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THE SIMPSON VERDICT : Scandal & Redemption

October 08, 1995|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. His newest volume of California history, "Endangered Dreams: the Great Depression in California" will be published in December by Oxford University Press

Tested by fire, flood, earthquake and civil insurrection, the citizens of metro Los Angeles now find themselves faced with the latest, and in so many ways, the most demanding challenge of all: the re-integration and reaffirmation of a shockingly divided city. After more than 200 years of Spanish, Mexican and American existence, Los Angeles has managed, at long last, to have truly scandalized itself.

Before last Tuesday, Los Angeles would have seemed to be beyond scandal, at least in terms of itself. This is the city, after all, that witnessed the Manson and Menendez murders and did not take them personally. This is the metro-region that routinely sees 15, 20, even 30 violent deaths occur over a long weekend and does not take them personally. Other cities, faced with such a harvest of violence and pain, would have long since let forth a howl of rage--but not Los Angeles. Nothing could scandalize Los Angeles. The City of Angels had seen it all.

Then, suddenly, the veneer began to crack, ever so slightly, with the gunning down of a 3-year-old girl, who was riding in a car that had taken a wrong turn, and the shooting of a 12-year-old boy, who was being driven home from a Dodgers game. Like smaller quakes before a larger seismic event, these

tragedies, and the emotional shock of their aftermath, set the stage, as it were, for the Big One on Tuesday.

Since the not-guilty verdicts in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, at least half the city--indeed, half the nation, so the polls tell us--are asking themselves and each other: Do we, in fact, have a system? Not just a criminal-justice system, this half population of doubters is asking, but do we have a civil system, a moral community, a city held in common? Had the Tuesday verdict been otherwise, another half of the population would most likely be asking the same questions, albeit from a different perspective.

The verdict itself, together with its reception--for or against, jubilant or appalled--has revealed a city catastrophically divided on even the most basic of questions. Can murder, for example--murder of anyone, by anyone--be placed in an extenuating social or political context, such as the sad history of racial oppression in the United States? Or does murder, especially when it is thought to be first-degree, transcend such questions and demand judgment strictly on the basis of evidence presented in a court of law? Have our institutions so failed us--our Police Department and our prosecutors, especially--that it now becomes plausible to believe that evidence can be fabricated and that the district attorney can knowingly bring such fabricated evidence into court?

On the other side of the question, it is being answered: "Yes, yes, yes! What you call paranoia is our experienced suspicion. Don't tell us about your so-called basic institutions. We have felt the force of their oppression. We have looked in our rear-view mirrors and seen the flashing lights and felt the sickening fear in the pit of our stomachs that despite everything--our college degrees, our tailored suits, our briefcases filled with company business--we are about to be pulled over and, at the least, questioned and, at the worst, spread-eagled and patted down?"

How can the people of this city carry on knowing, as they now do, what a chasm of perception and value has thrust itself between them? How can citizens so estranged from each other on either side of the question, so differing in their view of an even more basic institution of society, the law, continue to advance the most complex institution of them all, the city and urban life? No mere boosterism can come easily to our aid in the face of such deep division.

Los Angeles has long been a city of sensational trials, some with strong racial and sexual overtones, nearly all involving violence. One of the most heinous acts in the city's history--the lynching of 18 Chinese Angelenos on Oct. 24, 1871--barely warranted a grand-jury inquiry. The city instantly forgave itself.

Race figured most dramatically in the conviction, on second-degree murder charges, of nine Mexican American men in the Sleepy Lagoon trial, in January, 1943. The trial was so flawed and perjured, that the Court of Appeal ordered the defendants freed two years later.

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