US actor Jussie Smollett is accused of lying about being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack
(VALERIE MACON)

Chicago (AFP) – Chicago police on Thursday accused an American TV actor of exploiting the “pain and anger of racism” by staging an attack against himself as a “publicity stunt” to further his career.

It is the latest twist in a weeks-long saga that has seen 36-year-old Jussie Smollett, the gay, African-American star of Fox music industry drama “Empire,” go from victim to suspect after he reported the assault late last month.

In a sign of the national attention the case has drawn, Donald Trump weighed in Thursday, taking issue with the fact Smollett claimed his assailants invoked the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan along with homophobic and racist slurs during the purported attack.

“‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told an emotionally-charged news conference — during which he lashed out angrily at the actor for sullying the city’s image.

“Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process,” he said. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”

“As a black man who spent his entire life living in the city of Chicago,” Johnson added, “I know the racial divide that exists here. I know how hard it has been for our city and our nation to come together.”

Smollett had claimed that two masked men beat him late at night in downtown Chicago, poured bleach on him and tied a rope around his neck — but police grew suspicious of his account after they tried and failed to corroborate it.

The actor turned himself in early Thursday morning and was arrested, police said. He faces a felony criminal charge of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report.

Johnson said he wants Smollett — who was due in court later in the day — to apologize and pay for the police resources used in investigating the hoax.

Moments after the news conference, Trump took aim at Smollett for having tarnished his supporters, tweeting: “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”

Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television meanwhile said that “we understand the seriousness of this matter” and “are considering our options.”

– ‘Aggressive defense’ –

Smollett’s attorneys promised to conduct their own investigation and mount “an aggressive defense.”

“Like any other citizen, Mr Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked,” attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said in a statement.

Police say that Smollett first concocted a false threatening letter he had sent to himself — which is under a separate FBI investigation — and when that did not get enough attention, paid to have the assault staged.

Detectives in recent days interrogated two men — one of whom worked on “Empire — who revealed that they were hired to stage the entire incident. The men have been identified by US media as Ola and Abel Osundairo.

Police said they have the check that Smollett gave them, and phone records prove the three were in communication before and after the attack.

Gloria Schmidt, the brothers’ attorney, told reporters Wednesday that the men testified under oath about what they knew without a plea agreement and did not expect to be charged with a crime.

“They’re not guilty of anything,” Schmidt said.

– Rush to judgment –

Initial news of Smollett’s claims led to widespread condemnation and shock. An outpouring of support came from public figures including Emma Watson, Katy Perry, and Joe Biden.

Senators and Democratic 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris denounced “an attempted modern-day lynching,” while Trump had described the alleged attack as “horrible.”

Since then, Smollett’s story has become a cautionary tale in an era where incomplete information is quickly spread via social media.

“Many politicians and journalists seemed to suspend all critical thought in a campaign to indict not just Mr Smollett’s attackers but the country as a whole,” opinion writer Noah Rothman wrote in The New York Times.

“The real tragedy in all of this is that hate crimes are, in fact, on the rise in the Trump era,” Rothman said.

A 2018 analysis published by The Center for Public Integrity found more than 2.4 million crimes between 2012 and 2016 in which hate was suspected to be a motivating factor.

FBI statistics show hate crimes rose 17 percent in the US in 2017, especially against African American and Jewish populations.

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