Saturday, January 28, 2012

OJ and Me

We leaped into the air. Fists pounded desks and high-pitched shrieks pierced my ears. For a split second I felt a sharp electric jolt ripple across my chest. I think I pulled a muscle as I leaped out of my body and senses. Beyond comprehension, time and space. It remains one of the oddest transcendent moments in my life. The entire experience lasted a few seconds. And it all revolved two words: not guilty.

Our teacher, Mr. M, slammed off the TV and -with it- a packed Los Angeles courtroom gasping for air and OJ Simpson flickered to black. Mr. M was red-faced, shaking and  his trademark spittle gathered in white frothy globes on the side of his mouth.  I had never seen a teacher so angry in my entire life. Staring at his hunched and gasping frame, I came back to my senses and spot in the universe. North Miami Beach High School. Basic psychological class October 3, 1995. Fifth period after lunch.

I looked down at my own body. I was standing on my chair. How did I end up on my chair? What was I doing? What were we all doing?

Our collective explosion shocked no one more than us. Some students were contorted into frozen statutes of ecstasy while others had tears in our eyes. Waves of laughter rolled through the classroom. We looked ridiculous. Mistaking our laughter for joy instead of its real response -shock at our spontaneous eruption- Mr. M screamed at us. I have no idea what he was saying. Our laughter drowned out his tirade.

Let me be completely clear: I didn't care about the OJ Simpson trial. I had no investment or interests in him as a person or anyone involved. I avoided stand-up comedians, trial reporters, and Jay Leno's skits that found endless humor in a double murder trial. And few of my friends even talked about OJ, the trial, the surprises and reversals. Even the trial of the century and media maelstrom didn't stand a chance against the narcissism of high school students. This isn't about OJ Simpson. This is about our bizarre occurrence in that tiny high school classroom where, for one moment, a small group of mostly Black students lost their collective minds.

On June 16, 1995 I had nothing better to do with my life than watch one of the most boring NBA finals ever televised. Houston Rockets vs. New York Knicks. Pat Riley was a mythical figure in silk suits and slicked-back black mane. He oozed New York power and murderous charm. I loved Pat Riley, but I hated watching his Knicks team play. They bludgeoned, elbowed, and dragged the game's pace down. I rooted for this Knicks team because I wanted to see Riley win but, at the same time, I hated most of actual players responsible for winning a championship. I digress in this set-up only to explain my ambivalence in watching this free-throw contest posing as an NBA finals.

As I watched Knicks hack another Rockets player, I muted the sound and went to fridge to scavenge. When I came back, there was a split screen with the game on one side and that now infamous White Ford Bronco on the other side. I thought it was another made-for-LA news car chase. I turned up the sound and Tom Brokaw was in mid-sentence. He was hyping up the image of that very slow-moving truck dribbling down the highway.  Breaking news used to be reserved for acts of war, assassination, and natural disasters. This wasn't breaking or news. This was gossipy anticipation of a tragedy. Chopper cameras hovered overhead.

The truck continued creeping down the hallway joined by a convoy of police car. The ticker scrolled breaking news about a car chase in progress. Car chase? This wasn't a car chase.This was a tragic celebrity parade with a two-person float being watched by millions around the world. This was TV spectacle posing as news.

And yet the image was completely riveting because it was so mundane. The white bronco slowly trotting down the parade route was surreal. The car chase didn't have enough chase, which is exactly what made it such a silly and sad site. 

My eyes darted back and forth between basketball and a nation waiting for a sports hero to kill himself. They recounted OJ Simpson's life, his glorious career, his movie acting, his marriage. He was now cowering in the back of a car. Did he have a gun? Apparently he's under a blanket. So sad. Terrible tragedy. So when is he going to do it and please pass the popcorn.

Just out of curiosity I flipped to all the major networks and new channels. One by one they all began switching over to the OJ suicide parade. Commentators piling on, spurious news, alleged suicide notes. There was an argument with his ex-wife and murder victim. There were fights, he was at their children's recital the day before. Did they talk and what did they say? Was it jealousy?

He was, of course, guilty. The narrative, insinuated tone, and direction of the conversation flowed from that premise. At first it didn't effect me much. But I felt something stirring in my mind like a low-frequency buzz. This just didn't feel right and I had no idea why.  It was wrong but very familiar to my mind. The presumption of guilt felt like some essential paradigm that was both fundamentally flawed and thoroughly ingrained.

To complicate the matter, I found OJ's profile to reflect an unsympathetic jock at best and at worst, a nefarious bully and sociopath. My Dad had a signed letter from OJ in his office. In the note he was declining an invitation to speak to a group of students. My Dad kept this snub in his personal files for years, even though I found the tone of the letter dismissive. He wanted nothing to do with Black kids in the inner city, motivational speaking, or being a role model. The letter was a polite door being shut in my Dad's face and he cherished it like a nerd who mistakes a slap by the school cheerleader as foreplay.  OJ had movies, commercials, and mansions to tend.

The suicide parade continued down its mysterious route.  Drivers stopped on the overhead streets and cheered on the Bronco. They held up signs. RUN OJ! The cameras drank in the scene they were trying to paint as a national crisis but that kept getting undercut by rubberneckers, shameless OJ fans, and curiosity seekers. The gravitas of Tom Brokaw's voice eluded these supporting actors and extras.

The split marked a zenith moment in pop culture irony. One side showed the rewards of violence and aggressiveness as Knick players pushed and shoved their opponents into the ground. The other side of the screen showed the tragedy. Both sides of the TV streamed real-time the cheering fans, commercial breaks, and color commentators.

But OJ didn't kill himself in the parade, even though that was the intention of a nation's voyeuristic gaze. The public snuff movie lacked a dramatic conclusion as the star running back slowed to a dead stop. He was arrested and we waited for the next visual: the mugshot.

After the parade, I thought the story would trickle down to the level of People magazine and National Enquirer. I vastly underestimated the savvy intelligence of mass media and overestimated the decorum of national conversation.

The ratings came out. Through the roof. CNN, NBC, everyone. The magazines hit the news stands and Newsweek and Time set records. OJ was a one-man economic recovery plan. Talking heads, pundits, news graphic artists, camera men, photographers, courtroom reporters were snatched up. Criminal lawyers were hired to give their opinion and then, in a meta-media moment, some of the lawyers left the TV screen to join the trial. And it was such a bright, hopeful, and happy double homicide case. Everyone on screen was so beautiful, perky, and well-fed. With every passing day, a new titillation was leaked. The domestic violence in OJ's past, the timeline, Nicole's relation to other men, the hapless waiter, Mexican maids, and mooching house guests.

Somewhere in between darkening Simpson's mugshot and the Dancing Itos on the Tonight Show, that low-level irritation turned into resentment. That summer there was nowhere to turn to without hearing about OJ. Football training camp offered a brief respite. I immersed myself in the weight room and practice field. I used the controlled violence of football to shield myself from the murder case.

When school started that fall, there was an error in my class scheduling. I was an honors student placed in a 'regular' psychology class. When I tried to make the switch to honor psych, the administrators blocked me. Regular classes scared me. Although I loved hanging out with football players and athletes, I did not want to be in a classroom next to them. Honors students heard horror stories of 'normal classes' filled with rioting students and teachers swinging baseball bats.

My imagination went into overdrive as I pictured painted and tattoo'ed cannibals boiling the head of a substitute teacher in a witch's cauldron heated by a fire pit filled with textbooks and course plans. I enjoyed the occasional academic safari where regular students were mixed with the honors for a physical education workshop or school assembly. I got to see what passed for 'normal' education in Miami, shake my head, sigh, and then return to what I saw as the legitimate classroom with high-achievers and PhD trained teachers. Almost as punishment for my arrogance, I was blocked at every turn. Administrators wouldn't budge, couldn't be plied or persuaded.

Our teacher was a lovable burn-out. Balding with a fence of white straw hair around his head, Mr. M was a year away from retirement. He didn't mind telling students that on the first day. Basic psych was a warehouse, or a place to put undesirables, troublemakers, and students locked out of their preferred class. Almost all the students were Black with a few Latinos sprinkled in for diversity. The class called for a small reading list but we had no text books, manuals or workbooks. Mr. M said he was working on getting us our material and his promise felt meaningless. I knew that there would be snow on South Beach before we had our text books. I decided to observe this 'normal' group of students and a teacher counting down his days. Mr. M saw my transcript and knew that I didn't belong here. In his eyes I became his confidant, intellectual equal, someone he could turn to when the class got too rowdy. I just wanted my A+.

Mr. M tried relating to his mostly Black student population. He was Jewish and he noted that Black and Jews had a special relationship in this country. Jazz music, the civil rights movement, liberal politics were our people's link. The Black students looked at him at him like he was crazy before bursting out into laughter as if to say 'look at this old White fool.' I stayed neutral.

Students and teacher settled into mild acceptance after a few days. He would ask us to do as little work as possible and they would negotiate him down from there. Most days Mr. M was happy to oblige us in using the TV as our babysitter. He would play a documentary and then give a short pop quiz on basic psychological terms. In between TV shows he managed to slip a few facts about BF Skinner, baby ducks, and Pavlov's dog.

Things first came to a head over a Holocaust documentary. Mr. M intended on us watching a documentary about Nazi concentration camps. Students moaned, sucked their teeth, and sighed. When he asked if there was a problem he probably wasn't prepared for the response. They were tired of hearing about the Holocaust. They were tired of getting World War II shoved down their throats. Enough with Anne Frank. Enough with the Holocaust.

Mr. M looked over at me as if to say 'can you believe these guys?'  The students were aware that I was an honors student and debate captain. They looked to me to back up their arguments. I maintained my Swiss neutrality. 'M' grew visibly upset and red splotches dotted his face. He simmered.

 'What would you like to see then?'

"Something about Black history. What about our story?"

"Okay, we can watch 'Roots' if you want?"

"Damn! Nevermind!!"

But it was too late. Feelings were hurt. There would be no "Roots" or Holocaust movie. He made us take out our folders while he wrote on the board. As our punishment, he was going to teach. Students moaned and sucked their teeth even louder.

A few days before the OJ verdict, our basic psychology class had a discussion abou race that went something like this. It was, once again, the students vs. Mr. M. The discussion went something like this:

You don't really think he's innocent do you?

Black people get wrongfully convicted all the time.

Yes, but OJ is rich. And look at all the evidence.

Crooked cops do whatever they want. They can plant evidence.

But he fits the profile or an abuser. Don't use your emotions. You have to think.

Just because I don't think what you want me to think doesn't mean I'm not thinking.

But at the end of the day he'll probably be convicted.

Fuck the police. Fuck the judges, fuck this whole system. And fuck this class and school too.

We didn't talk about OJ any more. The only thing everyone agreed on was that he was going to be convicted and the punishment in the media and in the halls of justice would be even more severe for him. A few Black females hissed that the only reason people care about this so much is because it's a White woman. Some others called it as a circus lynch party, and I immediately thought back to Clarence Thomas's 'high-tech lynching' comment. If ever a thing like that existed, then this was certainly it.

On that day after lunch on October 3rd, Mr. M agreed to let us watch the OJ conviction verdict. He told us that he didn't want any yelling or hurt feelings. No anger , no 'fuck this school.' And it seemed as if many officials were bracing for a Rodney King style riot, begging for calm.

Sullen Black faces stared at the screen. It wasn't about OJ. I finally got it. My resentment, their anger wasn't about whether he did it or not. It was a slow seething rage against the arrogance of power. It was an arrogance of having justice always on one side. Black people live under this arrogance every day. This was unquestioned and unmentionable cloud that hung in our classroom and in our young lives. You were a presumed suspect from the start.

Something happened in that internationally televised moment. People paused in lobbies, cafeterias, and classrooms across the country. No more jokes, no more comments, and hypotheticals. The long scythe of justice was slicing through the air and we were all silently waiting. Anticipating the tragedy like we did in June as we watched the White Bronco in OJ's suicide parade.

And then he got away. They had the party ready, the coffin finished and the noose braid was oiled. Cotton candy had been sold, peanuts were boiling. The crowd gathered from around the world to see this Black man suffer, repent, and a blubber. To watch a symbol of power, wealth, and sports get down on his knees and beg for his life. Of course he would still be executed and eternally condemned but the begging just sweetened the voyeuristic pleasure. And then the unexpected happened: that nigger got away. That arrogant, rich, white-woman-loving nigger got away. I had never seen such a thing in my life. No one had.

The surrounding classrooms were silent. The teachers and administrators looked like they had 10 years taken off their lives. Janitors and security guards snickered and smiled 'have a nice day' to their fuming bosses.

The OJ trial was not a victory for Black people. There were no reparations won or rights restored. Black children were no better or worse for the scandal, and our basic psych class did not get our text books then nor ever. The OJ trial was a victory for OJ.

For the rest of us, the OJ Simpson was just another branch grafted on to a poison tree. A tree planted centuries ago and watered by the blood of many. If you are a person of color in America you have tasted the harvest. But for one moment, the bitter fruit was forced into the mouths of all those talking heads and bloviating pundits. And with a shocked look, they had to eat their words.

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