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Charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped — but the damage is done

How will the ‘Empire’ actor, and the communities he represents, recover?

When news first dropped that Empire star Jussie Smollett was attacked by two men who called him the N-word, tied a noose around his neck and left him for harm in Chicago, most people were dismayed. The former child actor turned singer came out in 2015, and his orientation has been no small part of his public persona since then, including becoming an actual storyline for his character on the hit Fox program.

Then, things got weird. Extremely weird.

Smollett told police specifically that the two assailants were wearing red MAGA hats, surmising that the attack was due to his criticism of President Donald Trump’s administration. As Chicago police began investigating the incident, they very publicly let it be known that they couldn’t find any surveillance video of the incident, and doubt began to creep in.

Was it possible that Smollett had made this up as a publicity stunt? Would an entertainer of his caliber and prowess really throw away his whole career for a lie and in one fell swoop embarrass the communities he represents? That didn’t seem likely, but public opinion on the matter was extremely vocal.

The two schools of thought were pretty simple. Smollett was unhappy with his role on Empire and created a wacky situation to draw attention to himself and remain on the program. The other was much more sinister: The Chicago police were lying. While the second accusation seems harsh, for one, we have to remember where we are in America these days.

If you’re the kind of person who automatically believes any information that comes out of a police department, you’re probably either white or just not paying attention. In almost every case of brutality where we’ve seen black bodies abused and destroyed on video, thus further bludgeoning the humanity of many black Americans, the rationale for the violence nearly always revolved around a lie.

More specifically, we’d seen this very department create an entire fabrication after killing a young black teen on the street, a vicious hail of bullets that was caught on camera, in plain sight. Laquan McDonald’s case became one in which there was little plausible deniability. The officers went so far as to delete a large portion of the surveillance video from a nearby fast-food restaurant, a pretty clear indicator that whatever went down with McDonald’s death, the Chicago PD did not want that footage made public.

In short: It justified something that most people of color in this country have known their whole lives. The blue wall is one not just of silence, but often outright lies. Not an anomaly, not a few bad apples, but an entire culture surrounding the basic existence of law enforcement and how they subject regular citizens to the whims of their power.

Yet, as reporting and rumors around Smollett’s case leaked out, it was clear that someone was trying to change the narrative. Next thing we knew, we were reading about two Nigerian brothers whom Smollett wrote an actual check to, as payment to stage the attack, and effectively everyone turned on him. It was too ridiculous, too lame and just unnecessarily complicated to the point that it really became hard to believe anything Smollett said. That, coupled with a quizzical public appearance in which he told a crowd of people, “I am the gay Tupac” made the whole scenario feel like an elaborate prank, not dissimilar to the wild plot twists on Empire.

Smollett was as close to “canceled” as can be. As far as his job, he was. Fox removed him from the season’s final two episodes. Chicago PD arrested Smollett and charged him with 16 whole felony counts of “false report of offense,” a rap sheet that seemed incredibly trumped-up, all things considered.

At this point, most of us didn’t know what to think. None of it made any sense. If Smollett was lying, how could he be so stupid about it? This man’s whole family knows Hollywood and has been in the business forever. It didn’t seem to add up. As police sources leaked more and more information to sully Smollett, the news cycle swept him up as a phony looking for a cash grab.

But the reason that Smollett’s credibility was extremely important here goes well beyond his job security. If a completely public and visible individual like Smollett could be attacked so brutally in public by grown men who were openly caping for the most controversial president in American history, we all needed to be on alert. It’s a difficult fear to understand if you come from a certain background, but it’s real.

Liam Neeson admitted on live television that he went walking the streets looking to kill ANY black person to avenge a friend’s sexual assault. Think about that. If we go all the way back to George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, beyond the obvious injustice of the case was that Zimmerman appeared to enjoy the fact that he’d taken a life and gotten away with it. Even if men and women aren’t hanging from trees in America today, the very psychology behind extrajudicial punishment is still very real and impossible to ignore.

What chance do we have if, beyond the gross systematic injustice that black folks continue to endure in America, people are getting away with taking our lives and bragging about it? Smollett’s celebrity put this under a microscope, but if he were a brother named Tony Johnson from the South Side, would this ever have seen the light of day? Unlikely.

So by the time we got around to Tuesday’s dropping of all charges, the damage had been done. Not only had the Chicago police successfully discredited Smollett enough to make people believe this never happened, but the net effect became one that makes everyone less likely to believe anyone who reports such a thing again.

TNT’s Charles Barkley spent nearly an entire show making fun of this man for his situation on Inside the NBA, an Emmy-winning program about NBA basketball. That’s how bad this had gotten, which speaks volumes about how generational trauma really works. The damage is so deep, so ingrained and so powerful that simply living your life knowing that you could be eliminated and shamed for it at any time makes you feel like less than a human being. It’s a mindset that white people in America simply cannot understand because their existences have not been remotely the same. Fairness isn’t even part of the equation.

There’s a part of me that always believed some part of Smollett’s story. There’s a larger part of me that never believed anything the Chicago police had to say about this and thought the charges seemed entirely disingenuous.

It’s incredibly disheartening to think about how this has affected Smollett’s family and social circle, as there’s no real recourse for sullying his reputation. There’s no price to pay for his life’s work being tossed aside and stepped on.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday that “this is without a doubt a whitewash of justice. There is no accountability. It is wrong, full stop.” The gross irony here is that Emanuel doesn’t even understand how backward his analysis is. It is absolutely a whitewash of justice for exactly the opposite reasons from what he stated.

Smollett’s record will be wiped clean, but our memories will not.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.