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Taking It Personally : Reflections on the Verdicts, the City and Ourselves : Mirroring a Deep Divide Among Us

October 04, 1995|Robert A. Jones | Robert A. Jones is a Times columnist.

If you subscribe to the notion that the trial of O.J. Simpson ceased having much to do with simple murder or simple justice a long while back, then its ending yesterday seemed to fit nicely. The verdict may not have addressed the evidence at hand but, in uncanny fashion, it did address our city and stripped it down, temporarily at least, to a more naked version of itself.

The stripping down began almost immediately. In front of the Criminal Courts Building, about 500 of us had gathered for the big moment. The sidewalks were lined with mounted police. When the decision came--delivered through the tiny speakers of dozens of radios--it was greeted with a joyous shout so sudden and so loud that some of the police horses bolted. Mind you, these are horses trained not to bolt. They jumped anyway, startled by the sheer decibels.

Picture the scene for a moment: The crowd had been corralled onto the sidewalk across from the courts building, where they stood shoulder to shoulder. Black and brown faces predominated. Occasionally, signs of redemption or damnation would poke up from the mass. One said, "Guilty Or Not/ We Love You/ OJ." Another, without explanation, said, "Free Marta."

The other sidewalk, in front of the court, was reserved for the ladies and gentlemen of the press. Mostly white. So in this overall scene we had the symbolic split of the city itself. And when the spontaneous shout arose over the verdict, it came entirely from the far side of the street. The few white members of that crowd and the mostly white reporters seemed baffled by the news from the courtroom, thinking perhaps they had heard wrong. They stared into the middle distance while, a few feet away, their fellow citizens suffered no bafflement at all. The celebration had begun.

All over Downtown, the sidewalks became infected with that feeling of lightness that usually comes only when the Dodgers win the Series. And maybe there are similarities. Winning and losing on the athletic field is absolute, and so was this decision. It contained no ambiguities. But, of course, that feeling of lightness belonged to people of color because they own the Downtown sidewalks. Inside the office buildings, where the white workers received the news, a different drama got played out.

In one office, a couple of young women stewed. The decision struck them as an insult, outlandish and unbelievable. If the jury had even made a pretense of considering the months of testimony, one of them said, it would have maintained some credibility. But the jury didn't. She shook her head. The jury had betrayed the most precious thing we have, our system of justice. She wondered if someone would soon put a bullet in O.J. Or in Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

A male colleague wandered by and noticed her face, which had taken on a thousand-mile stare. "Hey," he said, "the jury didn't aim the verdict at you. They don't even know you exist." The young woman didn't reply. She didn't believe him.

And neither do I. If ever a verdict was intended to send a message, this was it. And the message was directed at the likes of the young woman and everyone else whose birthright has made them exempt from our criminal justice system. Everyone who has glided through life without being pulled over at midnight and patted down just because, well, you know.

If you haven't been pulled over and patted down, the O.J. verdict doesn't make sense. If you have, it makes all the good, sweet sense in the world. A huge divide separates those two groups. Usually, the everyday world works in such a way to hide the divide. Yesterday, the opposite happened. For a brief hour or two, until everyone got themselves composed, the verdict pulled back the curtain and showed us the divide in all its breadth and depth.

In the end, O.J. was all about that divide. The story of the trial played out in such a way that no verdict could serve both groups. Clearly, the state had a wealth of evidence against O.J. Just as clearly, their case had been corrupted from the get-go by institutional racism. Someone had to lose.

This time--let's just say it--the losers were the white folks and their view of justice. But that is not to say that no justice was served. Sometimes messages actually get heard.

Maybe we should give Tony the last word on all this. Tony is the cook at the little counter where I usually get lunch. He is a black man and has two sons who play high school basketball.

So, I asked him, waddya think?

Tony laughed. He wasn't sure. But he said when he heard the verdict he thought of a verse his mother used to quote from the Bible. "The heart of a man is deceitful and desperately wicked: Who can know it?"

Did Tony mean O.J. or the cops? He didn't say, and I didn't ask. Maybe it didn't matter. It's the peculiar magic of O.J. and its outcome that the verse works, either way.

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