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Smollett case appears to unravel, as police file charges

Nearly three weeks after claiming he was the victim of a violent racist and homophobic attack, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett has been charged with disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. If convicted, the 36-year-old actor faces up to three years in prison and could be forced to pay the cost of the nearly month-long investigation. Amna Nawaz talks to Derrick Clifton of NBC News.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was a turn of events today in the alleged hate crimes case involving entertainer Jussie Smollett.

    Amna Nawaz has more on the dramatic developments in Chicago.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nearly three weeks after claiming he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack, "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett appeared in a Chicago court after turning himself in, accused of staging the attack himself. Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson:

  • Eddie Johnson:

    "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career. This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Smollett, who is black and gay, said he was beaten by two men on a downtown Chicago street on January 29. He said the men yelled racist and homophobic slurs, and told him — quote — "This is MAGA country," referring to President Trump's make America great again slogan.

    Smollett said they looped a noose around his neck and threw bleach on him. A wave of sympathy and outrage quickly spread in response, from Lee Daniels, "Empire"'s co-creator

  • Lee Daniels:

    Hold your head up, Jussie. I'm with you. I will be there in a minute.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Activists like Al Sharpton.

  • Al Sharpton:

    It is extremely appalling for people like me that fight hate crimes all over the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even presidential candidates. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker called it a — quote — "modern-day lynching."

    But Chicago police said they interviewed over 100 people and reviewed 55 surveillance cameras. Last week, they detained and questioned two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo. They were held for nearly 48 hours, then released without charges.

    On Saturday, police said the brothers provided information that — quote — "shifted the trajectory of the investigation."

    Meanwhile, on February 14, Smollett addressed those doubting his story in an interview on "Good Morning America."

  • Jussie Smollett:

    Listen, if I tell the truth, then that's it, because it's the truth. Then it became a thing of, like, oh, how can you doubt that? Like, how do you not believe that? It's the truth.

    And then it became a thing of like, oh, it's not necessarily that you don't believe that this is the truth. You don't even want to see the truth.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chicago police now claim the assault was staged, carried out by the two brothers, who were paid $3,500 by Smollett. Superintendent Johnson said his department wasted resources, and that Smollett should apologize.

  • Eddie Johnson:

    I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Smollett is now facing a charge of filing a false police report. The 36-year-old faces up to three years in prison and could be forced to repay the cost of the nearly month-long investigation.

    For his part, Jussie Smollett's attorneys have denied that he played any role in the attack, and promised to mount a strenuous defense of their client.

    For more on the apparent unraveling of Smollett's case and what some of the potential reverberations might be, we turn to Derrick Clifton. He covers social and cultural issues for NBC News and others. And he joins us now from Chicago.

    Derrick, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I have got to ask you, when this story first came out, the details were so specific and so horrific, they led to the outpouring of support and sympathy. Why was it, you think there was such a rush for people to step up and call for justice and want to believe the story as it was laid out?

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Well, part of the reason there was such an outpouring of empathy is because, more often than not, when situations like this happen within the black LGBT and within the black LGBT community, there's often not as much as news coverage or even extending of public support to people who are alleged victims.

    And that's something where, quite often, you have people within the community that have to rally for justice, that have to hold law enforcement accountable and even raise awareness, so that justice can be found for victims and also so that, even within the community, there is enough interest and support to not only rally folks to action, but also to make sure that we're addressing the root causes of the problem, thinking about the ideologies of the policies and the actions amongst our peers and even our heterosexual or cisgender counterparts, and even others who may be white or not people of color, to take action and to care.

    So there is that premise to not only support, but also believe people when they do come forward with reports like this, but also to make sure we verify and to hold them accountable if indeed, rarely, is it some kind of hoax or fabrication.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And underscoring your point there, some of the statistics that we don't get to talk about that often.

    I want to point you towards a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs that advocates for the LGBTQ community here in the States. They track homicides of the LGBTQ communities, and basically said, in this last year, in 2017, they reached an all-time high in the years that they have been tracking those numbers.

    And, disproportionately, those are carried out against visible minorities, that is to say, black members of the community. So the stats are there.

    But I guess, for all the people who rushed to want to support Jussie Smollett in this moment, as the details are now coming out, as what looks to be an unraveling of the story sets in, how are people reacting?

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Well, part of the reaction is utter disbelief and in many ways disappointment with the allegations, especially since — and I note this in the piece at NBC THINK — Jussie Smollett has a sizable platform within the community.

    He is part of a surge of increased representation and visibility of black LGBT people in entertainment and television within the last few years, and even outside of that has been advocating for HIV awareness, for resources in that regard, and also for support of historically black colleges and universities.

    And so, when someone with a platform of this nature ends up wrapped up into a situation where they may have been at the center of an alleged hoax hate crime, people are understandably dismayed and disappointed that one of their heroes may actually be doing a disservice to the community.

    So you have folks who feel as though their empathy was misplaced, and that it was taken advantage of. But also the other side of that is that there is this palpable frustration that there's only an attention from some law enforcement and even the public to hate crimes in the community when there is a celebrity factor, or when there is somebody that's high-profile at the center of it.

    But, quite often, the situations are going on without any attention, any care. And that's really what's underneath all of this, is, how can we redirect the energy from an alleged hoax to the many other incidents that are happening all around us, even within the last few weeks, even months, surrounding this alleged incident?

    There are black trans women who have been killed. And quite often, those are the people who are disproportionately impacted within our — within black and LGBT communities on this issue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Derrick, we should point out we're in the front end of this process to some degree, right, this legal process, as it will unfold.

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We do not know what the ultimate outcome will be.

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Indeed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Jussie Smollett continues to deny the charge. His lawyers say they will defend him. He stands by his original story.

    But we need to consider that even just the allegation that this is a hoax, all the evidence that has been laid out so far will have some kind of an impact, both on people wanting to come forward and on people wanting to believe them.

    What do you think that impact could or might be?

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Well, it could just make people a little bit more skeptical to believe victims when they do come forward, though it is something important to remember that, more often than not, people aren't making this stuff up.

    And they deserve the support and empathy from their peers, from the community. And, of course, again, we have to trust, but also make sure we verify.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Derrick Clifton, joining us from Chicago today, thank you so much.

  • Derrick Clifton:

    Thank you.

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