Editor’s Note: On February 21, Smollett turned himself into police after being charged with filing a false police report. He is accused of allegedly staging an attack in Chicago with the help of two other people.
President Donald Trump has not responded to an actor’s account that he was attacked by racist and homophobic masked men who referred to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan during the assault. Top Republicans in Congress have been similarly silent about the incident.
Jussie Smollett, an actor, musician, and activist best known for his role in the television show Empire, told police he was attacked in Chicago by two masked men early Tuesday morning. Smollett, who is Black and gay and plays a queer character on Empire, told police in a followup interview later Tuesday that his attackers said he was in “MAGA country.” MAGA is shorthand for Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Chicago police said they were told two people approached Smollett at 2 a.m. and yelled homophobic and racial slurs at the actor. According to police, Smollett said the attackers hit him, poured an unknown chemical substance on him, and put a rope around his neck. Earlier in the month, a letter threatening Smollett that included a homophobic epithet and white powder, which turned out not to be dangerous, was mailed to the set where Empire is filmed, police said. The FBI is investigating the letter as Chicago police investigate the incident as a possible hate crime, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Trump has yet to comment on Smollett’s account. Similarly, none of the Republican leaders in the Senate or House of Representatives have commented on Facebook, Twitter, or their websites. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) responded to the news on Twitter by calling the alleged attack “an affront to our humanity.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is chair of outreach for Senate Democrats, called it a “horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country.”
The racist, homophobic attack on @JussieSmollett is an affront to our humanity. No one should be attacked for who they are or whom they love. I pray that Jussie has a speedy recovery & that justice is served. May we all commit to ending this hate once & for all.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) January 30, 2019
The racist and homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country. We must come together to eradicate all forms of bigotry and violence. https://t.co/2accVEJrCG
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 29, 2019
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) criticized media outlets’ use of the words “racially-charged” to describe the reported attack on Twitter.
There is no such thing as “racially charged.”
This attack was not “possibly” homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack.
If you don’t like what is happening to our country, then work to change it. It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes. https://t.co/QAi0IYtSeR
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 30, 2019
Julian Castro (D), former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), all of whom are either officially running for president in 2020 or known to be considering it, tweeted in response to the news.
This is a sickening and outrageous attack, and horribly, it's the latest of too many hate crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color. We are all responsible for condemning this behavior and every person who enables or normalizes it. Praying for Jussie and his family. https://t.co/eylvxhLT0u
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) January 29, 2019
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday in which he called for a hate crimes investigation into the attack. Last year, Rush introduced legislation to make lynching a federal crime — H.R. 35, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
“As you are aware, crimes of this nature strike fear at the very core of a community and have a long-lasting impact on its members,” Rush wrote.
Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld, professor of criminal justice at California State University said hate crimes are often difficult to prosecute. Gerstenfeld used her state as an example.
“In an average year, California has less than a hundred hate crime convictions even though close to 2,000 hate crimes are reported. So prosecutors don’t charge them very often or get convictions very often,” she told ThinkProgress in an interview. “The reason for that is you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender was motivated by race, sexual orientation, whatever, and that’s a really hard thing to do even if someone shouts out slurs.”
Gerstenfeld said that police training needs to be improved to identify potential hate crimes. Many law enforcement agencies don’t even report one or more hate crimes to the FBI. According to the Anti-Defamation League, at least 91 cities with populations over 100,000 people did not provide any hate crimes data or reported that there were zero hate crimes.
“Few states mandate any training for police officers on hate crimes,” Gerstenfeld said. “Some police officers have little to no training.”
Despite the challenges involved in prosecuting these cases, considering some of the details of Smollett’s reported attack, Gerstenfeld said it sounded like a “fairly straightforward case,” since the attackers were reportedly carrying chemicals and a noose, used slurs, and there didn’t appear to be any other motive.
“Where there’s premeditation and there doesn’t seem to be any other motive and there are these other pieces — like if someone burns a cross on a Black family’s front lawn or is carrying around a noose and [chemicals] — it’s hard to think of any other reasonable explanation for that,” she said.
On Wednesday evening, Anthony Guglielmi, Chicago Police Department’s chief communications officer, tweeted that “detectives located a surveillance camera showing potential persons of interest wanted for questioning” in reference to Smollett’s assault and battery.
Smollett checked into Northwestern Memorial Hospital after the attack. He is now at home recovering, his spokesman told the Los Angeles Times. He plans to make it to his scheduled performance at a West Hollywood nightclub next week.
UPDATE (1/31): April Ryan, Washington D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, asked President Donald Trump about the reported attack on Smollett. Trump responded, “That I can tell you was horrible. It doesn’t get worse as far as I’m concerned.”