Smollett in custody in Chicago, facing felony charges over accusations that he misled Chicago police to avoid speaking to them about $3,500 payment for ‘romantic’ date with brothers
Jussie Smollett’s court case has had a strange, tumultuous path from media blizzard to seemingly ongoing, confusing court proceedings at the same time that he is also fighting an uphill battle in the court of public opinion.
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That may sound nuts, but don’t forget that Smollett himself has said that while there were certainly elements of an impulsive plot to stage a nonexistent assault on his character, he also turned the incident into a “monumental social justice issue” in order to bring attention to the broader issues of race and inequality that continue to plague US communities.
It was Smollett himself who first went public with allegations of a hate crime committed against him by an apparent racist and homophobic attacker, then claimed to cooperate with police, and filed a police report. He was on the phone to police when he called himself an “oppressed” black man who had been attacked.
Then, he tried to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors on the belief that he would avoid jail time, due to his cooperation with law enforcement. He believes he could have gotten an “informal pardon” from the president of the United States, should he plead guilty to lying to police. He blames a “racist bigot” for his life-long misfortune, and threatens to “bring that piece of s%% to their feet”.
All that, while still going to media appearances and interviews to promote his career, and advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people in general.
From protests to spats on social media, this scandal has had multiple facets, never for want of diversity of media. That’s because Smollett has been a powerful figure of the Black Lives Matter movement since 2011. He is an eloquent spokesperson, who has been passionate and eloquent on issues he believes in. At one point, he was called the “most powerful speaker” of the movement by Feministing founder Jessica Valenti. Smollett also used his platform to call out more systemic racism and privilege. In a controversial article, he claimed that the LGBTQ community “were suffering from more racism, and having a harder time, than any other minority in the country”.
According to NYMag, Smollett doesn’t just impact LGBTQ communities, but more broadly because he is one of the black LGBTQ men for whom there is “stigmatization” and stigmas, a man who “can engage with people” in a way that “other black gay men are not always able to.”
He also co-wrote the 2008 book We Are on Our Own, with actor and activist Felicity Huffman, aimed at telling the stories of black and brown LGBTQ people. And recently, he has doubled down on this social justice role by voicing his opposition to President Trump’s repeated incidents of racism and homophobia that have brought calls for “guilt by association”.
Of course, like any social-justice activist, Smollett has had his detractors. He is one of many, celebrities and otherwise, who take steps to correct the image of black people in the US media, as well as those of other marginalized groups. But the sad part is that public figures rarely have an opportunity to change the conversation around them until it’s too late. So even if Smollett ends up only going to jail for a year or so, he’s still dealt a blow to his reputation as an unwavering advocate for social justice. And the racial diversity of men involved in this case will likely be overlooked or denied as a result.
• Juan Mason is senior publicist at HWN PR