I still remember where I was when the OJ Simpson verdict was announced 26 years ago. I was in college taking a class on the history of New York City, and the professor understood that he would not be able to do much teaching that day. Instead, he had a television rolled into the lecture hall so that we could watch the result of the trial of the century.
The not guilty verdict in that case sent shockwaves throughout our country, and one of the most disturbing aspects of the response was the difference in reaction between white people and people of color. For many in the latter community, a not guilty verdict was a measure of justice, regardless of the facts of the case.
People of color had been abused and persecuted by the criminal justice system for so long that a non-guilty verdict for Simpson, in a case where the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming, was seen as a kind of cosmic poetic justice. Rich and powerful white people have gotten away with murder, both figurately and literally, for centuries. It’s no wonder that some were happy that a rich black man could get away with it too.
A lot has changed in the intervening years, particularly in the areas of domestic abuse and women’s rights. Even back in 1995, I was taking a class called Gender and Deviancy and we analyzed the complexity of the Simpson case that mixed so many difficult issues: race, gender, power, celebrity. Today, few would look to Simpson as a hero of civil rights.
I thought about the Simpson verdict this week as the nation held its breath waiting for a decision in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd last spring. Would justice be served? How would our communities react to whatever verdict was handed down? Most importantly, would there be unanimity in the response or would it again break down along racial lines.
The good news is that most people, regardless of race, were horrified by Chauvin’s actions and felt that he was guilty of murder. Unfortunately, today the dividing line instead is political as the scope and nature of policing has been called into question.
While many of us may be satisfied with the Chauvin verdict, we know that systemic change does not result from the outcome of one case. OJ Simpson was able to walk free not because he was innocent, but because he had the extraordinary means to hire an all-star legal team. I can’t help but ask, was Chauvin found guilty because the tide of discrimination and abuse of power has finally turned, or because a teenager had the courage to record George Floyd’s arrest. Did the media attention of case and the protests that followed last year lead to real change that will translate to others or will things go back to the way they were when we stop paying attention?
I can only hope that we continue to push for true systemic change even as there is some much-needed closure on a painful moment in the history of race and policing in our country. I am also reminded that regardless of the outcome of a trial, the victims can never be returned to us. Nicole Brown, Ronald Goldman, and George Floyd had their lives cut needlessly short. In order for their names to truly be blessings, may their memory inspire us to never stop fighting for justice for all.