O.J. then and now

Over the past month I’ve been rewatching Ezra Edelman’s outstanding 2016 ESPN documentary series O.J.: Made in America. If you’ve never seen it, take this as a recommendation. It’s 7.5 hours but never flags for a minute.

For anyone old enough to remember it, the O.J. Simpson trial (which ran for nearly a year, ending in October 1995) really was the trial of the century. You can’t overstate how big it was. In 1996 I was actually in Los Angeles during the subsequent civil trial and even that was a media circus, though nowhere near as big a deal. I went to the courthouse one day and drew a ticket to get in to watch it, but wasn’t selected.

Revisiting all of this today, I was surprised at how the racial divide foreshadowed what was coming own the pipe in terms of American politics. What I’m referring to is the polarization and rejection of a shared reality. As Jeffrey Toobin puts it in the documentary when describing Johnnie Cochran’s address to the jury, “the heart of the summation was ‘whose side are you on?'” The point being that the jurors, who were mostly Black, were angry at the police and wanted payback not just for Rodney King but a whole history of racial injustice.

This felt very similar to the “jury nullification” of the Trump impeachments. The question wasn’t Trump’s guilt or innocence. The reporting I’ve heard is that there were no Republicans in the Senate who didn’t believe Trump had done everything he’d been accused of. The question was “whose side are you on?” Once you’d chosen your side, the verdict could be taken for granted. There was no need to build a case or present any evidence. The votes were already locked in.

There are other connections too. Like the celebrity angle and the way the media transformed the trial into spectacle and entertainment. It’s become fashionable among political historians to cite Newt Gingrich and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the same year Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, as signaling the beginning of a slide into increased anger and polarization in American politics. Looking back, I think the Simpson trial was representative of the fracturing to come.


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