Sunday, July 10, 2016

Toxic times

In this season of oh-so-Amerikkan grief and violence, I keep running across internet writers who ask: is this like 1968? No, it isn't. Both the violence and our country's inability to understand what was breaking apart and what was being born were far greater then. I remember.

But I've seen only one internet-era writer (there are certainly others) discuss another comparison.

... This isn’t 1992, when another case of police brutality sparked one of the worst conflagrations ever to strike an American city.

Jamelle Bouie, Slate

He's referring to the filmed beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department and the subsequent acquittal of the cops caught on the tape banging away on the prostrate motorist's body. This too was no 1968, but in addition to the raging fires in black LA, there were righteous disturbances in many other cities including San Francisco. I know -- I was out in that one; it was a fine multi-cultural uprising without serious damage except to a few stores.

Over this last Fourth of July weekend, I streamed all 7.5 hours of O.J.: Made In America. The ESPN documentary is worth the time, especially the first episode which explores how a star football player from the projects on San Francisco's Potrero Hill became the celebrity without "race" -- just O.J. -- in a city where the police department was at war against its large African American population.

Somehow I missed most of the subsequent "O.J." part of the story at the time. I mean, the guy was a great runner on two NFL teams that I followed, the Bills and the 49ers. But once he retired and became a "sideline bimbo" (an on-field reporter where too often looks matter), I forgot about him. I've never been able to comprehend the appeal of celebrities, people who are just famous for being famous, which is what he matured into. So I missed the famous chase of the white Bronco carrying O.J. on the freeways. I didn't watch a minute of the nearly year long trial though I must have caught rumors that one of the police witnesses was impeached as an out and out racist. And, though I assumed O.J. killed his wife and her friend, I was not surprised or (properly as I think now) distressed by his acquittal. I just assumed an LA jury made mostly of Black women would seize the chance take a whack at the LAPD.

The documentary makes all this history, and more, horrifyingly immediate. Intentionally slow, it is very well done. About my only substantive criticism is that they fail to thoroughly explore what an offensive location O.J. chose to put himself in by playing at the University of Southern California. In those days, in the heart of Black LA, that wasn't an educational institution; USC was a private four-year frat party for entitled, mediocre, white products of the upper crust. (Not so much so today; it is a different time.) If O.J. had gone to UCLA, he might not have gotten over the same way -- or perhaps he would have. Who knows?

Nobody won in this story. And we're still inside it, as well as beyond it.

2 comments:

Susan Leone Starr said...

Lots to remember for me too--thanks. I am hoping it is cynicism that makes you say the oj jury ignored its charge totally, and that you believe all juries are working their own agenda. Otherwise I have a problem with the perspective that this particular jury was more self-centered -- not to mention unified -- than most.

janinsanfran said...

Susan: interviews with two of the jurors bluntly state that this was what they did. Other jurors not interviewed/recorded might have said differently, but it is true they returned a verdict within hours -- certain from the first moment that 1) they wanted to go home from sequester and 2) they knew where right lay for them in the OJ story.

I do believe all juries should work their own agenda and many do surprisingly -- I think of the Zacarias Moussaoui jury which chose not to give the guy the death penalty for participation in the 9/11 plot.

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