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ON CALIFORNIA

THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : Once Again, the Great Exception

October 04, 1995|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — The television was an old black-and-white, perfect for watching the People vs. Simpson. It was propped on a brown metal chair just outside the front door of an apartment in the Portrero Hills projects, a forlorn strip of faded public housing known to its tenants as "the hill." This unit was where Johnny Straughter lived--but hopefully, he said, hopefully, not for long. He said he intends to escape from the hill someday, to "move to the suburbs. The suburbs are nice." Johnny Straughter is 28 years old.

Straughter wanted the television outside so that he could keep watch on both the courtroom and the street. As one of his neighbors had said: "If they convict, it's going to be hell up on the hill today." The screen flickered. Away went Dan Rather, making way for Judge Lance A. Ito. "Here it comes," Straughter called out to the teen-agers who stood in Connecticut Street, watching the traffic with a certain entrepreneurial interest.

"Here comes the verdict."

The kids strolled over to the porch. Simpson's face now filled the black-and-white screen. For a strange instant, on this television O.J. looked as though he was staring straight out from the porch and across a small, dirt yard to the unit next door, 906 Connecticut. That boxy brown building was where O.J. Simpson had grown up, leaving his initials carved in the fresh concrete of a walkway and scratched with a pencil on a closet wall. That was the place from which Simpson had, in the vernacular of the hill, escaped.

*

Straughter's father ran with Simpson when they were kids on the hill. And like many of his generation, the son was spoon-fed O.J. stories while growing up--how O.J. overcame rickets, how O.J. dedicated himself to football, how O.J. walked away from trouble. O.J. came from these same projects and made a name for himself, the litany went. If O.J. can do it, why can't you? And eat your peas. O.J. always ate his peas.

O.J. was the hill's great exception. That Simpson managed to leave the projects behind was seen by those who could not as a feat to rival his football heroics. "There are some people who find a way to escape from the projects--one way or another," Straughter said, lifting his eyebrows, leaving a visitor to fill in the blanks. "O.J. was different because he did it in a positive way."

Like many California ghettos, Portrero Hill presents a jarring contrast between its dreary conditions close up and the great natural beauty that surrounds it. Millionaires would pay great sums for the panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay and city skyline it offers; the people who live on the hill also pay dearly for the view, but in other ways. "At least four or five people die up here on this hill every week," said Ray Hollis softly, bouncing his 6-month-old baby on his knee as he sat in the morning sun.

There is the predictable tableau of army barracks architecture, broken windows, graffiti, mean dogs, banged-up cars, idle teen-agers, stressed mothers. And the sparkling city but one hill away only feeds the frustration for those who can't break free. "That is everyone's dream, to get away from the projects," said Ronicia Benjamin, the young woman who now lives in the old Simpson unit. "I doubt about half of them ever make it out, though."

She pointed to the kids in the street.

"They be dead before they are 18, most of them."

Ah, but not O.J. Not the great exception.

*

What happened as the verdicts flashed through the projects will come as no surprise. Horns blared. People flowed from their apartments, whooping "O.J.'s free, O.J.'s free! Men hopped into cars and burned rubber racing through the streets; one held aloft a football as he drove. Straughter himself stopped a bus on Connecticut, hopped on board and shouted out the verdict.

"Finally," a woman yelled from her window, "a black man got justice."

"That's one," a man called out, "for the hill."

Finally.

One.

Their great exception had come through again, and they spoke giddily of how Simpson might now "find religion," might now forsake Brentwood and come home to his people on the hill. It was a fantasy, of course, but this was not a moment to be spoiled by reality. This was no time for the harder questions, like: What if it had been one of them on trial, someone with no celebrity status, someone stuck in the projects, no money to hire a Dream Team?

No, this was a day to celebrate the exception that makes the rule.

The rule is what they live every other day.

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