Sunday, October 02, 2005

Echoes of the O.J. verdict


Ten years ago Monday, just past noon Chicago time, 150 million Americans slowed their country to a standstill. They watched, rapt, as a court clerk in California read the judgment that 12 jurors had spent less than four hours deliberating: "We the jury ... find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder ... upon Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being ..."

With that, the most publicized trial in American history ended in acquittal. And the reality of two Americas--one black, one white, and each full of self-anointed jurors--erupted coast to coast. Many African-Americans rejoiced in what black novelist Dennis Williams called "the end-zone dance": In Simpson's boyhood neighborhood of San Francisco, motorists leaned on horns and residents gathered in streets to cheer. Many whites, by contrast, were aghast at a verdict that to them defied logic and overwhelming scientific evidence. And how, they asked, could anyone celebrate a case that was provoked by the mutilations of two people, Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman, as her children slept upstairs?

The verdict, then, was a national Rorschach test: One person's wombat was another's giraffe. Tapes of Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman uttering racist slurs reaffirmed, as had the beating of Rodney King, the distrust many blacks felt toward white cops. Similarly, 911 tapes of O.J. raging at Nicole's door as she pleaded with an operator--"He's ... going nuts! He's going to beat ... me!"--left many whites wondering if the black Americans they thought they knew so well valued racial solidarity above justice.

It was a clash of perceptions that 126 witnesses, 133 days of testimony, 1,105 exhibits and 5,000 pages of transcript couldn't resolve. "To many whites, O.J. entered the trial as a fellow white man and grew darker as the proceedings went on," Time magazine concluded. "... As O.J. became blacker for whites, he became blacker for blacks too, but the reception was quite different. They were willing to overlook the wife beater for the return of the native son."

Writing in Newsweek, an array of analysts tried to sort out what it all meant. Among them:

- Lani Guinier, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania: "There is a deep-seated distrust of authority in urban America. Our urban policy for blacks is the criminal-justice system and, for many blacks, it is not a fair system. Blacks are cynical and distrustful of that authority, and they are much more likely to scrutinize the authority's case against a defendant. The rejoicing is not that somebody got away with murder, but that somebody beat the system."

- Donna Ferrato, an anti-domestic-violence activist: "O.J. is really no different from any other batterer. But he's got money and prestige. He's a commodity. What really breaks my heart is seeing all of the women dancing and cheering when he was acquitted. ... Nicole Brown Simpson is one of our sisters, and she was slaughtered like a filthy dog on her doorstep."

- Eric Adams, chairman of a black police officers' group in New York City: "African-Americans had their Rodney King case, and now the rest of America has its version of Rodney King--the O.J. case. ... When I go in to work, white officers will hit the soda machine and get a free soda. When I hit the machine and get a soda, they say, `We need to fix that machine.' When I heard the O.J. verdict, it was as if all of black America hit the soda machine. And now that we got our free soda, everybody wants to fix the machine."

We are now, all of us, a decade removed from the white Bronco and the bloody glove, from prosecutor Marcia Clark's hair and the late Johnnie Cochran's shrewd defense. We have not had a subsequent trial that so cleaved us.

But our reflexive instincts remain at the ready. No sooner did storm surges drown New Orleans than Americans were hotly debating whether the fact that most flood victims are black slowed their rescue. True, that debate did not break down cleanly along racial lines. But neither did the Simpson case: Many of us forget that roughly one-third of whites agreed with the verdict--and one-third of blacks did not.

Our 21st Century America is a different nation from the one so riveted by O.J. Simpson--more aware, for instance, of its long and lengthening Latino and Asian blood lines. Oddly, though, this more complex America also knows better how to slink away from frankly discussing, and perhaps resolving, the frictions over resources and rewards that accompany demographic evolution.

But in the rawness of October 1995, Americans talked about race and resentment with pitched, refreshing, candor. This page wrote at the time that: "As the Simpson trial showed, our racial polarization already distorts our lives and our system in dangerous ways. It's time we confronted that fact and got serious about correcting it."

That verdict of guilt, rendered in the heat of this nation's rancor over the Simpson case, still stands. Beyond a reasonable doubt.


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