From the plot twists to the shocker ending, the Jussie Smollett case has played out more like a plot line from the actor’s high-drama series Empire than real life. Though sadly, this isn’t showbiz, this is real life with very real consequences for more than just Smollett.
It’s been a bizarre two months, to say the least. It began Jan. 29 when the 36-year-old actor said he was allegedly attacked by two men who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, poured a chemical substance on him and tied a noose around his neck.
But nearly a month later Smollett himself was charged with orchestrating the heinous attack on himself. And now in the latest surprise turn of events, on March 26, all 16 felony charges against Smollett were dismissed for the alleged hate crime hoax.
While Smollett has maintained his innocence the entire time, this case is far from cut and dry. As Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney told NBC News, prosecutors “did not exonerate Mr. Smollett,” but offered an agreement such that “the charges were dropped in return for Mr. Smollett’s agreement to do community service and forfeit his $10,000 bond to the City of Chicago. Without the completion of these terms, the charges would not have been dropped.”
And while it’s not completely uncommon for prosecutors to drop charges if they feel they don’t have substantive evidence to move forward, this feels a lot muddier than that — especially given the reactions from the mayor and Chicago Police.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, blindsided by the decision, were more than a little upset, to say the least. The Mayor expressed his outrage in a press conference later that day.
WATCH BELOW: Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted ‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett
“This is a whitewash of justice,” he said. “A grand jury could not have been clearer. Where is the accountability in the system?”
The following morning, Emanuel appeared on Good Morning America, further deriding Smollett: “You have the state’s attorney’s office saying he’s not exonerated, he actually did commit this hoax. He’s saying he’s innocent and his words aren’t true.”
The icing on the entire Smollett case is that the files will be sealed so we won’t ever really know exactly what happened.
WATCH BELOW: Criminal charges against Jussie Smollett have been dropped by the state attorney
Whether it’s his celebrity or something the prosecution doesn’t want the public to be privy to, or a bit of both at play, something doesn’t sit right. And it also feels a little too familiar.
Since the conclusions of the Mueller report were released, Donald Trump has been sounding off on his innocence — despite the summary released by U.S. Attorney General William Barr clearly stating that Trump too, like Smollett, is “not exonerated” of obstruction of justice.
If anyone equates “not exonerated” with “innocence,” it sure seems like Trump.
And you’d think he should be the first to show some support and offer an apology to Smollett for his past remarks, in which he had blasted Smollett for making “racist and dangerous comments.” After all, now that the charges have been dropped, surely he’s had a change of heart about Smollett’s innocence, sharing camaraderie on #TeamExoneration?
But ironically, Trump doesn’t see it that way and continued to berate Smollett this week.
Double standard, much? The hypocrisy is dizzying.
And the city of Chicago runs a reputation for questionable police practices, so I take their words with some apprehension and a grain of salt, too. (The 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald is still fresh in my mind. A Chicago officer was found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery and second-degree murder for the young teen, resulting in mass rage and uproar in the city.)
However we view it, we can’t ignore that power and privilege play a role in how crime and punishment is handled — and that is to the detriment of the common public. And perhaps the most eye-opening exposure of the whole Smollett saga is that it blatantly showcases for all of us the flaws in the justice system. There’s no “buy yourself out of jail” card for the underprivileged; they aren’t afforded the luxuries of forfeiting bond or friends in high places that those with money and fame can buy.
Yet Smollett, the man in the White House (and those college admission scam parents, too) have been able to work the system in a way that no ordinary criminal could ever dream.
WATCH BELOW: Stephen Colbert recaps Jussie Smollett case: ‘Huh?’
Push comes to shove, I honestly don’t know what to make of this case. There’s still no happy ending here — there are still more questions than answers and we are far from a resolution. I no longer even know who the victim is in the Smollett case — beyond tarnished reputations and wasted resources.
But I do know that when we step away from this over-the-top spectacle, there are real victims of real hate crimes we can’t ignore. The reality is that hate crimes do happen and they are on the rise, in the United States and Canada. An over-publicized and highly politicized case like this puts real marginalized communities in greater risk of not being believed and further victimized.
The Jussie Smollett saga has also showcased our flaws as a society, beyond the judicial system and that perhaps we aren’t as progressive and forward-thinking as we’d like to believe. The elation and glee in the many “gotcha” tweets when Smollett was charged and the refusal to accept that such crimes even happen reflects on us as a society.
Maybe this case has shown us that in some ways, there’s more smut on all of us than we’d like to admit — and in some ways, we all play a part in this broken system.