UPDATE: Since the publishing of this piece, there has been a major shift in the investigation. Various news sources, such as CNN, the New York Times, and the Associated Press report that new evidence is pointing to the possibility that Smollett may have orchestrated the attack. This remains an ongoing investigation.
Jussie Smollett, the black and gay star of hit Fox show Empire, was the victim of what appears to be a hate crime on a Chicago street early Tuesday morning. The actor was alone as he exited a Subway sandwich shop around 2 am when he was approached by two masked people who hurled slurs at him, yelling about “MAGA country” per Smollett’s report. The actor was then physically attacked and doused with a liquid, sustaining a broken rib and injury to his face. Before the attackers ran off, one of them wrapped a noose around his neck.
Chicago detectives currently have no leads on Smollett’s latest attack, unable to find camera footage that reveals the incident or the perpetrators. Smollett is recovering with minor injuries and has received messages of support and sympathy from his fellow actors and other public figures. Tuesday’s attack followed an incident last week in which Fox’s Chicago studio received a death threat containing a white powder, addressed to Smollett, which is being investigated by the FBI.
Smollett Incident Puts Spotlight on Congressional Anti-Lynching Law
Both Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker bluntly described Smollett’s attack as an “attempted modern-day lynching.” Senator Gillibrand also publicly condemned the attack. “We are all responsible for condemning this behavior and every person who enables or normalizes it,” she tweeted. Senators Harris and Booker introduced an anti-lynching bill in 2018 that recently passed the Senate and is currently awaiting passage in the House along with President Trump’s signature.
Along with Harris and Booker, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois — all black members of Congress — also had their names attached to the bill. If passed into law, it will classify lynching and attempted lynching as a federal hate crime, finally acknowledging America’s history of lynching marginalized members of society and allowing courts to sentence perpetrators to harsher sentences for attacking or killing another person due to race, color, origin, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
“U.S. Congressman Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., has demanded that a federal investigation be launched and used the opportunity to urge fellow legislators to support his proposed “Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act.” https://t.co/8JFLvGSCiF
— Bobby L. Rush (@RepBobbyRush) January 31, 2019
The law would be more than symbolic, as hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years. The New York Times shared FBI statistics that showed an increase of 17 percent from 2016 to 2017. Over half of the reported hate crimes were attributed to issues surrounding race, origin, and ethnicity, while about one out of every six or seven attacks was related to the victim’s sexual orientation.
Long History of Injustice and Opposition to Anti-Lynching Bill
Congress has been trying to pass anti-lynching legislation for decades, but has not yet been able to get the bill past states’ rights advocates and other arguments of veiled racism and bigotry. Most recently, an evangelical group called the Liberty Counsel has vocally opposed allowing the anti-lynching bill to protect members of the LGBTQ community due to the fact that it would be the first instance where LGBTQ victims would be protected by an anti-discrimination bill.
The Liberty Counsel also took an All-Lynchings-Matter stance on the bill and suggested that every single American should be protected by anti-lynching legislation. This suggestion, of course, completely ignores the history and modern-day reality of why lynching happens and fails to acknowledge that specific groups of people have repeatedly been put on deadly trial by members of the public for their appearance, abilities, and beliefs. According to statistics cited by The Guardian, ever since 1900, only one percent of lynchers have ever been convicted of any crime tied to a lynching, though several thousand people have been lynched since the late 1800s — mostly, black men.