What We Still Haven’t Learned Since O.J.

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On March 16, 1991, two weeks after the tape of Rodney King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police went public, a 15-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins walked into an L.A. market to buy orange juice. As she approached the counter, she put the juice in her backpack with one hand while holding money in the other.

Fuzzy security footage shows how their failed transaction ends: Harlins picks up the orange juice, which has fallen on the floor, and places it on the counter. She turns to walk away. But before she can get three feet she suddenly crumples to the ground, because the shopkeeper has pulled out a shotgun and fired it into her back.

The 15-second clip spread wildly in the media, just as the cell phone videos of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and countless others have in recent months. The Harlins video is cited, along with King’s beating, in ESPN’s new 30 for 30 miniseries O.J.: Made in America as two of the major influences on O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.

Made in America made its way to me through modern-day word of mouth: an enthusiastic text message from my father, who caught it on ESPN when it first aired. Like its true-crime cohorts Serial and The Jinx, Made in America was released to the world piecemeal. But unlike these other programs, ESPN made the full five-part series—which examines how the brutal murders of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman resulted in the most publicized and racially divisive court case of the 20th century—available online shortly after the airing of the second episode. Despite missing the first four episodes, I sat down and watched the last one with my father, curious to see why he’d been planning his night around the 9 p.m. broadcast.

There have already been many specials about the case, including an earlier 30 for 30 film that looked specifically at Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase three days after the bodies of Brown Simpson and Goldman were found. More recently, FX released The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a dramatized anthology series featuring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson and John Travolta as defense attorney Robert Shapiro. From many of these productions comes a common narrative: a probably-guilty Simpson was given a pass at a time in our history when many other black people were not. He played the Race Card and won.

THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (aka THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY), from left: Cuba Gooding Jr. (as O.J. Simpson), Courtney B. Vance (as Johnnie Cochran), 'The Dream Team', (Season 1, ep. 103, aired Feb. 16, 2016). photo: Byron Cohen / ©FX / Courtesy: Everett Collection
Cuba Gooding Jr. (left, as O.J. Simpson) and Courtney B. Vance (as attorney Johnnie Cochran) in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Courtesy: Everett Collection

To dive deeper into this familiar story, director and producer Ezra Edelman, who won a Peabody Award for his HBO documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010), dug up nearly every newspaper, photograph and interview available on the Simpson case. He also conducted fresh interviews with members of the defense and the prosecution, including with the racism-spewing ex-LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, whose role in clenching Simpson’s not-guilty verdict was second only to the ill-fitting black glove. Also featured are Simpson’s childhood friends, one of whom claims, memorably, that his buddy had been “seduced by white society” in his rise to fame.

The documentary’s zigzagging narrative, which covers at least 70 years of American history, renders the series downright addicting, and I couldn’t stop watching once I’d begun. Edelman seduced me in the same way that Simpson himself was seduced: tempting me and other viewers with a promise that there is something on the other side.

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California Army National Guardsmen patrol the streets of Los Angeles during the 1992 L.A. riots.

What sits on the other side is terrifying. Made in America indicts not just Simpson’s character, but our own—how we’ve lived, what we’ve valued, what has changed. And a lot hasn’t. From the 1965 Watts riots, to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, to the various uprisings and unrests that have occurred throughout America these last few years, it’s obvious a vast communication divide still exists between blacks and whites—one so big that the election of a black president could not even overcome it.

You don’t need to see recorded footage of the rest of Latasha Harlins’s story to predict how it ends. It’s all too familiar. The shopkeeper, Sun Ja Du, was charged with voluntary manslaughter eight months after she shot Harlins, but despite a glut of proof that Harlins hadn’t been trying to steal the orange juice­—and, in fact, was walking away when she was shot—Du received no prison time.

A few months later, the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating were also acquitted.

For many, Simpson’s 1995 not-guilty verdict was symbolic. He didn’t just “get away with murder”; it was payment for a debt that had been owed for a very long time in Los Angeles and all over the country. Simpson’s exoneration—so the documentary suggests—was payback for Harlins, King and the countless other black victims who have been denied justice throughout American history.

It is a well-worn dictum that history repeats itself. Today, black citizens are being killed on camera in their cars and in stores and on streets, and still nothing is happening. Until these racial biases—very much made in America—are indicted, not just in looped video memes and outraged tweets but formally, by our legal system, there will sadly always be the urge for payback. Something must change in the way we see each other, before another O.J. comes along.

 

Photos: Everett Collection