Friday, April 12, 2024

O.J.'s Passing Revives a Moment of National Divide

There are moments in our national history when we learn something, usually something unpleasant, about our collective selves. 

When, in 1991, Los Angeles police savagely beat Rodney King, only to be subsequently found not guilty of brutality even though the assault was captured on camera, we learned of the near invincibility to accountability of men in uniform, especially when their victims were people of color. 

Four years later, when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of brutally murdering his ex-wife and her friend, the euphoric reaction by blacks and the amazement of whites to the verdict brought to the surface the disparate beliefs in our justice system as they pertain to racial outcomes and, no less important, the impact financial resources can have on a trial’s resolution.   

Only recently, as in the case of George Floyd’s murder at the hands and knee of police, have the scales of justice begun to balance out. O.J.’s death Thursday no doubt will stir renewed debate on equality of justice plus police and prosecutorial behavior. 

Consider this: Lead L.A. prosecutor Marcia Clark and co-prosecutor Christopher Darden kept secret their romantic liaison during their work on the O.J. trial. The truth came out years after his acquittal. 

Now consider an affair’s current day template: Fulton County, GA., district attorney Fani Taifa Willis and her chosen special prosecutor Nathan Wade have admitted to an affair. The alleged criminal they have been investigating? None other than Donald Trump, past president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee. 

Oy vez mir, as my mother used to say. 

Now, I am not hypothesizing that a clandestine romance could taint the outcome of an investigation. But the optics are not pleasant to consider. Those hoping for a Trump conviction in Georgia might well castigate Willis and Wade if a not guilty verdict is tendered by a jury. Their conduct might not have risen to the level of prosecutorial misconduct but it clearly was prosecutorial impropriety 

Do you remember where you were when you heard the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict? I do. 

I was crammed inside a standing room only, glass-fronted conference room of Lebhar-Friedman, parent company of Chain Store Age, on the sixth floor of 425 Park Avenue in Manhattan. For the mesmerizing pronouncement a television had been wheeled into the room. 

In microcosm to national trends, reaction to the not guilty verdict—not innocent, just not guilty—provided a local snapshot of a divide that has yet to lose its grip on the country. 

Almost all people of color in the room cheered. Whites shook their heads in disbelief. We—the multi-racial members of my staff—did not talk about it. Yes, whites talked with whites. We just didn’t talk about it with anyone of color. I’m not proud of that. I’d like to think 30 years later we would be more forthcoming if a similar defining event transpired.