Black Lives, White Riots & Grey Outcomes: Reflections on The People vs OJ Simpson

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I was obsessed with the OJ Simpson trial in 1995, and I’ve been just as glued to American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson twenty-one years later.

The real story starts way before 1995, however.

There are those stories, probably in most families, that, through their re-telling, forge a groove in your consciousness that the needle always returns to.

One of my mother’s was a story from her own childhood – and I think it had, and still has, a profound impact on my world view.

My mother went to school in a small, unremarkable*, (then very rural) Kentish village. She would have started school in 1950, just at the start of the UK’s post-war Commonwealth immigration push (though, to this day, it’s still quite a rarity to see any person of colour in this part of the Garden of England).

So, the little black boy that joined her primary school class was a rarity indeed circa 1952. Not that she remembers seeing him that way.

“He was a nice, sweet kid, we all liked him. I don’t think we really thought much, or anything, about his race; we were kids; he was X [name].”

Someone, however, clearly saw this boy very differently to the rest of the class: their teacher.

“She was horrible to him,” my mother relates. “He was always in trouble, always being blamed for anything that went wrong. I don’t think we had any consciousness that this was the teacher being racist, we didn’t know what racism was, but we knew she really picked on him, and unfairly picked on him.”

Now, my mother, is, and by all accounts was, quite a shy person. She’s never one to take centre stage. She was a quiet, very well-behaved, cautious sort of child. But, one day, she had enough.

Once again, the boy had been called out in front of the class and smacked for doing something wrong, something the whole class knew he didn’t do.

“I don’t really know what possessed me,” my mother explains, “It was a very out-of-character thing to do, but it made me so mad, so angry that this boy was being blamed for something he didn’t do, that I stood up and said to the teacher, “He didn’t do it, you know he didn’t do it and we all know he didn’t do it and we don’t like you picking on him, it’s not fair.”

The teacher, clearly stunned by this, said nothing. She left the room. The head teacher came in shortly after, saying nothing, took over the class for the afternoon, and the teacher returned the next day as if nothing had happened; except she never called out or chastised the boy ever again.

I thought this was an awesome story (I still do). It’s always made me feel very proud of my mother and the person she is, the innate person she is, seen as a child, seeing injustice and standing up against it, however unlikely a social activist this gentle, introverted little girl was.

Like a child, I still have a sort of in-built incomprehension around racism. In the abstract, I understand people not understanding, particularly liking or even tolerating cultural difference – I don’t like that food, I don’t like that music, it’s alien to me – but to not like someone solely because they look a bit different to you is sort of beyond my comprehension.

It’s the reason I’m not very good at watching any movies about discrimination (I can, and do, read a lot about it, but seeing it portrayed in drama is something else, somehow. I will confess, I have avoided Twelve Years A Slave, Schindler’s List and Stonewall, among others); my incomprehension makes me so mad, so angry, and I get so upset (and rage-filled) that I can’t let it go. It’s like it channels a stack of past-life experiences that overwhelm me. Coward, I avoid inducing this feeling by segregating my visual entertainment choices.

I watch the news. That’s more than enough to take.

And, back in the day, the news didn’t get any bigger than OJ.

In June 1994, I was living in a shared student-house in Stepney, East London, and when that white Bronco flashed up on the TV, live from the other side of the world, everything else in the world stopped.

I wonder if the Reality Generation can really comprehend this. Before the run of OJ’s life, before the trial, the genre didn’t really exist. I think, watching that low-speed car chase, as it happened, was the first time you watched something on TV where you had no idea of the outcome – was he going to drive off a cliff; be involved in a shoot-out; shoot himself on live TV?

It was compelling. Shocking. And kind of frightening.

Of course, at that time, that night, there was no question that he did it. Why else run? If your ex-wife had been recently murdered at her own front door, while your two children slept upstairs, no one in their right mind would leave those children’s sides, surely? It seemed as simple as that, then.

Then we got the letter, read out by Robert Kardashian – a loosely veiled confession, as it appeared at that time (still does, let’s be honest). We all thought the end would be the end of OJ, either at his own hands or by the LAPD’s. We thought we knew the script of this tragedy already: we thought this was Othello.

By the time the trial started, I was getting my kicks in Knightsbridge not in Stepney anymore**, and Sunday nights were Court TV nights, when BBC2 would show ‘highlights’ from the trial. This was essential viewing for me. It was outrageous.

Again, for all the exceptional performances and exacting recreation of certain scenes and details, I wonder if those coming to this for the first time can appreciate how audacious, how unbelievable, and how appalling some of the behaviour in that court room was.

The world had never seen anything quite like this. People clawing for the spotlight, at any cost, for any price. And this was for real.

If I have one criticism of American Crime Story, it’s the casting of OJ. Not for the performance – having read Toobin’s book (yes, I told you I’d been obsessed), Cuba Gooding Jnr did an amazing job at capturing the portrayal of Simpson behind the scenes (the mood swings, the grandiose sense of self, the volatility and vanity) but, handsome man that he is, Cuba ain’t OJ***.

OJ Simpson was a beautiful man (you wouldn’t believe it now, but he was). The perfect symmetry of his chiselled face, his height and bearing; male or female, gay or straight, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He looked perfectly cast for the role of a God; perfectly cast for Othello or Mark Anthony, sitting there wearing his designer suits when he looked like he should have been wearing a bronze breast-plate and gladiator sandals.

The power of Simpson’s beauty (far more than his celebrity), I believe, did have an effect on the jury: this was a man you could fall in love with; this was a man, with the love of the right woman (as probably Nicole Brown herself, at one time, believed) could be healed, redeemed.

I don’t think we got that sense of charisma from Gooding, whereas, with everyone else, sometimes you had to look twice to realise it wasn’t actual trial footage.

But, in spite of Simpson’s good looks, and in spite of my, at that time, quite militant anti-racist stance**** (I’d read a lot, previously, about Rodney King and the LA riots), there wasn’t any question in my mind of Simpson’s guilt or the improbability of the LAPD trying to frame him.

Framing the poor is easy, they don’t have the resources to fight you. Framing the rich? Framing someone famous? Would you ever think you’d get away with that – and to what end?

Besides which, people didn’t think of OJ as black (even OJ); they thought of OJ as OJ, friend of the LAPD, friend of the rich white golfer. Up to that point, OJ’s success had been enabled, as many saw it, on his ability to ‘transcend’ race (a dubious accolade placed on people of colour – in contemporary culture, Beyoncé is a good example of someone who has her success accredited to this ability, hence her outstanding reclamation, in the public gaze, of her background and culture with Formation).

Cochran’s strategy to play the race card, as contextualised and played out so well on American Crime Story, was, transparently, even at the time, not much to do with the actual evidence of the case but the political and social backdrop to it.

We knew what he was doing.

You can understand it. I thought they did a very good job at getting to the heart of Cochran’s rationale: the platform, the stage, was there; the world was looking; how could he look this gift horse to highlight the institutionalised racism of the LAPD, and wider American society, in the mouth?

This was bigger than OJ. Bigger than a double-homicide.

This was an opportunity to turn a domestic tragedy into a new social doctrine, into revolution – a small price, perhaps, as Cochran saw it, for Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman to pay. 

Cochran saw the bigger picture, no doubt, but, unfortunately, he didn’t see the whole picture and, because of that, I think the outcome, unintentionally, did a lot more damage to the view of African-Americans in White American society – a consequence I can’t believe he ever factored in (or, optimistically, didn’t think would be as profound as it was).

Like Dominick Dunne, my jaw dropped at the verdict. I couldn’t believe it. No one could in the UK, black or white. And, it was in the aftermath of the verdict that the real damage was done.

The contemporary arguments for Colonialism – because, let’s not forget, even at the time, not everyone was sure it was a good thing to plant your flag anywhere in the world and sweep the locals up into slavery – were rooted in a self-proclaimed belief that these colonists were helping these people (a second class people; baser, simpler, child-like).

The verdict, delivered by a largely African-American jury (a fact that had been laboured by the media throughout the coverage) – and, from the outside looking in, flew in the face of all rationality, all the evidence – played to this deep-rooted, poisonous, white supremacist belief: they hadn’t understood what was going on; these were second class minds delivering a third rate verdict.

(This attitude can also be seen in the approach police in the UK took in response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence a few years later, who wouldn’t believe his parents that their studious, ambitious son wasn’t into gangs or drugs, resulting in a botched investigation from the off).

As African-Americans celebrated the verdict, while Metropolitan White liberals (like myself) understood the reparation in it, we couldn’t forget two other beautiful people lay dead and unavenged, so couldn’t see there was anything to celebrate; White supremacists and segregationists claimed this validated their beliefs in the innate criminality of the black community; and the white people in the middle of that spectrum just felt mystified by the whole thing and what it said about their society. 

I’m not even sure the majority of black people did believe OJ was framed. I think it was more the sense that he could have been, that these things happen in the justice system to black men and women all the time, and had since the birth of America; OJ, thanks to Cochran’s oratory and rebranding of Simpson, represented justice for the black community; no one could stomach the Othello myth again – there had to be a different ending.

Also, to be fair to the jurors, their verdict wasn’t just the consequence of falling under OJ’s or Cochran’s spells: Fuhrman’s perjury, combined with the squid ink defence used by the Dream Team, had stained every scrap of evidence until everything was covered in doubt.

In that context, it was a reasonable verdict, there was reasonable doubt, and the prosecution really didn’t do a great job: the gloves were never going to work: and to not even mention the Bronco chase at all was criminal in itself – they never asked the question at the heart of the case, of anybody: so why run (with a fake beard, money, your passport and a gun)?

Had the jury delivered a guilty verdict, how would history have played out; would things – and, specifically, inter-racial relations in the US, be any different?

I think, potentially, they might have been. I think the verdict set back inter-racial relations and understanding significantly. People looked at their African-American friends, co-workers, neighbours, people they liked and respected, and, hearing them defending OJ, refusing to believe him a murderer, downgraded them as irrational, blind and self-deceiving.

Yes, the city might have erupted into riots in the aftermath of a guilty verdict. The African-American community would have been further bruised, perhaps further disenfranchised, and even more terrified of the police – but, as nothing did in fact change, in spite of one moment of justice seeming to go the other way for once, more bruises were to come anyway.

It was a different ending alright, but there was no new beginning to follow it.

To be fair to Cochran, his job was to win, to get OJ off, by whatever ‘legal’ means possible, and, in that sense, it was the right strategy; but the real legacy of his approach was to dislocate white people from the black struggle, a painful and obstructive, rather than progressive, social legacy.

We can only break down barriers, break down prejudice, by working together (by being in the same classrooms together).

Had white people felt justice had been served, progressively-minded white people would have continued the fight against prejudice (whereas I think, for quite a few progressives, and a lot in the middle, that initial feeling of incomprehension at people celebrating Simpson’s release turned into apathy – the White Riot –  “I clearly, really, don’t understand you. I wanted to help you, but now I don’t even feel I can, the gulf is too wide.”).

And, of course, we couldn’t (and, in many ways, still can’t) really understand where that deep need for some symbol of reparation came from.

A great scene depicting a meeting, set in London in the mid-Nineties, between police and black community activists in the compelling BBC drama Undercover, captured this exactly last week, when an activist asked one of the two police officers present, the white one, whether they’d ever been stopped and searched. The answer was never. He asked the same question of the black officer. The answer came back: seven times; in the last month.

It made the point crystal clear: white people don’t know what it’s like to be stopped and searched, period, let alone just for the colour of their skin.

But plenty of white people, though not on the rough end of the justice system, were just as awake to its injustices towards black people as black people, but the OJ verdict, clearly, didn’t bring about the change that was needed.

Instead, the white, progressive people in power who could have provided more help to the African-American community, who could have raised their voices louder to help eliminate prejudice, eliminate police corruption and brutality, shut up and shut down.

They still don’t speak out loudly enough, even to this day.

In fact, twenty-one years later, has anything changed at all? Frighteningly, the same context of police brutality towards African-Americans is still there (#BlackLivesMatter). The same prejudice is still very much apparent, in the US and the UK (Oscar, anyone? And if you don’t believe things are nearly as bad in the UK, check out some of the comments on #BBCDiversity on Twitter).

So, how do we stop the same stories playing out, again and again?

We change the stories we tell. We showcase different storytellers (hence BBC Diversity).

That sounds very simplistic, overly-simplistic, but I go back to the story I was told as a child, my mother’s infant stand against prejudice.

The heart of the story, the moral in it, was permission. If you see prejudice, injustice, bullying, wherever it’s coming from, beside you or from above, however small you are, however small your voice, however out-of-character it might be, you can stand up, you can speak out and you can change things.

Sometimes saying nothing is the greatest crime of all.

*The one remarkable thing about this school is that it was attended at the same time by Sir Mick Jagger (then known as Michael)

**In a spooky coincidence, I moved from Stepney to Knightsbridge in my last year of university, just as the mother moves from Knightsbridge to Stepney in the Rolling Stones song Play with Fire – I also later lived in St John’s Wood, the other London location mentioned in the song

***For my money, Alfred Enoch, in ten years time, and bulked up, would be perfect

****The excellent BBC series Undercover brings back a lot of memories of the anti-racism movement in the 90s

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2 thoughts on “Black Lives, White Riots & Grey Outcomes: Reflections on The People vs OJ Simpson

  1. I agree with you and have a lot of thoughts on this! I watched the original trial. I have lived in 4 cities in Michigan. All were more or less racially mixed. Where I live now the divide is serious. I work hard at being in the community as a human being . . .not as a white woman per say.

    Liked by 1 person

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