By Francis White
In case you haven’t heard the new OJ Simpson TV movie series premieres tonight, February 2, 2016 on the FX network. Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News wrote a pretty good piece about it here. This got me to thinking about the 1990’s and what I was doing during some key events of this period of American history.
To me four major events define the 1990’s America and to a lesser or greater degree (depending on one’s point of view) shaped the world for later things to come. These four events are;
1. The rise of conscious hip hop
2. The Gulf War starting with the invasion of Kuwait (1990).
3. The beating of Rodney King and acquittal of the police officers involved/ LA Riots (1992).
4. The “trial of the century” also known as the OJ Simpson trial (1994-1995).
The music we were listening to was different in the 1990’s when I was coming up. And, that’s not to say that it was better than what kids are listening to now, because today’s music (especially the production) is futuristic and very advanced. It’s just that the content was different. People were more politically aware and this influenced the music that the people at that time were creating. You had artists like Brand Nubian, GangStarr, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, YZ, The Boogie Monsters, Big Daddy Kane and there is a long list of others. You would listen to a record and actually learn something. Listening to the music and watching the videos, I would learn about the “Asiatic black man” the nappy headed Buddha, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and other black African American historical figures/events that they wouldn’t teach us about in history or social studies class. Because of this consciousness and self awareness in the content of the music, the hip hop community at that time reacted faster to events outside of music that affect the black community and America as a whole.
The invasion of the oil rich nation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 led to the Gulf War. And, this is the precursor to all the wars that we see happening in the Middle East today. Some might argue that the creation of the Israeli state in the 1940’s was the catalyst for unrest in this part of the world or even the events of Sir Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War. The problem with most wars is that the people on the bottom who are used as chess pieces are never really told by their leaders what the war is really about until years later when a lot of people are already dead. As in the case with most wars these were and are about money. I was in the 8th grade and sitting in social studies class when the teacher announced what had happened when then US president Bill Clinton gave the order for American troops to become involved. At this point Iraq (led by Sodom Hussein)had already invaded and were occupying the much smaller nation of Kuwait presumably as a tactical advantage point in their battle against other ethic tribes in that region, which included Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia are allies. This is probably because western nations are the largest consumers of oil in the world with the US military being the largest consumer of oil and gas in the world. The teacher rolled out the world map that sat atop the chalk board and began showing us where these countries were located and how close they were to each other.
The beating of Rodney King was so prolific because it was a savage and animalistic police brutality beating of an unarmed black man that was caught on tape (indisputable proof of wrongdoing by the Los Angeles cops) that was as clear as day, but the cops that did it still got off. Remember that this was not the smart phone era, but you could go get a video camera from K Mart for a few hundred bucks and get busy with that. In this case there was a motorist who happened to see what was going down, had a video cam, stopped, and started filming. They must’ve played that tape billions of times in the media when this was happening, but yet a “jury of their peers” found no wrong doing in what they did. This ignited the LA Riots which is one of the most incredible incidents that I have seen in my lifetime. To me this is one of the greatest riots that this country has ever seen since the time of the 1960’s. There were many people especially people of color who thought that because there was a tape that clearly showed that about 6 cops were repeatedly beating King nearly to a pulp as he was already restrained on the ground, had no weapons and was not a threat to them, these police officers were definitely going to jail or would be punished. This didn’t happen. Once again I was in school when the acquittal of these cops was announced. That’s when all hell broke loose.
In school there were many classmates of mine including myself who couldn’t believe it? We had heard from some of our teachers about the decision and that there was some rioting going on in LA and some other major cities. It wasn’t until I got home and saw the news reports that I got a better picture of what was going down. There was demonstrations and rioting happening around the country but LA is where the most dramatic and violent rioting was taking place. I mean this riot had it all burnings, beatings, looting, destruction of property, you name it. As it turns out this lasted for about a week until the National Guard came in and during this time Rodney King famously got on TV saying “can’t we all just get along” in an effort to calm down the violence.
I look at the LA Riots of the 1992 in contrast with this new Black Lives Matter movement. The LA Riots just happened. And, when it hit, it hit hard and in a way the social engineers didn’t expect it to. As they say “the revolution will be televised” and this was raw, hard revolution in its purest form, a form not seen in this country up until that point for a generation or two. It happened because a lot of blacks reacted in mass. Black people in LA and around the country instantly got pissed off at this decision and at a system that basically said in a very public way “its ok for white cops to beat unarmed black guys for sport because they are not human and get away with it.” They had been sold the concept that we have civil rights but then this happens. There was a tape for God’s sake, but apparently just us was served.
The sheer ferocity of the riots and its disruptiveness to the LA economy and lifestyle caused the system to go back and reverse their acquittals of the police officers involved in the beating and even agreeing to give Rodney King a nice financial settlement to bring the city and country back to normal. This riot scarred the s*** out of white upper class America and the system has taken precautions in any case that has come up ever since to ensure that things are kept under control in the country, that business is not disrupted too much in the case of a potentially racially charged event.
In 1994-1995 the OJ Simpson murder situation and trial was one of those things that showed the real America. It highlighted the racial divide in this country like the big yellow lines separating lanes on a highway. America in historical terms is not that far removed from the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and American apartheid period. Even with some advances in racial justice, there still remains much institutionalized, coded, and hidden racism. This case exemplified this fact like nothing else I have witnessed in my life.
You can Google it, but OJ Simpson a former NFL star running back (who at one point played for the Buffalo Bills) was at this time (1994-1995) retired from playing football and has been doing other things like sports commentating, starring in movies, and doing whatever else it is that celebrities do to make money. He was accused of the murder of his ex-wife (who is white) and her boyfriend (who is white). Everyone who was alive during that time has a “what was I doing when they were chasing OJ” story. OJ Simpson at the time used to sometimes drive a friend's early 1990’s White Ford Bronco truck (this truck is now known as the OJ truck). He was famously filmed on a California freeway by news cameras driving this truck and being chased by LA cops. They were after him when it was announced that he was a suspect in his ex-wife’s death. This chase continued until he eventually turned himself in. I was watching I think game 5 of the NBA Finals that year between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. My game was interrupted with this car chase.
The murder he was accused of and the investigation surrounding it happened in 1994, but the trial lasted for about a year. When the OJ thing hit I don’t think anybody knew how big it was going to be and the deep racial implications it was going to have in this country. Court TV came into prominence during the OJ trial because almost everybody in America had their eyes glued to Court TV’s daily coverage of the trial which was live on national television. Even my stepfather, with his punk ass religiously watched the coverage.
As many black comedians have joked, this trial was like a sports match or like the racial draft skit from Chappelle’s Show where the blacks and the whites are each rooting for their team to win by drafting the right players to their racial teams. Black people fresh off of Rodney King and the LA Riots a few years earlier were like “not again, and they got OJ? Oh we better win this one in court or we’ll really burn this country down.” White people were like “We got you out the hood, gave you some money, gave you all this privilege and this white woman and this is how you repay us?” It sounds comical but this is basically how it played out with people still feeling a certain way until this very day. About 4 years ago (this is around 15 years after the verdict) I remember a friend of mine who is black and I were walking into an event and somehow we were talking about OJ. I joked and expressed something like “white people don’t all express the same opinion about the OJ thing, look at this group (of 4 white people) here” and I said something to them like “OJ, did he do it?” Boy, were they passionate about his guilt.
Just because you can’t physically see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. You can’t see the wind, but it’s there. You can’t readily see electric current, but it’s there. These things make their presence known when certain conditions exist. You can see the wind when it has enough power to move a pile of leaves or even a grown person. You can see electricity when there is a break in the circuit and the current arcs or during a thunder storm. The true predicament and issues around race (which have manifested itself into class) in this country sometimes shows itself when certain conditions exist. The OJ Simpson trial was such a condition. You had many black folks who supported OJ heavily throughout the trial and thought this was going to be their moment of redemption and glory when in actuality as Pergament notes in his article OJ really didn’t see himself as being black, having any loyalty to black people, or having lent his voice to any black social movements. It is alleged that Johnnie Cochran (OJ’s famous defense lawyer) had to have pictures of black people placed in OJ’s home before a jury visit there. To many whites it reinforced the image of what blacks (in this case a black man) have been promoted as in America. If they weren’t playing basketball or football, at best they’d be a manager at Wal-Mart. And, regardless if they have some money or class status they are criminals, they rob, steal, murder, rape and are wife beaters.
Like I said, when I heard that this OJ series was coming out, I couldn’t help but take a trip down memory lane. I’m hoping that this 1990’s background helps some of you who were too young to remember or who weren’t around during that time when you watch the series.
Posted on Tue, February 2, 2016
by Francis White