Chicago turns cynical in the wake of Jussie Smollett’s dropped criminal charges

By Mark Guarino

March 29, 2019

CHICAGO — At Manny’s, a Jewish deli in the South Loop, the usual lunchtime chatter was overtaken this week by the whiplash news about actor Jussie Smollett and the charges he no longer faces for what police say was a staged hate crime.

The bizarre circumstances around Smollett are dominating daily life here — from deli counters to televised mayoral debates leading up to next week’s election. But the consensus among many is that the saga shows how justice keeps getting served two ways in Chicago. There’s one way for those with clout, another for those without.

Over a towering corned beef sandwich, Eric Bennett said Friday that he knew “the fix was in and someone made a phone call” the minute he heard that the charges against Smollett had been dropped.

“It goes all the way back to the days of Al Capone,” said Bennett, a club owner on the South Side. “Justice here will always be shady. It’s according to not what you know but who you know.”

Across the table at Manny’s, his lunchtime companion put the case in personal terms: “If it had been one of us,” Clarence Davis said, “we’d already be in jail.”

Such cynicism is directly connected to reports that Kim Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney, received emails and texts from Tina Tchen, an attorney friend of the Smollett family who was chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama. Tchen expressed “concerns about the investigation.” In addition, Foxx exchanged emails with a family member.

Then there is her office’s decision to seal Smollett’s case file, giving the public no clue as to why he was released Tuesday, and her acknowledgment that the deal with him was only verbal. The “Empire” actor, first thought to be victim rather than collaborator, agreed to do two days of community service and forfeit $10,000 in bond money.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) immediately blasted Foxx, calling the deal a “whitewash.” Police officials say the department’s two-month investigation of Smollett’s claims that he had been attacked cost $130,000.

From Rogers Park on the North Side to Roseland on the South Side, the outrage is atypically uniform.

“People feel there is something unscrupulous going on,” Al Pickett said in between servicing clients at his barber shop in Bronzeville, and they’re stung by the international attention the case has thrust upon Chicago. “Saying we’re a city capable of a hate crime like that, we didn’t need that,” Pickett said.

Chicago is still bruised from a police department crisis marked by the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. The killing reverberated throughout all levels of governmentand brought a federal consent decree requiring the department to adopt dozens of changes.

Jeff Neslund, an attorney who represents the McDonald family, said Foxx’s actions on the charges against Smollett further damage the system. “You know this is a heated case that everyone around the country is watching, so to sweep it under the rug and say we’re going to dismiss it because he spent two days in community service? The optics are all wrong,” he said.

On the street, police officers are frustrated. Many feel unjustly blamed for Chicago’s escalating violence and for officers like Van Dyke. The Smollett investigation should be celebrated for delivering results, they say, but the decision by the state’s attorney ruined that.

“What difference am I going to make if I chase after somebody with a gun and know the state’s attorney is going to let them go?” said a longtime officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the department.

The Fraternal Order of Police is planning a protest outside Foxx’s office Monday and demanding that she resign. “We’ve all taken cases into court and for one reason or another we didn’t get what we wanted, and we understand that,” the organization’s president, Kevin Graham, said Thursday. “But to have everything dropped when it was a rock-solid case is unfair to everyone. Our detectives knocked themselves out for nothing.”

Further straining emotions are Smollett’s public statements that he is innocent of faking any crime and his attorney’s latest comment that his team might sue the police.

The case is dominating the final sprint in Tuesday’s mayoral election between former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Just hours after news broke about Smollett’s charges, both candidates stood on a debate stage answering questions about the situation.

Lightfoot said she supported the police department’s work on the case and said “the public has to have answers” as to why the charges were dismissed. Preckwinkle demurred, saying she didn’t have the legal expertise to weigh in.

For most Chicagoans, all the attention on Smollett is overshadowing the greater challenges the city faces. The anger and tears that Emanuel showed at his news conference were appreciated in some quarters. Other residents felt they were misplaced.

“The disproportionality of his response to this incident compared to the regular drumbeat of police misconduct and injustice that happened under his watch is glaring,” said Illinois state Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Democrat whose district encompasses the Northwest Side. “I hope the next mayor’s focus is on rebuilding communities, not on false outrage over celebrity gossip.”

In the Kenwood neighborhood, Rosemary Jarrett feels similarly. She is a yellow-vested school crossing guard whose post is near the headquarters of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization where Smollett performed his community service stuffing envelopes.

The 63-year-old said she is resigned to a core fact about human nature. “People lie all the time,” she said.

She paused to guide three children across the street, her umbrella hovering above their tiny heads on a rainy Thursday. “There are more important things the police should be concerned about, starting with Laquan McDonald,” she said. She hopes the Smollett case is truly over. “Move on.”


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