It has been 20 years since the trial of O.J. Simpson captivated the nation. Millions of people can remember sitting glued to their television sets as they watched the Ford Bronco racing down the highway as police cars trialed slowly behind with onlookers cheering, “Go O.J., Go!” It seems that every major network covered the event. Even C-Span pre-empted its regular coverage of congress to televise the drama.
For those of you who are too young ― like the majority of my college students ― to fully remember the trial, let me provide some details. The trial was a TV spectacle with all the makings of a potential Hollywood movie. Sex and violence, interracial relationships and marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, sexual deviancy and a host of tantalizing tales that titillated and fascinated the public. Stories from the trial became daily tidbits as all venues of major media from weekly tabloids, to highbrow publications intensely covered the trial.
You also had a cast of real-life characters that would have been a fiction writer’s dream.
The strong, handsome, Black, football all-time great. The former beauty queen, blonde, blue-eyed murdered wife. Her tall, dark and handsome, murdered friend. The blond, hedonistic beach boy. The Latin housekeeper. The Asian judge. The White/Jewish female prosecutor. The Black male Prosecutor. The Black male defense attorney. The legendary WASP defense attorney. The Jewish defense attorney. The Black ex-wife and kids from his first marriage. Biracial kids from his second marriage. The White racist cop. It went on and on.
The trial, like many other issues in America, exposed the large racial divide in our nation. A CNN poll showed that 62 percent of Whites believed that Simpson was guilty and 68 percent of Blacks felt that he was innocent. Charges that the defense team lead by the late Johnnie Cochran was playing the race card to Time magazine darkening Simpson’s face on its cover elicited outrage from certain segments of the Black community and further divided the public. The racial gulf remained after the trial.
Many White Americans were shocked and, in some cases, outraged by witnessing groups of Blacks cheering the verdict. To many of them, such a reaction demonstrated callousness and indifference to the plight of two brutally murdered victims. For many Black Americans, the verdict represented vindication from a justice system that had for so long vehemently judiciously mistreated, violated, railroaded and incarcerated so many Black people (especially young Black men). In fact, Simpson was probably was an afterthought, if a thought at all.
I vividly remember the day the verdict was handed down, October 3, 1995. I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D. at a land grant institution in northern New England.
The day after the decision was rendered, I was in the campus library reading reactions to the verdict from various newspapers and on the Internet which was in its infancy. A well-built, tall, athletic-looking White man who looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s walked up to the table where I was sitting. I could tell that he was very despondent and troubled.
He saw the various papers sprawled over the table. Given my medium height and diminutive size, coupled with the troubled look on his face and the initial radical reactions that some Whites had expressed about the verdict, I will admit that I was somewhat nervous that he might become violent. He asked if he could sit down. I agreed.
We chatted for about 20 minutes about the verdict. I gave him reasons as to why I thought the jury came to its not guilty verdict and he shared his opinions with me. Afterward, he stood up, told me he felt better, shook my hand and left. I wished him a good day. To this day, I often wonder how many people from different ethnic groups had similar conversations with one another. These were the sort of responses that the media should have been covering in addition to highlighting the polarizing reactions of supposedly elated Blacks cheering and disgusted Whites crying foul.
The fact is that many of us had long come to the realization that stories of racial cooperation and harmony does not fit into the agenda of those who seek to divide us along racial, class and other lines. Rather, images of racial strife and consternation are far more psychologically and financially profitable for the powers that be. We saw the ugly stain of racial strife rear its head again during the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial. While the case was similar to the Simpson trial due to its racially charged nature, Zimmerman’s biracial background added another dimension to the situation.
I was among those Blacks, probably in the minority, at the time, who felt that Simpson was guilty. I still feel that way. That being said, from an intellectual ― not moral ― standpoint, I could see why the jury came to the conclusion that it did. The prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is interesting to note that exactly 13 years later, on the same date, October 3, 2008, O.J. Simpson was found guilty by a Las Vegas jury on robbery and weapons charges and currently is serving time.
The previous trial established the TV careers of previously unknown attorneys, saved the then fledgling Court TV, now known as TruTV, and made a number of commentators and pundit’s multi-millionaires with their book deals. It was an event that has firmly etched itself in the fabric of American popular culture.