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The People v. Simpson: What One of America’s Most Famous Trials Taught Us about Our Racial Divide

RETROSPECTIVE--As someone who was once part of the media mob that covered the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I have been enjoying the FX original television series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” 

 

Watching it, I relive 1994 and 1995. Each morning during that period, I would flip on the “Today” show, which featured the trial almost every day, and feel pleased that I too was heading downtown to cover the biggest story in the country. Once I had made it to the courthouse, I would find myself among the many eccentric characters who were part of the trial. 

Some of my more solemn colleagues treated it as something of a legal-ethical seminar as well as a crime story. I saw it as a circus, and having been a political reporter for many years, I knew the circus better than most of them did. 

But as I think of the trial now, I’m often drawn back to a more serious aspect of it: race. 

The importance of race in the case was not apparent to me on June 17, 1994, when Simpson, after the famous low-speed chase on Interstate 405, was arrested for the stabbing murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman, a waiter at a nearby restaurant who was returning a purse that Nicole had left behind. 

A part of that chase took place just a few blocks from my home as Simpson -- instead of surrendering to police -- took off in a Ford Bronco driven by his friend Al Cowlings. They headed south on the 405, then back north. Helicopters followed them from the air, and police cars trailed them on the ground.

The pursuit was on every TV station. Earlier, my wife, Nancy, and I had settled in for what we thought would be a relaxing evening before the television set. She and I went outside, watched the helicopters and even glimpsed the slow-moving procession as it headed north to Simpson’s mansion, a few miles away in a much richer neighborhood than ours. 

I had been writing a column in the Los Angeles Times explaining and exposing the vagaries of local politics and government. With Simpson’s arrest and trial, I was shifted to the team covering the trial, and I began to write a new column, called “The Spin,” which appeared several times a week. 

My initial mandate was to report and write about the ways that the lawyers and journalists were shaping the narrative, or spinning it -- the lawyers attempting to influence public opinion and the jury pool, the media trying to get more viewers and readers. But I moved beyond that into an exploration of how the trial was influencing the world outside the courtroom. I was interested in how it affected race relations in a city still recovering from the 1992 riots, sparked by the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King

Simpson, a great running back at the University of Southern California and in the National Football League, was a famous African-American who had spent his life among affluent and famous white people and was publicly silent about race. But so deep was the feeling against the police in the black community that I thought it might influence the way African-Americans saw the trial.

As the trial went on, I would periodically leave the courthouse and drive to African-American neighborhoods in South Los Angeles to learn what people were saying and thinking. On one occasion I visited Creative Neighbors Always Sharing, a halfway house for ex-convicts in Los Angeles headed by Patricia Logan-Miles and her husband, the Rev. Phillip Miles, pastor of the Lively Hope Evangelistic Ministry. He thought I could learn something by talking to the men, all of whom were African-Americans, about the Simpson case and the criminal justice system. He said it would help me understand some of the feelings about Simpson in the African-American community. 

I knew the neighborhood, a few miles east of the intersection of West Florence and Normandie avenues, where the 1992 riot had started. The building, once an apartment house, was on a street of small businesses, vacant stores, churches and empty lots. The group assembled by Phillip Miles awaited me in the community room. Some of the men, he told me, had served time for crimes such as armed robbery, shooting a police officer and house burglary. Their ages seemed to range from mid-20s to late 30s. At first, they were hesitant to talk, but they soon opened up. We joked about what would happen to me if I ended up in jail. They didn’t think that I would do very well. 

“Is Simpson guilty?” I asked. No one who replied to the question thought so.

“You know when a killer is a killer,” one of the men said. “There are two different kind of people who kill. You’ve got the kind that kills out of rage. The other person kills because he’s a plain killer. O.J. had a good life all his life. He never grew up in no bad environment. He ain’t never been in jail. He ain’t no killer. He ain’t got no type of nerve or courage to cut someone up like that. ... He’s got millions of dollars. He could pay somebody to kill somebody.” 

Every man in the group was hostile to the Los Angeles Police Department, and to the entire criminal justice system, because of unfair treatment by the authorities. 

“In ’84, the police came at me, they rushed me,” one man said. “I had one robbery. There was no witness, [but] they said they had a witness. They rushed me in. I told the judge we’re not ready to pick the jury. I had a lawyer, a public defender.” 

The man was found guilty, was sentenced to 12 years and was out in eight. 

“I feel good that O.J. is a black man who is up there and able to actually defend himself,” another man said. “I feel good he will get justice. Everyone is focused on this. He has the people behind him, and the case isn’t strong.” 

Afterward, Miles told me, “Everyone knows somebody who has been arrested, who has not received a just trial or who has been framed. ... The law-abiding African-Americans as well as those breaking the law are all fearful of the police department and the judicial system, even if they are pulled over for a traffic ticket. They don’t feel they have been fairly or justly treated, and that is the experience of the African-American community.” 

On another day, I had an experience that brought home the divide between blacks and whites. 

A central character in the trial was police Detective Mark Fuhrman. As he and other cops searched Simpson’s big house and spacious grounds, he said, he found a bloody glove. It was Simpson’s, the prosecution maintained, and it had been bloodied during the murders.

The defense, however, had been tipped off to the existence of tapes that Fuhrman had made while working with a screenwriter on a movie idea between 1985 and 1994. In the tapes, Fuhrman revealed himself to be a foul-mouthed anti-black racist. The recordings contained 41 instances of Fuhrman using the N-word.

When Judge Lance A. Ito permitted some of the tapes to be heard, they bolstered the defense’s contention that Fuhrman had taken the glove from the crime scene and planted it in Simpson’s yard. 

I wanted to talk to someone about the tapes, not the usual community leader but a resident who had been watching the trial on television that morning. I drove south from the courthouse, looking for a likely place to find people—a store, a shopping center, maybe a restaurant. I passed a building that I knew housed the African-American Unity Center, a community organization. I parked and went inside. 

Nobody seemed to be there. I looked around and found a small office where Cheryl Bacot, an African-American, was working. I introduced myself, and we talked. She told me that she had seen the morning session on television. 

Listening to the tapes and watching the words flash across the screen had been too much for her, she told me. She had quit watching.

“I can’t believe this is 1995 in America, entering the 21st century,” she said. “It is a very frightening experience and very emotional. To me, we’re back 50 years.”

I wanted to know how she felt when she saw the N-word on the screen. I hesitated, thinking I should use the euphemism, as we did in our paper and as other media did. But I opted for the real thing and decided to say “nigger.” I instantly regretted it. She winced. The pain on her face has remained with me all these years. 

We then talked about Simpson and the Los Angeles Police Department.

“My heart goes out to the Goldman family and the Brown family,” Bacot said, “but in my heart, I don’t believe that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. If he is guilty, I don’t want him acquitted because he is a black man. But there are too many unanswered questions.” 

Bacot’s relationship with the LAPD was a conflicted one. She believed the department was afflicted with racism, yet she worked with the department’s community policing program to break down barriers. In fact, she was about to leave for a meeting with officers involved in the program. 

The Los Angeles Times was afflicted with the same racial divide that separated the local community. I experienced it with Andrea Ford, an African-American who reported on the trial from the courtroom and who often fed material to white journalists who were writing from the office. She had little patience with what she saw as racism among her white colleagues. 

She accused me of being racist in two columns I had written. Our first argument was in the newsroom over a column I had written after the riot. She accused, and I argued back. Heads turned when neither of us would give an inch. The second time was when I walked into the pressroom in the morning during the Simpson trial. As soon as she saw me, she denounced my latest column and me as racist.

We argued -- loudly. We moved our dispute into the hall so as not to disturb the other reporters. Our voices were so loud that a television reporter asked us to move into another hallway because he was starting his standup report. Such arguments occurred in workplaces around the city and the country.

Yet I liked Ford, and she seemed to like me. When she wasn’t angry at me, she was warm and friendly. We would talk about our kids -- teenagers who caused us lots of trouble. Parenthood was a bond. 

When the trial ended with Simpson’s acquittal, I went out for a drink at the local bar, the Redwood, with Ford and another African-American reporter, John Mitchell. We drank and chatted, nothing heavy, and I went home feeling sad that my great adventure was over. 

For me, the trial’s racial aspects did not end with the verdict. I followed the racial story in the streets and schools, and dealt with it on the Times staff when I became city editor. As I navigated the racial currents, I thought back to my experiences at the trial, with the ex-cons I met at the halfway house, with Cheryl Bacot and elsewhere -- and to Andrea and me shouting at each other in the hallway. 

It had been a trial as much about race as it was about murder.

 

(Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for Truthdig, the Jewish Journal, and LA Observed. This piece was posted first at Truthdig.com)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.