Posted on October 09, 1995 in Washington Watch
From the beginning, the American public was deeply divided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Polls have consistently shown that while the overwhelming majority of African Americans were convinced of the former athletic star’s innocence, a similar majority of whites was equally convinced of his guilt. At the same time, both whites and blacks (and most legal experts as well) predicted that Simpson would not be convicted.
Since the outcome was so expected, one might well ask why so many were shocked by both the verdict and the deep racial divide which greeted the result of this ten-month trial? And how did this entire ordeal ever become a national obsession in the first place?
Consideration of the relevant statistics is staggering. It is estimated that on the day O.J. Simpson very slowly drove along the Los Angeles highways to his home, followed by a massive gathering of Los Angeles Police Department vehicles, 90 million Americans watched the events on television. It was more recently estimated that 150 million Americans watched the live coverage of the verdict – making it the most-watched event in television history.
The media exploited the tragedy and the public loved it. The murder trial was a daily drama that unfolded live. The nightly news reported each days’ trial developments even before major international news events.
Simpson was a media star, a celebrity whose face and name lay at the heart of a huge commercial enterprise. His public image was loved and was used to sell products and services. He was worth millions of dollars. But when he was suddenly accused of a gruesome murder and revealed to be a habitual wife-beater, his image changed to one of a broken and pathetic man.
The evidence against Simpson initially appeared to be overwhelming. But Simpson’s millions enabled him to assemble a team of some of the nation’s finest criminal defense layers, who methodically began to disassemble all of the “facts” in the case. For months the nation watched as each piece of evidence was attacked, each witness confused or countered by other witnesses who told a conflicting story.
Finally, at the key moment in the trial, the defense team exposed one of the prosecution’s leading police witnesses to be a racist. Yet not only was this man a racist with a long-standing hatred of blacks, but a police officer who boasted of how other policemen had lied and planted false evidence in other cases in order to secure convictions.
This, of course, neither proved that evidence in the Simpson case had been planted nor undermined all the evidence presented by the prosecution. In fact, the jury never heard the evidence-planting story. But the officer’s statements did enflame passions among African Americans – who still bear wounds from the famous Rodney King beating trial (in which Los Angeles Police Officers who had been videotaped beating the defenseless Rodney King were found not-guilty by a predominantly white jury).
One of Simpson’s attorneys, in his closing arguments repeatedly reminded the largely African American jury seated at this trial of the racism routinely shown by elements of the Los Angeles Police Department. He urged the jury not to forget this history and to “send a message” with their verdict.
Apparently, they did just that. Either the jurors did not find the evidence convincing or were so outraged by the policemen’s lies (or a little of each) which led, for whatever reason, to the jury’s verdict of “Not guilty.”
Across the country, there were clear portraits of deep racial divisions provoked by the verdict. I was flying to Los Angeles at the moment the verdict was announced, and the pilot had tuned the airplane’s radio to the trial so we could all listen. When the verdict was read the white woman seated next to me burst into tears. She had been the victim of an abusive husband who had beaten her for years. She had expected the verdict but still could not believe it.
But home in Washington my wife was at the playground of my daughter’s elementary school. At the moment the verdict was announced she reported to me that the young African American children (aged 12 and 13) began to cheer and dance in joy.
For better or worse, O.J. Simpson’s case had come to be viewed as an issue of race and not of murder. That is how African Americans read it and that is why they became so passionate at Simpson’s acquittal.
Not only Rodney King, but thousands of other African Americans have been the victims of unfair and brutal treatment at the hands the nation’s police. Daily, hundreds of blacks youths across the country are arrested and convicted without adequate legal defense (which, unlike Simpson, they cannot afford) – all too often sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.
Right now in Philadelphia, eight white police officers stand accused of having falsely arrested, planted evidence and beaten even having confessions from more than 1,000 African Americans over the past decade. A Washington-based research center recently noted that a shocking 32.4% of all African American men between the ages of 18 and 34 are currently either in prison, on parole or on probation.
One might perhaps argue that this has nothing to do with the “facts” in the O.J. Simpson trial, but it does explain at least some of the reaction and a part of the “message” that was sent by the verdict.
It was a strange coincidence that only two days before the verdict was reached in the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles, across the country in New York City another major trial ended with an opposite verdict. Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and his nine co-defendants were all found guilty of the conspiracy charges against them.
Although this trial had lasted eight months (almost as long as the Simpson trial’s ten months) and had been billed as the “greatest terrorist trial in the nation’s history, it was eclipsed in the national media by the Simpson circus. The New York Times reported it in the second section, which is usually reserved for local city news and most of the nation’s other major papers gave the ongoing trial little coverage.
Despite efforts by “terrorist experts” to build up the trial because it provided the only tangible evidence for their claim of an “Islamic terrorist network” at work in the U.S., and despite the fears of many in the Arab American and American Muslim communities that the media might somehow use the ongoing case to further feed anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments in the U.S., this did not occur.
The day of the verdict in the New York trial I was inundated with media interview requests asking for the Arab American and American Muslim community view of the convictions. Most of the questions were straightforward to which I gave straightforward answers.
One interviewer, however, a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked me an intriguing question. Since both African Americans and American Muslims feel so much discrimination in the U.S., and since the lawyers in both the Simpson case and that of Sheikh Omar were playing on that fear and hurt of discrimination, how could I account for the difference in the reaction to the two cases?
In part, I responded, the overwhelming majority of our community did not identify with Sheikh Omar or his message – he had a tiny following among a few angry exiles. They were, in a real sense, not a part of our immigrant community. They came to the U.S. not to participate in this country not to participate in this country but to continue, as exiles, to foment their revolution. As such, they were not a part of the broader community. Further, the overwhelming majority of our community not only rejected their message and actions but were angry with them for having jeopardized own security and our image.
Despite the appeals of his attorneys, I do not believe that the majority of our community believes that the verdict against Sheikh Omar and his followers is a verdict either against free speech or against Islam. Our community did not protest during the trial, and did not protest the verdict.
This is not to say, however, that many are not concerned about the trial or concerned about how some will attempt to use the verdict to accuse the larger community by repeating the false accusations that there is a wide-spread terrorist network in the U.S.
Many questions remain. Why was Sheikh Omar permitted to enter the U.S. in the first place? What role did the FBI’s informant play in the case? Was he only an informant or did he also act as a provocateur? Since is has now been revealed that the FBI had the group under surveillance since the late 1980’s, how much did they know of the group’s activities and when did they learn of the threat the group posed?
Yet despite these concerns, this trial did not draw the sustained attention of the community. The detractors of Islam and proponents of the so-called “terrorist network” were as wrong as the Sheikh’s defenders – this group had no following and could not emerge as a symbol for anyone.
One other difference between these two trials should be noted, and that is a sad commentary on the U.S. legal system. O.J. Simpson spent millions of dollars to buy the services of the best legal defense team available. The media dubbed this group “the dream team,” and many feel that O.J. Simpson owes his freedom to them.
In a system that has now been called into question by the allegation that justice can be bought, one might well ask, “where would Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman be today if he had the `dream team’ on his side?”
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