The juice has soured
That moment millennials realize O.J. is absolutely the wrong black man to cape for
On Friday, June 17, 1994, Burger King mattered most.
I grew up in Ettrick, a town 25 minutes south of Richmond, Virginia, most known for housing the historically black Virginia State University. In ’94, a new Burger King had recently opened two miles from my house. I’d decided a No. 1 with a Coke would be the perfect way to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals: the New York Knicks vs. Houston Rockets.
My grandma took me to Burger King. She’d mentioned something about O.J. Simpson earlier that day. He was in trouble. Something about his ex-wife and her friend dying and him maybe being responsible. The O.J. I knew then was the black guy doing NFL commentary for NBC. But more importantly, the O.J. I knew was “Nordberg” from Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult , which had been released a few months before. It wasn’t until afterward — through conversations with older relatives and family friends — that I came to realize how raw he was as a football player. And it wasn’t until last month in a Washington, D.C., theater that I realized how much like a sociopath he still is.
We get home from Burger King and I race to my makeshift man cave. No one’s watching the big TV downstairs, so I’ve got that and the couch to myself. The Whopper was about to get crushed, and I had a game to watch. But the Finals were relegated to backseat status via a tiny box at the bottom of the screen. Something was happening. I just didn’t know what. “It was clear to me, even that night,” NBC sportscaster Bob Costas would say 20 years later, “that, by far, the more significant story was what was going on with O.J. Simpson.”
On my TV a white Bronco slowly careened down Los Angeles’ Highway 405. Nordberg was in the back seat holding a revolver to his own head.
“Lord!” My grandma shrieked from upstairs. “They’re going to kill O.J.!”
Before June 17, 1994, the only white Bronco I knew was John Elway.
I turned 30 earlier this year. Most people in or near my age bracket remember the Simpson case to varying degrees. For the most part we recall it via vantage points other than our own — our parents talked about it. Teachers discussed the proceedings in class. Or Marcia Clark, Chris Darden and Johnnie Cochran were on television while we ate dinner. Some of us remember how celebratory the moment was in some of our communities when the words “not guilty” were declared.
My grandma smiled when Simpson, on July 22, 1994, defiantly declared himself “absolutely 100 percent not guilty.” She’d been upset all along at the fact that two sets of parents had lost children, but a part of her wanted to see the justice system under pressure to give a black man a “fair” shake at justice — the equivalent of finding a four-leaf clover in her lifetime. She knew about too many cases of false imprisonment or false accusations leading to lives and families ruined. All this due to a judicial system she never saw as an even playing field.
We were in Virginia, after all — not even Los Angeles, where Simpson inadvertently benefited from the plights of individuals such as Latasha Harlins and Rodney King (two people Simpson would never have associated with, pretrial). Blood still simmering from the riots that left Los Angeles in flames two years before helped make Simpson an unconventional rallying symbol. As sportswriter Ralph Wiley wrote years ago, “Of all the innocent black men who rotted in jails or swung from trees for ‘crimes’ they didn’t commit all over the landscape through this bloody century and the entire history of the country, out of all those doomed, forgotten people, this is the guy who gets off?”
Like many in my generation, I used to believe that Simpson was innocent. I don’t anymore. And I haven’t for quite some time. He was a black man on the run from police — I wanted him to be Not Guilty. But my change of heart toward Simpson started years ago via a barrage of books, documentaries, casual conversations and — me being a reporter, court documents.
It’s wild to think we sort of turned O.J. Simpson into a political prisoner in the ’90s. He was the real-life version of Tom from The Boondocks. Simpson’s rise and fall is a complex weave of the late ’60s civil rights movement, athletes’ activism, sex, domestic violence, sexual assault, black self-identity, race relations in Los Angeles, self-loathing, police brutality and, of course, murder.
But to my generation? Now? He’s viewed as a master of deception. And we caped for him — stood up and took to the streets with “FREE O.J.” posters and T-shirts for him. We caped for the wrong black man. Simpson manipulated the pain of the past. He manipulated us. For years, dating to the ’60s, Simpson, by way of his celebrity, managed to separate himself from much of the overt bigotry many of his contemporaries dealt with and protested against. “I’m not black. I’m O.J.,” the documentary quotes him saying). OK, then.
As a friend said to me after watching the trailer last month, “That fool O.J. gets no sympathy from me. Because he had none for us … until he needed it.”
Yes. The community he shunned for years? The machine around Simpson relied on and thrived on its support. Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman are dead. There’s no doubt in my mind he killed them. And he beat the damn case.