As It Happens

'I'm sad for my city,' says Chicago writer who doubted Jussie Smollett's story

Nana Efua Mumford knew something was fishy about the Jussie Smollett story from the beginning.

Washington Post's Nana Efua Mumford worries new revelations will have 'chilling effect' on hate crime victims

Jussie Smollett turned himself in for arrest early Thursday to face accusations that he filed a false police report when he told authorities he was attacked in Chicago on Jan. 29. (Chicago Police Department/Associated Press)
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Nana Efua Mumford knew something was fishy about the Jussie Smollett story from the beginning.

She detailed her suspicions in a Washington Post opinion piece on Sunday titled "I Doubted Jussie Smollett. It Breaks My Heart That I Might Be Right."

Chicago police on Thursday charged the Empire actor with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly staging a fake racist and homophobic attack on himself because he was unhappy about his salary and wanted to promote his career.​​

Smollett, who is black and gay, had claimed he was assaulted by two men who hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, put a noose his neck and said: "This is MAGA country." Police say Smollett paid those men $3,500 US to stage the attack.

Smollett's lawyers have vowed to fight the charge.

Mumford, a Chicago native and executive assistant to the editorial board at the Washington Post, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the unfolding story. Here is part of their conversation. 

We heard the Chicago police superintendent [Eddie Johnson] today calling this Jussie Smollett story "a scar that Chicago didn't earn and certainly didn't deserve." What's your assessment?

I agree with it. I think that the anger and disappointment was very clear in his voice during the entire press conference. 

As I said in my piece, if this did come out to be false, I was going to be heartbroken — and I am. I'm shocked. I'm confused. I'm sad. And I'm sad for my city of Chicago. We are a very proud city.

Nana Efua Mumford of the Washington Post said she struggled with her doubts about Smollett's story. (Submitted by Nana Efua Mumford )

What was it that actually was the most disturbing for you when you first heard the story?

I think the totality of all of it was certainly the most disturbing part of it.

Because I have so often felt safe in downtown Chicago, and the fact that an incident like this could happen in some place that you feel very safe, that's very jarring and upsetting.

But I would also say that that was likely some of the reasons why I also doubted and really thought that we needed to pause and take time to digest.

Experiencing and living in Chicago for many winters and in January, some of the details about his claim didn't really seem likely.

Like what, for instance? 

This was 24 hours before the polar vortex hit the Midwest. Chicago public schools were closed that Wednesday and Thursday. This was a serious storm headed towards Chicago.

And so the idea that two assailants would be outside at two o'clock in the morning waiting for him as a victim, and one identifying him — if this was a chance encounter — identifying him from this show and being able to know the storyline of Empire and who his character was, having a noose there, having the bleach and shouting these things about "MAGA country," it just seemed a little bit too over the top and too made up.

'He took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,' Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said of Smollett during a press conference on Thursday. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/Associated Press)

But the story itself it was just so extraordinary, wasn't it? I mean, that he had this encounter with two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs at him, who knew him from the show ... and not only that they put this noose around his neck and beat him up, which is horrible images in itself, and to be shouting these Donald Trump statements about "Make America Great Again." All of those, as a package, was pretty darn disturbing, wasn't it?

It certainly was, and I certainly don't want to say that ... crimes like this do not occur.

I think that all too often within the black community, also within the LGBTQ community and so many other targeted communities, that sometimes these attacks are very violent and are over the top and are shocking.

And so I don't by any means want to say that because it was so theatrical, as some have described it, that that automatically meant that it wasn't true.

It's just one of the reasons why I personally took a step back.

This has wider consequences for people who are coming forward with legitimate complaints, right?

People worry about whether or not any future claims or reports of hate crimes will be believed. I also worry about whether or not people will report them in the first place.

I think that there could be a chilling effect as to whether or not, if you do have your own instance or if you were attacked — and it might not be just a small attack, if it is over the top — whether or not you'd be believed, and whether or not you'd actually report it.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.