Jussie Smollett: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

So, actor Jussie Smollett is officially on fire. The Cook County State’s Attorney charged him with felony disorderly conduct for making a false police report, he was arrested Thursday and later released on a $100,000 bond.

Until the office charge came down, I was still hoping that all the hubbub was just that, some kind of grandiose conspiracy to ruin this Black man who was really just an innocent victim. But at this point it doesn’t matter whether he told the truth about his attack or not, does it? The court of public opinion, not to mention the Chicago Police Department and the global media, have already spoken. Smollett has effectively been tried and convicted outside a court of law.

As his official legal statement said:

“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”

He’s being blamed for everything from misappropriation of police resources for “real” crimes, to setting back the LGBTQ agenda and endangering lives. Business Insider ran a piece that said the entire thing stemmed from pique that he was only getting $65K per episode on Empire. For the record, another article stated that he makes $125K per episode. But interestingly the subtext in the Business Insider piece – comparisons to other prominent male actors on popular shows, many making $1M per episode – seemed to suggest he had reason to be mad.

The whole thing reeks of witch hunt. How quickly he went from being a victim, to two accomplices contritely stepping forward to admit their part, and suggest they were manipulated by an apparently Svengali-like Smollett. I’m like, okay. You’regrown men, but whatever.

Don’t get me wrong, if Smollett did lie about his attack, it’s gotta be one of the stupidest moves in the history of why-don’t-you-just-f-up-your-entire-life-for-no-earthly-reason. His career is now in shambles, and he’s about to go broke paying legal fees to stay out of jail – and there’s guarantee that he will emerge unscathed. He’s also cast a seriously cloudy pall over Empire and all of his cast mates, not to mention all of the people who’ve supported him, including Senator and Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris.

But I can’t let go of the fact that he hasn’t definitively done anything wrong. Being charged with a crime is not, after all, the same thing as being found guilty of one. Something about this whole thing just feels off. One article I read said the police have a copy of the check Smollett used to pay his conspirators. A check? He paid them with a check. Really? In what universe does that make any kind of sense?

But seriously? I don’t know if I’m clinging to his innocence because it would be the dumbest thing ever to lie about something like this, and I have a tough time believing he’s that dumb. Or, am I wavering because I’m disheartened at how quickly everyone turned on this kid.

Washington Post article stated “In the weeks since Smollett first reported the alleged attack, a trickle of anonymously sourced reporting cast doubt on his story, inciting arguments from conservatives who criticized the media as fueling a narrative that Trump supporters were predisposed to violence.”

Anonymously sourced? As a journalist I call foul. But as a member of the media, I know better than most how easy it is to shape and mold a story and have the public turn on someone like a rabid dog. The MAGA aspect of Smollett’s attack has added a lethal dose of Trump to his credibility, as sundry sources take every opportunity to tie the President into the narrative. That is not what you want to happen if you’re trying to maintain your innocence let alone any sort of dignity.

It’s all so gross. Consider this. If Smollett is telling the truth, and he’s being put through all of this nonsense: jeopardizing his career and needlessly tainting all of his associates, the trauma, the money, the time, the doubts on his character. The very idea that a victim of a hate crime could have his entire life upended so quickly, so carelessly, could be punished not once but over and over in various ways from the legal to the psychological. It’s horrifying to contemplate.

But if he’s lying, what an asshole. How could an intelligent person create such a debacle? What possible defense could he muster to support his actions? Sure he’s an actor, routinely diving deep into the world of make believe, but he still lives in this one, the real world. As a gay black man, how could he give the enemy – take your pick which one – so much ammunition to use against him and all those who look like him, forever more, in perpetuity?

But the worst part of it all is that we don’t know the truth. The scandal has grown so big, we can no longer comfortably take his word. We, I, can’t pick a side. I can’t condemn, I can’t support. I just have to deal with this horrid ambiguity and a subtle but not small feeling of distaste.

Walking the middle of the road, endlessly hearing the word alleged, it’s so, yuck.

Well, we’ll see how it plays out. But it is not looking good. Not at all.

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