The Jury Room  (Week 4)                                                                                                                                         Posted 19th April 2014

O J Simpson and the trial of racism                                                              From The Herald : Sat 11-Apr-1998


WHAT about that O J Simpson? What's the latest on him?

It is O U Wilson who says it but it could have been any of us. That is the kind of question we often ask in the Jury Room. The conversational climate there is what you might call sub-topical. We tend to deal seriously with things not in the full heat of their immediacy but after a cooling-off period.

That's right, Dave the Rave says. Ah haven't heard anything about him lately. You ever notice that about news stories? They drum up your interest in something and then drop it for something else. The public's head must be full of unfinished stories. Like soap operas that went off the air just when you got involved in them.

Like that Eldorado, Greyman says. Remember that? Mind you, taking that off was an act of philanthropy. Should've carried a government health warning, that one.

So what's the news of him? Gus the Guru asks.

The question is addressed to Dan the Man, who is standing in behind the bar for Harry Kari. It seems Bruce, Harry's dog, is going through another crisis and Harry has been given a night's compassionate leave. Eric the Red, it is agreed, must be the only hotel owner who accepts canine angst as a valid reason for being off your work.

We enjoy Dan's visits. He is a care worker who went out for a time with Eric's daughter, Miss Tonguelash. That didn't work out but he and Eric became friends and now Dan fills in occasionally behind the bar. He always reminds me of Melville's description of what he called the handsome sailor, the kind of attractive person people gravitate towards and like to be with. But at the moment he seems to be repelling boarders.

O J Simpson? How the hell would Ah know?

That's all it takes and I am off again into the interior, thinking of another jury room. Since the O J Simpson trial finished, it has continued to haunt me. Here's why.

The knowledge of who killed Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend, Ron

Goldman, is still not in the public domain. None of us can know for sure. What is now in the public domain, compendiously so, is knowledge of the nature of the trial which resulted from the murders. Let's stay with that.

In any court case, it's not just the defendant who is on trial. Standing with the defendant in the dock, present but insubstantial, like several thrown shadows, will be the social assumptions of the times.

All of us who followed the case, however intermittently, will have our own sense of which shadowy assumptions stood trial with O J Simpson. Setting aside the chilling suspicion that the most persuasive talker in that courtroom was money, let's concentrate on three of those assumptions: the integrity of the law, the corrupting effect of white racism, the non-existence of black racism. Those images of a courtroom in Los Angeles, fed through the tube, must have glowed like x-ray plates in houses all over the world. They should have made us wonder if the sickness they showed was not, in fact, our own.

A lot of Americans have a dangerously innocent self-absorption. Being part of the most powerful nation in the world, they can find it difficult to take seriously the history of other places. Their country to them is the world. Perhaps that's why they called this the Trial of the Century. (I would have thought Nuremberg might have had a shout there.) Perhaps that's why the leading defence lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, compared the morally diseased policeman, Mark Fuhrman, to Adolf Hitler - thus establishing the address for America's very own Holocaust as South Bundy Drive, where a dropped glove means genocide. (Or maybe he just noticed the surname had a convenient resemblance to Fuhrer.)

But this time, by offering a domestic American tragedy as an event of world significance, they were caught in the glare of their own hype. If this was the trial of the century, it was telling us some pretty bleak fin-de-siecle truths about ourselves, truths from which neither America nor the rest of us should hide.

Every time the law tries a defendant, a defendant tries the law. In that

nine-month double trial, both verdicts are in. The verdict on O J Simpson must seem to many people at least equivocal. The verdict on the law is not. The law is unequivocally guilty. Whether we have a right verdict or a wrong one, we assuredly have - given the way the facts of the case were buried under extraneous political baggage - a verdict wrongly arrived at. The first principle of the law has been betrayed. Justice has been seen not to be done.

The pivotal moment in the trial was the discrediting of Mark Fuhrman. (One juror has admitted that, though she thought O J Simpson was probably guilty, she voted for acquittal because of Fuhrman). He was shown to be a liar, a bigot and a racist, the kind of policeman who would invent evidence where he couldn't discover it. The national contempt for him was fully justified. The cynical use that was made of him was not. The just condemnation of the racism of Mark Fuhrman (and the LAPD) became, by an interesting logic, the excuse for bringing to bear critically upon the case what looked very like the racism of many African-Americans.

There could no longer be any pretence that this was a murder trial. There were no private lives here, merely political issues. This had become a modern American morality play. There was no room for the truth of individual experience. Only stereotypes need apply. White was perpetrator. Black was victim, no matter who had died or under what circumstances.

And the law bowed down to politics. That's why the speed of the jury's decision suggested less the law's relentless rational march towards the truth than a bunch of weary and confused individuals' flight from responsibility. This wasn't a judgment. It was an abdication of judgment. It is hard enough to sift a mountain of data without having to bear in mind, simultaneously, which decision is less likely to cause a riot. The initial finding of 10-to-2 for acquittal was surprising in one way. You wondered where those two people found the temporary nerve.

The jury must have felt that the decision had been effectively taken out of their hands. The most persuasive argument in this case was now out on the streets, the jury beyond the jury. And so they decided that O J Simpson could not be declared guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is the effect of this decision which indicates most clearly how far the trial had ceased to be about the crime and had become about something else, corruptly politicised. There was rejoicing among African-Americans. Who rejoices in the unsolved and savage murder of two innocent people? Presumably those who have supplanted human feeling with ideology, who have become the robots of their own political agenda. The fact that no unbiased person could say that O J Simpson was innocent beyond a reasonable doubt had become irrelevant. It didn't merit a pause in the celebrations. He was an African-American. He had beaten the system. Blacks danced in the streets. Strange dance.

I watched a black woman interviewed on television on the day of the verdict. ''I'm proud today to be an African-American,'' she said passionately. The horrific and unjustifiable deaths of two people, not to mention the continuing grief of their relatives, had been processed into mindless ideological ciphers (the aftermath of slogans like Free the Juice and The Bitch Deserved It). Strange pride.

I come from generations of people who lived daily with virulent forms of social injustice. This does not allow me to pretend that their experience was as terrible as the experience of the black people of their times. But it does make me understand, as I try to contemplate the nature of my ancestors' lives, that they were not deliberate participants in a system of oppression but lesser and helpless victims of that system. I cannot accept that the decency of many of their lives should be demeaned by the kind of non-think that would designate all of them 'white oppressors'. That's a bad historical joke, a spitting on their graves.

By the same token, I cannot accept that the appalling suffering of countless generations of blacks grants their descendants some kind of moral-free zone. Such suffering, far from bestowing only rights, creates obligations, such as the obligation to seek justice for all, because, unless there is the attempt to find justice for all, there is no justice.

History writes moral blank cheques for nobody. That would be a formula for social catastrophe. In our time it threatens to be so. You earn your social rights not from your people's past but by how honourably your present lives in relation to that past. If you betray the principles of the need for social justice implicit in that past, you forego the right to identify with it.

This, it seems to me, is the dark paradox at the centre of the OJ Simpson

trial: it proves the equality of the races. It demonstrates that black people, given the chance to exploit their colour, can be just as immoral as whites.

This, of course, should always have been obvious to anyone prepared to confront honestly the reality of our experience. But honesty has been a commodity in short supply for a long time now among many would-be liberal thinkers. 'Racism' has become in our time a catch-all insult to be used by weekend revolutionists, the kind of people who prefer to stand on the stilts of a cause rather than wait to grow up into the impure complexity of being an individual. It is, you realise when you read Orwell, what 'Fascism' was to such people in the thirties - their crude weapon for obliterating the arguments of all those who refuse to accept unthinkingly the crassness of their interpretation of our communal experience. They would intimidate us out of precision of thought into mere sloganising.

I remember listening with incredulity to a thoughtful mature student who was telling me about the moment when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus. A social worker had explained to him how only whites could be racist, because racism is institutionalised and whites control all the institutions. It seems the mature student had never realised this. He seemed almost ashamed of that. I suggested he had been wiser before his conversion than after it. He should have kept straight on for Damascus.

The social worker's supposed perception is the kind of intellectual garbage which has polluted the moral climate of our society for too long. Let's hope it can be thrown out of our psyches soon, as garbage should be. Maybe after the OJ Simpson trial, we can acknowledge once and for all one simple truth of our experience.

Racism is a malignant potential implicit in having a race - something to which people of any race may be prone and which should be opposed in every race. If you refuse to accept that, you are insisting, without proof, upon basic human differences in race. You are, presumably, a racist.

Meanwhile, back at the bar, Dan the Man is still being pestered for news of OJ Simpson. He puts down the glass he is cleaning and speaks. His voice is weary.

Listen. Gonny gies a brek here, maybe? Just because ah'm black? That means ah'm supposed to be some kinda Reuter's for Afro-American affairs? Ah think that's called stereotyping. Ah don't come from Los Angeles. Ah come from Castlemilk. Ah don't support Afrocentrism. Ah support Celtic.