The dramatic O.J. Simpson trial served as a premonition of the divided America of today.Jonathan Freedland

The dramatic O.J. Simpson trial served as a premonition of the divided America of today.Jonathan Freedland

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The dramatic O.J. Simpson trial served as a premonition of the divided America of today.Jonathan Freedland

I was precisely where I was on October 3, 1995, when a Los Angeles jury returned its decision in the OJ Simpson trial. No, it wasn’t the Kennedy assassination. As a first-time US correspondent for this publication, I was slumped over an antiquated laptop, prepared to hit publish on the article I had previously written, explaining to readers in the UK why the jury had found an American sports icon guilty of two counts of double murder and what the decision would probably mean. I had to use the “delete” button.

Newsrooms all over the US and the world relived the tense hour I spent frantically trying to produce a brand-new commentary on the “shock acquittal.” As it happened, not everyone was shocked by the ruling, but more on that later.

Thirty years later, after Simpson passed away on Wednesday, I realize how very 1990s the entire situation was. However, it was more than just a tale of its era; it also portended a great deal of what was to come, all the way up to the present.

Let’s begin with the peculiarities of that remarkable decade. The 1990s were a kind of fortunate break between the conclusion of the Cold War and the impending “war on terror,” although at the time we weren’t aware of this. Those were the sedate final years of what historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed the “short 20th century,” which started in 1914 with the start of World War I and ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

While horrific violence occurred in the Balkans and Rwanda during that time, the 1990s were characterized, particularly in the west, by a lack of existential dread and geopolitical doom.

Additionally, a lot of the beliefs and viewpoints were typical of the era. Remember that even though Simpson had a history of domestic abuse on file, his numerous endorsement contracts and his position as a “motivational speaker” for Hertz rental cars remained intact. My June 1994 story, which begins with the statement that the Simpson case had shed light on “one of America’s least discussed but most common crimes: that of wife battering,” has been unearthed by Guardian archivists. Though not in the words we would use today, it serves as a helpful reminder of the silenceโ€”and even indulgenceโ€”that surrounded domestic abuse in the past. During the identical time frame.

I covered Lorena Bobbitt’s assault trial after she cut off her husband’s penis. Although Bobbitt had been the victim of ongoing violence and rape at the hands of her husband, the story also went viral and was mostly viewed as dark humor.

All of this indicates how much of what came after was predicted by the Simpson case. The Los Angeles police acknowledged that they had been summoned to Nicole Brown Simpson’s residence eight times in response to screaming and accusations of violence. She begged them to take in her husband, stating she feared for her life, and they discovered her cowering in bushes for the ninth time. She had a split lip, swellings, bruises, red markings, and fingerprints on her neck, which may indicate she had been choked. That’s when OJ Simpson was eventually taken into custody.

Long before the names of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and other prominent men who had abused women came to light thanks to the #MeToo movement, there was proof that wealthy and well-known men who mistreat women frequently get away with itโ€”never more so than in the case of OJ Simpson.

Of course, the trial’s main focus was race. Everyone recalls the famous statement made by defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran in reference to the murderer’s glove: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” However, his final point was crucial. He painted Simpson’s prosecution as the most recent attack on African Americans by a white establishment that couldn’t stand to see a successful Black man ascend to the top. Cochran told the jurors, nine of whom were Black, that this was their opportunity to make a statement by citing Martin Luther King, the battles of the American South, and centuries of bigotry.

He received assistance in this endeavor by a prosecution that depended on a deeply racist police force. One cop said he had never uttered the N-word, but a video showed he was both a bigot and a liar. The defence was able to contend that the prosecution’s case was fatally tarnished by reliance on such a source and evidence of evidence tampered with. Few were shocked by the judgment because, to many Black Americans, even those who privately believed Simpson was guilty, that seemed evident. The fact that many US police officers were overtly racist was not news to them. They had witnessed Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD a few years prior.Stated differently, the anger that culminated in the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 was already developing and evident 25 years prior.
You could make the same argument for a lot of what we consider to be novel, such as identity politics and post-truth. Long before terms like tribal epistemology and filter bubbles were coined, it was evident that one’s beliefs were influenced by the group to which one belonged. White Americans, for example, were adamantly convinced that Simpson had killed both his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman. Back then, too, individuals lived in silos. Midway through the trial, a quarrel broke out among the jurors, about which I wrote a piece. Restricted to a single room and unable to watch live television, they were forced to settle with a weekly supply of VHS recordings. One evening, the white jurors wanted to watch one show, but they couldn’t agree on what else to watch.

It’s true that social media didn’t exist back then. Those who were eager to voice their thoughts had to do so through merchandise, such as T-shirts bearing OJ’s image and the phrase Let the Juice Loose. While it was true that rolling news was newโ€”there was no Fox, MSNBC, or CNNโ€”the features of the media environment we have today were starting to take shape. Yes, in part because of the Simpson trial, which demonstrated a desire for constant coverage.

Above all, Black Lives Matter once again brought to light an odd truth about the US. that the outside world is unable to turn away, not even when the nation displays its most repulsive aspects. That is America’s peculiar soft power: despite its dysfunction, it serves as a stage for many global tragedies. That still holds true today as it did thirty years ago.




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