At 10 a.m PST on October 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
At the very same moment, on the other side of the country, a classroom full of African American 7th graders who watched the verdict live erupted into a massive cheer at Hill-Freeman Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It lifted them out of their individual seats during Mr. Sussman’s 5th period social studies class and swept them into the hallways. The tide rolled past the indoor atrium, through an adjacent wing, and eventually lead to the courtyard outside of the building where other kids from other classes had coincidentally done the same thing.
What would prompt a collective of black 12 year old boys and girls to react in such a way over such an adult matter?
Well, although it’s a magnet school in a former suburb, Freeman was 95% African-American. Those kids were from neighborhoods that saw the decaying effects of Reaganomics and the hopelessness of the crack era. Children who dealt with death, with D.A.R.E programs, and saw how police interacted in the communities where they grew up. Consequently, many of these kids have seen friends and family members go to prison, some have even seen raids. Long story short, tension towards police enforcement can start pretty damn early where I’m from.
At the time, all I knew about O.J. Simpson was based on seeing him provide sideline commentary for NBC during football season and those Naked Gun Movies, which I thought were hilarious.
Cant go wrong with Leslie Neilsen right ?
Not to mention the infamous white Ford Bronco chase interrupted game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. I had a vested interest because my father was a diehard Knicks, which meant I was as well and for the first time in my life they were in the championship series.
I also remember my father’s reaction. He couldn’t believe NBC would dare interrupt the sanctity of the game because the cops were chasing some “house nigga.”
I’m sure I can speak for my classmates when I say I was much too young to see him play, had no idea the man he became, nor his history of spousal abuse. All we knew when the verdict delivered that a semi-famous black man avoided going to jail. For whatever reason, he got off and we were happy about it. That joy manifested itself into an impromptu celebration. Mr. Sussman did nothing to halt the cheers, and until this very moment I never realized how important that was. Here he was, a white man in late 40’s who understood the reaction of his students, misguided as it was.
I hadn’t thought about that day until ESPN begin to air the 5 part documentary series, O.J.:Made In America last Saturday night. Instantly, I was transported back to 1995, but this time with proper context and through an adults eyes, instead of the child who could only relate to color.
Thats what this piece is really about.
Around the time the FX network began to air their mini series based on the events of the O.J. Simpson case this past March, ESPN released a teaser trailer for the next installment in their critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series; obviously also based on O.J. However, talking heads at ESPN raved at the time that this may have been one of the best and complete documentaries the world would ever see.
Damned if they weren’t telling the truth.
Episode one begins to weave together the complicated tale of Simpson. Where he was born, where his family settled and how his “infatuation with white culture” was a motivating factor in his very being. He’s painted as quite ambitious, but just as selfish in terms of getting where he saw himself and how he would ultimately get there. Friends, family, teammates and acquaintances all give their relevant testimony concerning O.J’s early life leading into his professional football career. I learned for myself what my father and my uncles had been saying about Simpson. How he was driven to not be looked at or treated as a black man, but simply O.J. This was most evident during the protest of the 1968 Olympic Games. Where as many black athletes of the day stood their ground by stating they weren’t going, O.J. not only showed that he shared no common interest with his brethren, but refused to even speak on the matter. If there was ever a question about what O.J. Simpson stood for, the answer was himself resoundingly. This episode also provided a back drop for the migration of black folk to the sunny California shores and why racism there didn’t turn out to differ too much from racism in the southern U.S.
Not only that, but it gave a great deal of insight into why Los Angeles became such a racial pressure cooker before and after the Watts riots in 1965. Those who lived to tell the tale of those days were mostly still around to witness the militarization of the LAPD, the formation of S.W.A.T teams, the murder of Latasha Harlins, the beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent rioting that popped off after the LAPD officers charged with his battery were acquitted.
Episode two starts with the end of Simpson’s football playing days and moves into more of the O.J. that I was familiar with as a kid; corporate sponsorships, television and movies. It’s also is where his troubled marriage and incidents with domestic abuse are chronicled, all culminating with the infamous police “chase”, murder charges being filed, and the full on circus of the trial itself. Here we’re introduced to Johnny Cochran and the rest of the world famous (at the time) Dream Team of defense attorneys and the rest, as they say, is history.
We all know what happens next, and although ESPN will be airing episode 3 tonight at 9pm EST, all episodes can be now be found on the ESPN app for viewing at one’s leisure. Which is a good thing because I plan to finish both of the concluding episodes prior to their slotted air date. Quite frankly, this is the best work that ESPN has ever done; with anything.
Currently, O.J. Simpson is a inmate at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Lovelock, Nevada, after being sentenced for 9 to 33 years on ten charges ranging from conspiracy to commit a crime and kidnapping to robbery with use of a deadly weapon. Thirteen years to the exact day of his acquittal of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a then 61 year old O.J. was taken into custody to serve his term to zero fanfare. There were no eruptions this time as 1994 was a lifetime ago. No one made any signs exclaiming to “Turn The Juice Loose”, and no one chanted his name.
For the past 8 years he’s been sitting there. Some say to pay for prior sins, while others feel a lifetime of extreme hubris and selfishness is to blame. Either way the story isn’t over yet, but as long as he’s alive he will still remain, for better or worse, a polarizing cultural figure.
Only in America.