Speaker Nancy Pelosi has deleted her tweet demanding justice while Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) is now “withholding judgment” after previously calling it an “attempted modern-day lynching.” After politicians, pundits, and the press spent days calling for swift justice and denouncing the Trump Administration for the rise in hate crimes, Washington figures are running for cover as reports grew that Chicago police have evidence of a stage hate crime by “Empire” actor and singer Jussie Smollett. The case again raises the problem of leaders in politics and the media reaching immediate conclusions on such allegations before the evidence has been gathered.
Pelosi deleted her original tweet calling denouncing the “racist, homophobic attack” by alleged Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats in a Chicago subway on Saturday, January 29th, at 2 am.
Sen. Kamala Harris also took the account as true and tweeted “This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.” When confronted with the new evidence, Harris gave the answer that should have been the first response: “I think that once the investigation is concluded, then we should all comment, but I’m not going to comment until I know the outcome of that investigation.”
Sen. Corey Booker also expressed this same view, tweeting “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching. I’m glad he’s safe. To those in Congress who don’t feel the urgency to pass our Anti-Lynching bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime– I urge you to pay attention.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually objected to those not treating the attack as an established fact. She tweeted that the attack was not “possibly” a racist and homophobic attack, but that “it was a racist and homophobic attack.”
The story quickly took over the networks and cable shows as the focus turned on how the Trump Administration has unleashed racist forces. Rep. Maxine Waters declared “Why all of a sudden do we have people unable to study while black, unable to mow a lawn while black, unable to have picnic while black, and being attacked? It’s coming from the president of the United States. He’s dog whistling every day.”
Likewise, Roxane Gay tweeted, “I am so sorry to hear what happened to @JussieSmollett,” adding that she was “committed to holding this administration and its ilk accountable for this hothouse of hate being fostered.”
The facts are still being gathered and Smollett denies a hoax. The issue is how the media and politicians use these allegations and the different degree of scrutiny that is applied to different claims. There is a fear that even suggesting that the allegation needs to be proven will be treated as hostility to victims or denial of racial animus in the country. Even today, there is little scrutiny of the media’s handling of the story or how these politicians and pundits used the allegation as a proven hate crime in calling for public action.
Smollett previously appeared in public giving accounts of how he fought back and how “the truth” must be told. He has now released a statement by his lawyers that “As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with the police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with. He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying.”