February 6, 2019 at 3:25 pm PST | by Mariah Cooper
Jussie Smollett attack highlights increasing hate crimes

‘Black queer people are victimized every single day,’ said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. (Photo courtesy of NBJC)

Jussie Smollett was the target of an alleged homophobic and racist attack on Jan. 29 in Chicago, which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

Smollett, 36, portrays gay singer Jamal Lyon on the Fox series “Empire.” Jamal’s sexuality is a frequent storyline on the musical drama. The actor and singer publicly came out in 2015 on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” He has been an avid LGBTQ advocate and a well-known supporter of the Black AIDS Institute. 

According to the police report, Smollett was leaving a Subway restaurant location around 2 a.m. when he was approached by two men dressed in black. Smollett recalled that the more aggressive assailant concealed his face with a black mask. The suspects got Smollett’s attention by shouting “Empire f—ot n—er” and began hitting him “about the face with their hands.” The assailants poured an “unknown chemical substance” on Smollett and put his neck in a noose before running away. The actor also said that the attackers yelled “MAGA country.”

“Persons of interest” were detected on surveillance footage but they have not yet been identified.

Prior to the Jan. 29 physical attack, Smollett was also targeted in a letter sent to Cinespace Studios, where “Empire” is filmed, which contained a white powder. That Grape Juice reported that the letter read, “You will die Black fag.” The letter triggered a response from a HAZMAT unit but the powder was later identified as aspirin.

Smollett took the stage on Feb. 2 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood for a concert that had been scheduled before the attack. He was joined by his siblings, who released a joint statement of support for their brother earlier that week, on stage before he began performing.

The concert went as planned but the accompanying meet-and-greet was canceled. Ticket holders received the option of a refund or to have their refunded money donated to the Black AIDS Institute. Right before his encore performance, Smollett took the time to clarify details from his attack.

“I was bruised, but my ribs were not cracked. They were not broken. I went to the doctor immediately. Frank Gatson drove me. I was not hospitalized. Both my doctors in LA and Chicago cleared me to perform, but said to take care obviously. And above all, I fought the fuck back,” Smollett told the crowd.

He also joked: “I’m the gay Tupac.” 

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), told the Los Angeles Blade that the LGBTQ black community is “surprised but not shocked” by the attack.

“One of the prevailing sentiments I continue to hear from black queer people generally is how frustrating it is that people seem to be surprised at this occurrence,” Johns says. “Black queer people are victimized every single day. I was just thinking about what we’ve experienced just this year reflecting upon Kevin Hart and the jokes about killing his gay son. I mourned the loss of the life of a young, black boy [Giovanni Melton] in Las Vegas because his father killed him suspecting that he was gay last year. Ed Buck, a white donor in Hollywood, is still walking around free as two gay black men have died at his household in the last year. Many of the media outlets that are covering Jussie’s story now didn’t even acknowledge that earlier this year there was a black trans woman [Keanna Mattel] that was murdered by a pastor in Detroit.”

Anti-LGBTQ and anti-black hate crimes have spiked during Trump’s first two years in office.

In Los Angeles, the number of reported hate crimes increased from 256 in 2017 to 289 in 2018, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Anti-black violence is the top hate crime in Los Angeles followed by crimes against gay men and lesbians.

Johns says the specific discrimination that the black LGBTQ community faces needs to be recognized. During his time lobbying on Capitol Hill, Johns remembers people discussing the black community as if everyone is heterosexual and the LGBTQ community as if everyone is non-black.

“The reality is that many of us have intersectional lives and identities,” Johns says. “Beyond a visceral response, we hope people will listen to what Jussie has to say and, what so many of us stand for, which is acknowledging that we have intersectional identities and, in particular, if you’re black and queer in America you’re oppressed in ways that people seldom want to acknowledge.”

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