For those of you who haven’t checked in yet, today’s the fifteenth anniversary of the bizarre police chase of NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco with friend Al Cowlings on I-405 in the Los Angeles area. In the process, he took all of us — the media, the sports world, and anyone who cared about race and justice — on a ride that folks are still talking about a decade and a half later. It had an impact on me in terms of how I saw Blacks and White sand race. It’s amazing to think that so many would become so emotionally caught up in a double-homicide case involving what at one time was one of the world’s most recognizable faces.
I guess that my slight sarcasm was unnecessary. Except that I was a bit surprised at the time. I was surprised when I first heard the news that Monday, June 13 in ’94, about the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and that O.J. was wanted for questioning. I was surprised to learn that his divorce from the woman was far from amicable, especially from a financial perspective. Most of all, I was shocked when I heard that Simpson was going to be charged for the murders, and that he had agree to turn himself in on that fateful Friday, June 17. With so many other terrible things that happened in my life up to that point, I tended to think, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”
That week was my absolute commitment to two events. The NBA Finals between my New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. And a church retreat for the male members of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. It was to be a week of watching my Knicks play at home and three days in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania at a retreat lodge, in a spirit of learning how to be godly men and of adult male bonding. The first full day of the retreat was June 17. After a day of workshops, prayer, praise, and singing (at least for me and the rest of the men’s choir), we all piled into the rec room to watch Game 5 of the Final. Only to see an overhead shot of a slow-moving white Bronco being trailed by an escort of L.A.’s finest instead of Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Doc Rivers, Charles Oakley, and the rest of the cast of characters from my favorite team.
The Knicks won, which was great, but I barely saw the game. They were up 3-2, but would lose the last two games in the next six days in Houston, turning Choke City into Clutch City overnight. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about when it first happen. I hoped that the police wouldn’t shoot Simpson before he had a chance to go to trial. The L.A. riots were just two years before. I feared that the issue of race would be front and center, with Simpson’s issues with his now dead White ex-wife. I knew that with the intense coverage that had been a part of this week, that this would all go away.
On that point I was more than wrong. I was naive, thinking that our world of ’94 would simply attempt to determine if Simpson was guilty or innocent. Instead what I saw within ten days of the Bronco chase was an artificially darkened Simpson on the cover of Time. I watched as the media condemned Simpson well before the trial. As Blacks were becoming angrier about the coverage. As Whites grew more confident about Simpson being convicted, losing his fortune and fame, and possibly getting the death penalty (or at least, life imprisonment). It was amazing how quickly folks took sides on the issue. My mother proclaimed that O.J. was innocent long before the prosecution botched the trial. Some of my grad school colleagues — all White, mind you — made all kinds of assumptions about where I stood on O.J. They didn’t like the fact that I was willing to wait until the trial to make up my mind.
When the verdict came down some sixteen months later, in October ’95, it was stunning to watch ecstatic Blacks and angry, dejected Whites react to the “Not Guilty” verdict. And not just on TV. A friend of mine from my Pitt grad school days spent his lunch break in my apartment gritting his teeth in anger as the verdict was read. I was more shocked than anything else. I smiled, but it wasn’t a smile of joy. It was of wry bewilderment watching the reactions.
That smile disappeared the following day when I went to Carnegie Mellon to drop off a draft of a couple of chapters of my doctoral thesis. A colleague of mine, one who I had called a friend up to this point, immediately started in on me about the verdict, as if I was on the jury. He kept spouting the media’s line about an all-Black jury, about jury nullification, and so on. I politely pointed out that the jury was mostly, but not all Black (three members were White or Latino, if I remember correctly), and that the prosecution lead by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden left the door wide open for an acquittal. He assumed — wrongly — that I wanted O.J. free regardless of his “obvious guilt.” I told my colleague that what else could the jury do, given the compelling defense put together by the late Jimmie Cochran, the mistakes with forensics, with the glove, with putting Mark Fuhrman on the stand? I also said that “I don’t represent all thirty million African Americans in this country,” and that our conversation was over.
That reminded me how irrational the issue of race can make even the most sound-minded and allegedly progressive of us all. I found that conversation unsettling because this colleague was one of the few folks at Carnegie Mellon who had earned my trust. It reminded me that if I were to ever date or marry someone White, that there would be hell to pay.
But many have benefitted from the O.J. Simpon effect over the last fifteen years. From lawyers to journalists, TV stations and authors, many have reaped benefits and have built careers from the O.J Simpson trial and verdict. Greta Van Susteren, Dan Abrams, Nancy Grace, Court TV (now truTV), the late Jimmie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro, among so many others. Even Mark Fuhrman got a book and a radio talk show (at least for a while) out of the trial. One could argue that Kim Kardashian, daughter of Simpson defense “Dream Team” lawyer Robert Kardashian, has benefited, albeit indirectly (it’s not as if her father’s a regular on her family’s reality show, right?).
You could even so far as to suggest that conservative media in general received the greatest indirect residuals of all from the murders, trial, and acquittal involving Simpson. The events between June 17 ’94 and October 3 ’95 helped intensify an atmophere of conservatism, a sense that our nation was out of control. With the acquittal, it made sense for cable and talk radio to increase its coverage of news, especially news with a more “fair and balanced” slant.
But of all of the people who have reaped the rewards of “If It Bleeds, It Leads,” most of us have little to show for our overblown anger or joy over the verdict, and have long since recovered from the initial shock of those days in June ’94. I know that I haven’t seen any benefit from O.J.’s fall from grace, other than the warning that the public is very fickle and will turn on you as soon as you screw up. And O.J. screwed up royally. Add to it all his years of stumbling and bumbling through life and his narcissistic need for the spotlight. He’s now serving time in prison because he wanted a few more moments in the public eye, this time as an obvious criminal. It’s “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say.