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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Freedland

The OJ Simpson trial was sensational – and a portent of the strife-torn America we see today

OJ Simpson (centre) and his defence attorneys react after the not guilty verdict is announced in his murder trial, on 3 October 1995
OJ Simpson (centre) and his defence attorneys react after the not guilty verdict is announced in his murder trial, on 3 October 1995. Photograph: Reuters

It wasn’t the Kennedy assassination, but I remember exactly where I was on 3 October 1995 when a Los Angeles jury delivered its verdict in the OJ Simpson trial. A novice US correspondent for this newspaper, I was hunched over a primitive laptop, ready to press send on the piece that I had already drafted, confidently explaining to UK readers why the jurors had convicted an American sporting legend of double murder and the likely impact of their decision. The button I had to press was “delete”.

The adrenaline-fuelled hour as I scrambled to write an entirely new commentary on the “shock acquittal” was repeated in newsrooms across the US and around the world. As it turned out, the verdict was not a shock to everyone – but we’ll get to that.

Looking back on it now, 30 years on, and after Simpson’s death on Wednesday, I’m reminded how very 1990s the whole thing was. But it was not only a story of its time: it was also a harbinger of much that was to follow, right up to the current moment.

Start with the oddness of that exceptional decade. We didn’t realise it then, but the 1990s were a kind of blessed hiatus, a pause between the cold war that had ended and the “war on terror” yet to begin. Those years were a quiet coda to what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the short 20th century, the period that began with the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 and ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Of course, the world didn’t stop in that period – there was murderous bloodshed in the Balkans and Rwanda – but in much of the west especially, the 1990s were marked by an absence of existential dread and geopolitical gloom. If it felt like a holiday from history, confirmation came in the fact that, for an entire year, the story that dominated US and global attention was a celebrity trial – a celebrity who, it should be stressed, many non-Americans had, initially at least, barely heard of. It was as if we had nothing graver to worry about.

Many of the assumptions and attitudes were of their time, too. Recall that Simpson had a documented record of domestic violence – and yet that had not led to the cancellation of his various advertising deals or his role as spokesperson and “motivational speaker” for Hertz rental cars. Guardian archivists have dug out an article of mine from June 1994, which opens with a declaration that the Simpson case had shone a light on “one of America’s least discussed but most common crimes: that of wife battering”. Not the language we would use now, but a useful reminder of the silence, even indulgence, that then surrounded domestic abuse. In that same period, I covered the trial of Lorena Bobbitt, who was charged with assault after she severed her husband’s penis: that story also went global, but was largely treated as black comedy, even though Bobbitt had been the victim of sustained abuse and rape by her husband.

All this points to the way in which the Simpson case anticipated so much of what was to follow. The LA police admitted that they had been called out eight times to Nicole Brown Simpson’s home, after reports of violence and screams. It was the ninth time when they found her cowering in bushes, with a split lip, swellings, bruises, and red marks and fingerprints on her neck – suggesting she had been choked – and when she begged them to take in her husband, saying she feared for her life. Only then did they finally arrest OJ Simpson. The revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and others exposed by the #MeToo movement would not emerge for many years, but the evidence that a blind eye is routinely turned to rich and famous men who abuse women was already on display, rarely more clearly than in the case of OJ Simpson.

Of course, race was central to the trial. Everyone remembers the standout line – the defence attorney Johnnie Cochran’s instruction, regarding the glove used by the murderer: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But his closing argument was critical. He depicted the prosecution of Simpson as just the latest assault on Black Americans by a white system that couldn’t bear to see a Black man rise and succeed. Cochran invoked Martin Luther King, the struggles of the American south and centuries of prejudice, telling the jury – nine of whom were Black – that this was their chance to take a stand.

In this effort, he was helped by a prosecution that relied on a police department riddled with racism. One detective denied he ever used the N-word – until a recording proved him a perjurer as well as a bigot. The defence was able to argue that reliance on such a source, as well as proof that evidence had been tampered with, fatally tainted the entire prosecution case. To many Black Americans, even those who privately thought Simpson guilty, that seemed obvious – which is why so few were surprised by the verdict. For them, it was hardly news that countless US police officers were aggressively racist. They had seen as much in the LAPD beating of Rodney King a few years earlier. In other words, all the rage that erupted into the Black Lives Matter movement after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 was building and there to see, a quarter century earlier.

You could say the same about so much we think of as new, whether it is identity politics or post-truth. Even back then it was clear that what you believed depended on the group to which you belonged – white Americans were unshakably convinced that Simpson had killed his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman – long before people would speak of tribal epistemology or filter bubbles. People were in their silos then too. I wrote one story about a row that blew up among the jurors midway through the trial. Quarantined and prevented from watching live TV, they had to make do with a nightly batch of videotapes. One evening they couldn’t agree on what to watch: the white jurors wanted one show – I think it was the hospital drama ER – the Black jurors another. Hardly a surprise in a country where, according to the TV ratings stats of the time, the top 10 shows watched by white Americans and the equivalent list for Black viewers did not have a single programme in common.

It’s true that there was no social media then. Those keen to express themselves had to share their opinions via merch: you could buy a T-shirt with OJ’s face and the slogan Let the Juice Loose. True too that rolling news was novel – no Fox, no MSNBC, just CNN – but the contours of our current media landscape were beginning to take shape. Indeed, that was partly a result of the Simpson trial, which revealed an appetite for non-stop coverage.

Above all, we learned a curious fact about the US – one demonstrated again by Black Lives Matter. That even when the country shows its ugliest side, the rest of the world cannot look away. It is the strange soft power of America: even in its dysfunction, it is so often the stage where the world’s dramas are played out. That was true 30 years ago, and it is true now.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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