I don’t want this story to take over tomorrow’s Friday Five, and I have a bit to say about the Smollett story. Joe Jervis, who runs the Joe.My.God blog, has stated many times his policy that he doesn’t link to reports about hate crimes unless one of three conditions have been met: 1) there has been an arrest of a suspected perpetrator, 2) there is video of at least part of the crime available, 3) there are uninvolved eyewitness accounts. In the years since articulating the criteria, he has made exceptions to the rule only when the national mainstream media was reporting it. Which everyone was shortly after actor and singer Jussie Smollett first reported being attacked by two men three weeks ago.
My first take when I saw the story being shared on twitter was, “I guess he isn’t famous enough to have an entourage with him all the time…” And because the same people who were insistent that Brett Kavanaugh was the victim in his Senate confirmation hearings were immediately claiming it was a hoax, I thought, “I need more details, but I think this falls under the ‘believe victims until proven otherwise’ rule.”
When I found a story with details, I have to admit I was a little bit confused. I had assumed from the initial headlines, that he must have been out at a known gay nightclub, maybe on his way to his car or something. I mean, I know who he is because I watched the first few seasons of Empire and was happy they had more than one queer character in the cast, but I didn’t think that he was famous enough that the typical white Trump-supporting Fox-news-watching bigot would know who he was. Right? I mean, yeah, if guys like that saw men coming out of a gay club they might harass them, and maybe a black dude would be more likely to draw their attention, but I don’t imagine many MAGA-hat-wearing white guys are familiar with the secondary cast of a prime time melodrama that is entirely about an African-American family who own a hip hop recording studio, you know?
However… the story was linked on the Joe.My.God blog, and I knew about Joe’s policy. I had also read a story where a spokesman for the Chicago police denied that they were considering this a hoax. So I included a link in that week’s Friday Five and waited to see if there were more developments.
And, boy have there been developments! Jussie Smollett paid $3,500 to stage his attack, hoping to promote his career, Chicago police allege.
Now, I still believe that on a personal basis, ‘believe victims’ when the report these things is a good rule of thumb. Statistics indicate that less than 2% of reports of this kind of assault are later proved to be fake. Yet, the vast majority of victims who do come forward are disbelieved and often harassed and threatened for doing so.
The biggest tragedy of this is not, as some people are trying to conclude, that people in MAGA hats are being unfairly harangued. The tragedy is that this case will be held up as reason to disbelieve and impede investigations into real hate crimes. Not all hate crimes managed to get caught in viral videos, like the recent assault in Salt Lake City: Salt Lake City Police Seek Help Identifying Man Filmed In Assault After Asking If Victim Is Gay.
This is especially troubling now. Between 2006 and 2016 there had been a steady decline in hate crimes in America. There was a sudden surge right after election day 2016. The FBI described 2017’s figures as a “significant jump” over the previous year, and all indications are that 2018 continued the trend. So moving forward there will likely be more victims of real hate crimes, but people will be more skeptical of any reported hate crimes.
There’s another aspect about this that bothers me. Smollett is being charged with a felony for falsely reporting the crime and wasting police resources. But I want to know why Pool Patrol Paul wasn’t charged for falsely reporting a black family was trespassing? Why wasn’t BBQ Becky charge with making a false report when she called police on a black family using a public park? Or Golf Cart Gail, or that Starbucks manager, or the Nordstrom manager, and many, many other white people who called the cops claiming a black person had committed a crime when no crime had happened? I mean, sure the unrelated Pool Patrol Paula faced criminal charges–but she was filmed assaulting one of the black teen-agers she chased from her community’s pool and the assaulted the cops that came to question her.
But all those other white people last year made false reports to the police—but oddly, none of them were arrested and forced to put up bail.
Smollett seems to be the boy who cried wolf. And yes, he should face consequences for what he did. But there is an important part of the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf that few people think about. He keeps yelling that wolves are attacking the town flock when the aren’t, because he enjoys seeing everyone come running. In the original Greek version of the fable, when the townsfolk stop believing the boy, the wolves show up and eat all the sheep with impunity. This doesn’t just hurt the boy, it hurts the entire village, as the sheep were part of the villager’s livelihood. The moral of the fable isn’t the wolves don’t exist.
Similarly, it isn’t just Smollett that is facing consequences. Unfortunately, any other person of color or queer person who is a victim of hate crimes going forward is going to find that they’re painted with the same hoax brush.