Almost two months had passed since ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett was found in the icy streets of Chicago by two white men in red hats, who proceeded to attack the actor while shouting racial and homophobic epithets until eventually tying a noose around his neck and dousing him in bleach. All the while the two men vehemently screamed “This is MAGA country!”
Or so the story goes.
Two months on, and that tale experienced a stress-test to the full extent of the law.
Elements of the story quickly unravelled, such as Smollett’s initial reluctance to turn in his phone, or the two Nigerian brothers who emerged from the woodworks who both alleged to have been paid by Smollett himself to carry out the hate-crime. These facts among others saw Smollett being charged with 16 indictments, most of which centred around the fact that the story wasn’t true at all.
Only a few days ago however, after forfeiting his $10,000 bond, Smollett walked free of charges from the Cook County courthouse. The unprecedented turn of events had shocked virtually everyone watching, with the Chicago PD being no exception.
While the reasons behind the abandonment of these indictments remain yet to be disclosed, there is indeed a growing atmosphere of dramatizing events in the US.
Beginning with the passing of Michael Brown, the poster-boy for racial injustice and police stereotyping, the phrase ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ rose from his publicized death and served as the calling cry for all who opposed police brutality against minorities.
That is, until CCTV footage was revealed that Brown had just come from robbing a store, and evidence showed he attempted to attack the police officer first.
This little narrative hiccup didn’t stop the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, who went on to fight for people such as Trayvon Martin or Korryn Gaines, who similarly were revealed to have been fighting with the authorities prior to their deaths.
Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a man on his local neighbourhood watch who was initially considered to be a racist murderer and a symptom of the larger underlying racial issues in the US.
Despite being multiracial himself, Zimmerman served as the perfect villain who sought to revive the racial tensions in the US. The vilification of Zimmerman led to a Change.org petition signed by 1.3 million people demanding for his arrest. And they were successful, that is, until he was eventually acquitted when evidence arose that Martin had attacked Zimmerman first.
Similarly Korryn Gaines was the tale of a black mother, shot with her baby in her arms by xenophobic police, until she was later found to have used her child as a human shield as she attempted to fend police away with a shotgun after she missed a court date.
And who could forget the Covington Kids? Children who were first described to have possessed unprecedented levels of smugness and historical ignorance as they stared down the face of native American elder Nathan Phillips, while wearing the controversial red MAGA hat. Many calls were issued for them to be doxed or worse, to be assaulted.
High profile individuals such as Reza Aslan described the infamous picture of Nicholas Sandmann as having a ‘punchable face.’
Then, as the full picture emerged, the narrative fell apart. It turned out Nathan Phillips was the one harassing the boys, who were merely standing their ground in the face of this harassment. In fact, Sandmann is now suing the Washington Post for $250 million.
It seems no matter how many times these victim & villain narratives are proven to be false, we as humans have an insatiable need for story and for narrative, one that goes largely unquenched in modern day.
When there is the possibility for a black versus white narrative, man versus woman or us versus them, it appears to tickle these untouched tribal urges.
Even in cases where unfortunately, the desired narrative doesn’t exist.
The last century alone saw multiple wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, racial division and the deaths of millions of people in tragic circumstances.
These were times that necessitated happy stories, stories that gave momentary escapes from the harshness of reality.
Fast forward to today and it seems the opposite is true. While equality and prosperity has never been so tangible among every stratification of identity, these stories continue to emerge of tribal crimes committed along the lines of sexual orientation, race, gender and nation.
For 22 months it was an easier sell to suggest that Donald Trump had made deals with Russia to secure his power than simply by way of democracy.
Sex sells, and scandal does too.
Undoubtedly the worst victims of this narrativization of events are the ones who truly do face horrific crimes. If Smollett is truly found guilty in a court of law, many will doubt the legitimacy of the next minority that is assaulted.
Murky Cases such as Michael Brown muddy the waters when it comes to genuine cases of racial injustice.
And one can only hope Nicholas Sandmann will serve as a lesson to never incite violence toward another person period, let alone when the only evidence in the scenario is a picture of his face.
We must all learn to withhold judgement in cases which seem a little too perfect, which seem to dovetail into identity politics just a little too cleanly.
The world isn’t black and white, it’s mostly just different hue’s of grey.