Readers Write In #415: O J Simpson and the Other Fake News Factory

Posted on October 22, 2021

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(by Madan Mohan)

I heard a lot about The People v/s O J Simpson when it came out.  But somehow, I never got around to watching it even though the crime beat has always interested me as someone who was a Hercule Poirot fan in school. 

But perhaps it was for the better that I watched it now.  Because the intervening Trump era gave me a completely different perspective about this docu-drama and the characters involved.  Some reviews were already picking up on the parallels back in 2016-17 but that was when the Trump movie had just started to playing.  That movie is either over or on a four year pause as of now and it culminating in George Floyd and a right-wing insurrection adds even more delicious sub text.

Now…if you haven’t watched the series at all, this parallel is coming from way left field at you.  But imagine, if you will, a loudmouthed braggart, a terrible wife beater/abuser, a party animal and skirt chaser, a cunning liar and, lastly, a flamboyantly wealthy man whose privilege afforded him the best lawyers money could buy.  Oh, and he stiffed them too (or so says Robert Kardashian anyway)!

Yes, all of the above was about O J Simpson and not Donald Trump.  And the fact that O J is black made it impossible to frame him as an almost cartoonish villain in the way Trump was.  If I didn’t write a word more, this would still be a tantalizing premise.

But we’re barely getting started.  A woman tried to be the death of both men…and in both cases, the woman failed.  If it was Hillary Clinton who nearly denied the man with “the best words”, public prosecutor Marcia Clark, along with co-prosecutor Chris Darden (who was, uh, black), passionately litigated the case against O J only to lose.  Like Clinton, she too was hounded by disgusting sexism from her opponents.  And just as Matt Lauer mysteriously missed the memo and spent the debate attacking Clinton on her emails, judge Lance Ito too curiously abetted the sexist attacks on Clark.

But it is when we get to why she lost that things get truly fascinating…as well as troubling.  Early in the series, there is a discussion about where to hold the trial – Santa Monica, where the crime had been committed or downtown Los Angeles where the LAPD had its office. District Attorney Gil Garcetti elects to file charges at the latter (in effect, presaging the trial being conducted in downtown LA) because the LAPD infrastructure would be at their beck and call.  The trouble is: downtown LA is overrepresented by low income and less educated black people who would naturally also make up the bulk of the jury.  Or, as Trump would say, the “poorly educated”.

But this was a criminal trial and not an election.  So it wouldn’t be O J who would befriend the poorly educated among black people.  Hell, the fact that he was able to disguise his contempt for them for the duration of his trial was probably a bigger achievement for him than any in his storied football carrier.  No, it would instead be black defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran.

Unlike Trump, Cochran was a powerful and erudite orator in the conventional sense of the word. And he was already a well known and very accomplished lawyer by the time the O J trial came around.  Nevertheless, he too revealed a gift for manufacturing catchy, if contrived, expressions, including, most lethally, his “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line in his closing arguments. 

Cochran referred here to the glove that did not fit O J’s hands when Darden, overruling Clark, made him try on the gloves in the courtroom.  Even though this was in fact the very make of glove he had worn on the night of the murder…and which had been discovered with blood on it by the police.  So what gives?  Well, the glove had possibly endured shrinkage when O J wore it and he was, in addition, wearing latex gloves so as to not leave his fingerprints on it.  And, more importantly, O J was determined to show that the glove did not fit…as per Robert Shapiro’s advice. Whether it appeared to fit or not was all that mattered.

Yes, appearance and perception would come to determine the jury’s reaction to the trial to a disproportionate extent.  The perception that the DNA evidence had somehow been contained, the perception that the glove O J allegedly wore at the crime scene didn’t actually fit him at all and, lastly, the perception that LAPD detective Mark Furhman had planted the glove with O J’s blood on it as part of an elaborate police conspiracy to frame O J for a crime he had not committed.

The police and black people.  This was as relevant a theme then as it was in 2020.  Perhaps even more so as the hurt from the killing of Rodney King and the riots that had ensued was then still fresh on the minds of black people. They did not care whether or if O J was guilty.  To them, it was all but a cruder version of what Clarence Thomas described as a high tech lynching of an uppity black man. 

And to that end, they eagerly embraced the various conspiracy theories that O J’s defence team trotted out.  A scene in the series shows Darden taking Clark along to a pub in a black-dominated area.  And there, upon encountering black men who repeat the police conspiracy theory, she diligently explains to them why a police conspiracy to frame him would have been utterly impossible.  Perhaps out of deference to her position as well as her intellect, her black audience politely listens but when she’s done, she is met with a gentle shake of the head.  Nah, they are holding right onto their fact free world. 

This embrace of a theory that ultimately led to the conclusion that O J was innocent would split opinion neatly down racial lines with a whopping majority of black people believing him to be innocent and a similar majority of white people believing him to be guilty.  That people could access the same facts and reach opposite conclusions alarmed observers then.  That it alarmed them again in 2016 should be, well, alarming. 

Because the glue that held together these flimsy and baseless theories designed to acquit O J come what may was not dissimilar to that which led Trump supporters to whole heartedly embrace fake news.  If it was a white backlash to eight years of Obama that pushed Trump supporters to invent a bubble of alternative facts, it was decades-long discontent and anger against police brutality that similarly drove black people to fight for O J regardless of everything. 

Some of what actually went down in 1995 was perhaps deemed too incendiary by the makers of the series.  One passage from the trial has Cochran looking straight at the jury and saying, “Who then polices the police?  You will police the police.  By your verdict, you’re the ones to send the message.  Nobody else is gonna do it in this society, they don’t have the courage.”  Through impassioned rhetoric that had precious little to do with the trial of a murder that took place in a mostly white neighbourhood, Cochran compelled the jury to ignore the fact-driven argument of the prosecution.  In other words, like Trump, Cochran simply altered the battleground itself to suit the battle he wanted to fight as opposed to the battle his opponents thought they were fighting.

There is another scene from the series, though, that does evoke eerie parallels to Trumpism.  With the prosecution contesting the use of the Fuhrman tape as evidence in the trial, Cochran stirs up protests by black people who take to the streets demanding loudly that the tapes be released.  Sounds like “Stop the steal” to you?  Sure does to me.

Perhaps this assessment sounds harsh to you and I kept asking the same question of myself as I wrote much of the above.  Would I in the shoes of these poor, wounded black people have reacted similarly to the O J trial?  My answer is that I would empathise with someone from my community being led to victory against the police in a case of alleged police brutality even if the specific case wasn’t necessarily unjustified (against the person) keeping in mind the larger narrative of police brutality against my community.  But…a filthy rich murderer, what would he have to do with me? 

Cochran was utterly convinced that acquitting O J as well as publicly airing the story of police brutality would do a lot for black people.  His bete noire was equally convinced that it would do a lot of harm.   The series shows Darden telling Cochran that the verdict isn’t going to change anything and we (black people) are still going to get beaten up. 

Whether he did utter these prophetic words to Cochran I do not know (and could not find any reference for it).  But he was pretty emphatic anyway in his interview with Barbara Walters, saying, “I think that by making this case into a race case and because of the injustice, I think we are going to lose affirmative action.  So I think this case and its verdict has strained race relations in America. I think it’s African Americans in the end who are going to suffer because of all the support we threw behind this man who has never ever done a thing for us.”

California voted against affirmative action in 1996.  And O J’s post acquittal career and life could charitably be described as a downward spiral.  His deeds post acquittal were disgusting enough to get some of the jurors to publicly state that they would have voted guilty in light of what they knew about him.  Well, one could say that at least that modicum of honesty makes them a damn sight better than the stop the steal crowd.  Nevertheless, the seeds of white backlash were sown then and the backlash has continued to grow if not necessarily via a linear progression.There is more, so much more, to write about this most fascinating and yet most disturbing of criminal cases.  I originally intended to call this piece “The most unpackable docu-drama ever”.  I will end by saying that rarely has a murder trial involving one prime suspect (in fact, the sole suspect) been filled with so much context, so much sub-text and had powerful ramifications beyond the immediate outcome of the verdict itself.

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