For the first time on television, “Empire” star Jussie Smollett detailed in his own words the racist and homophobic attack he said he endured in his Chicago neighborhood last month. And he did so because, he said, “people need to hear the truth.”
“Everybody has their own idea. Some are healing and some are hurtful, but I just want young people, young members of the LGBTQ community, young, black children, to know how strong that they are,” the 36-year-old told “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts in an interview that aired Thursday.
The musician, an openly gay LGBTQ advocate who plays an openly gay musician on the Fox musical drama, addressed both the support and the doubt swirling around him since the Jan. 29 incident, which Chicago police have characterized as a possible hate crime.
Smollett’s account has captured national attention, and the incident has been condemned by his family and justice advocates, but it has also been mired in doubt, which has left him heartbroken and “pissed off,” he said Thursday.
“I have to acknowledge the lies, and the hate. And it feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black [who attacked me], I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more. A lot more,” he told Roberts. “And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.
“It’s not necessarily that you don’t believe that this is the truth, you don’t even want to see the truth,” he added.
Smollett said he was getting food from Subway, out walking in subzero temperatures, and had been on the the phone with his manager when his attackers began shouting racial and homophobic slurs from across the street.
He said they also yelled “This is MAGA country” at him. He said he was punched and fought back. As they were tussling on the ice, his phone fell out of his pocket, but his friend was still on the line.
“It felt like minutes,” he said, “but it probably was like 30 seconds, honestly.”
Though he was reluctant to report the incident to police, he eventually did. He also confirmed reports about not wanting to hand over his cellphone to help with the investigation.
“They wanted me to give my phone to the tech for three to four hours. I’m sorry, but — I’m not gonna do that,” he said. “Because I have private pictures and videos and numbers: my partner’s number, my family’s number, my castmate’s number, my friends’ numbers, my private emails, my private songs, my private voice memos.”
By then, “inaccurate, false statements had already been put out there,” the actor said.
Smollett, who has cooperated with investigators, did hand over redacted phone records, but they were rejected as evidence because they didn’t meet “the burden for a criminal investigation,” Chicago police told The Times.
Smollett’s initial incident report included details about a chemical being poured on him and a rope being placed around his neck. But it did not include details about the suspects shouting something related to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
However, as the investigation continued, Smollett reported that detail and touched on it again during the “GMA” interview, clarifying that the suspects were not wearing MAGA hats.
“For me, the main thing was the idea that I somehow switched up my story, you know? And that somehow maybe I added a little extra trinket, you know, of the MAGA thing,” Smollett said. “I didn’t need to add anything like that. They called me a [F-word], they called me a [N-word]. There’s no which way you cut it. I don’t need some MAGA hat as the cherry on top of some racist sundae.”
Smollett sustained clavicle and rib injuries and visited a hospital after the attack. Even then, however, some questioned whether he had made up the story.
He said those detractors and others who spurned the story were “ridiculous” and “offensive.” He also said an image Chicago police released showing persons of interest did indeed show his attackers.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that that’s them,” Smollett said. “Never did.”
More of Smollett’s interview will air on ABC News’ “Nightline” on Thursday night.
Once the interview aired, advocacy group GLAAD commended Smollett for speaking out.
“Jussie Smollett was victimized first in a hate-motivated and violent attack in Chicago and has since been doubly victimized as the subject of speculation by the media industry and broader culture,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement Thursday to The Times.
“Jussie is rising above hate, racism, homophobia, and doubt surrounding the attack and instead using his voice and talent to fight back against the rising rates of violence against Black and LGBTQ people, as well as those who live at the intersection of those identities,” Ellis added.
Shortly after that, Chicago Police Chief Communications Officer Anthony Guglielmi tweeted an update on the ongoing investigation, noting that they remain in communication with Smollett.
Investigators have identified the persons of interest in the area of the alleged attack, Guglielmi said, but clarified that the individuals are only being questioned and not considered suspects at this time.