeria shortly after the incident, but authorities were at Chicago O’Hare International Airport waiting to detain them when they returned to the country on Feb. 13.
Johnson said it wasn’t until the very end of their interrogation that the brothers decided to confess. “It wasn’t until the 47th hour of their 48-hour hold time — that we could legally hold him in custody — that it took a change,” Johnson said, adding that it was at that point that the brothers implicated Smollett. “So we gave [Smollett] the benefit of doubt up until that 47th hour, but when we discovered the actual motive, quite frankly, it pissed everybody off — you know, because we have to invest valuable resources.”
And he expressed frustration not only at Smollett’s conduct, but also at the amount of media attention it has received.
Johnson said he’s also “concerned” about what Smollett’s alleged actions mean moving forward for the victims of hate crimes. “My concern,” he said, “is that hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”
According to statistics recently published by the FBI, there was a 17 percent jump in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. In a separate study, the Human Rights Campaign reported that last year, 67 percent of 12,000 black LGBT youth they surveyed had been verbally insulted because of their identity; 30 percent of those surveyed said they had been physically threatened.
“Our laws exist to reflect and defend [our shared] values, and hate crimes will never be tolerated,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement released Thursday. “A single individual who put their perceived self-interest ahead of these shared principles will never trump Chicago’s collective spirit.”