As my former boss confirmed in my comments section (thanks Meg (-: ), our company was a house divided, becoming more and more so as the OJ trial progressed.
Impacted, as our business was, by the viral nature of this story, we had a lot more down time than any of us cared for. Down time meaning down bonuses. And, with our work areas equipped with televisions, this meant we could watch more of the coverage than the average person could, or should. The office was saturated with OJ. We had OJ for breakfast, had lunch with OJ, and OJ waved us goodbye in the evenings. We watched as OJ made careers for some reporters while teaching some old dogs new tricks. Reporters who were nobodies before the case now had hourly broadcast on various aspects of the case. Greta Van Susteren’s career was catapulted by her legal background and OJ. Dan Abrams’, too.
Even the guy I respected most on Network news, the only reporter of integrity, the last man standing, Ted Koppel, and the greatest program that ever happened to Network news, Nightline, got in on the act. Granted, he did try to find the hard news within the tabloid news and ask the tough questions like: is it possible for OJ to receive a fair trial amid this madness? Should a criminal trial be a form of mass entertainment?
We watched as mainstream media and tabloid media became indistinguishable, merging into a two-headed monster feeding on this story in a frenzy. We watched as pure speculation transformed into news, talking heads became experts, cameras marched (with Judge Ito’s blessing) right into the courtroom and zoomed in.
It was a dark time in American media (not to suggest that the light has returned). When the National Enquirer and The New York Times, FOX and Frontline, Hard Copy and Nightline all cover the same story, have practically the same headlines at the same time, that is the very definition of a dark time. A true media truth and integrity-blackout.
Many of us in the office became authorities on the trial ourselves. Personally, I could have passed the NY State Bar exam by the time the trial ended. There wasn’t a legal maneuver by either side to delay or speed up, to overtly distract or over-emphasize, to persuade or dissuade, to suppress or enter into evidence, to racially-charge (as if it weren’t fully charged already) or racially neutralize (as if that were even possible) able to escape our notice.
I should point out that though our house was divided, it was not divided equally. Nor was it divided along the lines of OJ’s innocence or guilt. Not even along the lines of his “presumed innocence until proven guilty” or “guilty” to be honest. The tenets of American Justice were cast aside. This was a Slam-Dunk, not a Hail Mary.
And, as far as race was concerned…well…
It had gotten to a point where it would have been rhetorical to ask any of my white co-workers what they thought about the case. Most of them had become very vocal about their position. Their disgust was blatant. Where as race had always been a topic to tiptoe around in the era of Political Correctness we were living in, this OJ thing had gone and allowed white people to plod around clumsily saying inflammatory things about a “suspect” who just happened to be black without concern about it being associated with his skin color. It gave my co-workers, it seemed, the daring to trample upon areas they used to avoid even approaching.
There was a sense of desperate righteousness to their aspersions. This OJ thing had provoked something cruel, something primeval, out of them. OJ was an assault on all the things they’d come to believe were good about America. That we had a justice system that would protect them from the likes of him.
And, they almost dared me to take a opposing position. This was something all human beings with any intellect, any sense of morality, of common decency, should agree on, seemed to be their position. Disagreement suggested you were something less than an intelligent life-form, than decent, than moral, than human, than American.
I can’t say for certain that dissent, on my part, wouldn’t have been tolerated. But, it certainly would’ve been unexpected and shocking. In their eyes, I was not the kind of guy who would support a wife-beating animal like OJ Simpson.
Maybe Jamel in Shipping, with his Public Enemy T-shirts, or that messenger with the dreadlocks, Reggie, or that part time editor,Whatshisname? Keith…the one who never takes off his headphones whether you’re talking to him or not- they might. But, not loco…no way. He’s practically one of us. He’s educated, he’s intelligent, he’s upwardly mobile, he’s one of our top salespeople, he’s a credit to his race…not like OJ, and not like those other guys, or the idiots we see on TV praying for OJ’s success and saying all those God-awful ungrateful things about America .
I was in a very lonely place. Feeling isolated by my politics and the unintentional (I hoped) hostility of my colleagues all around me.
One day, I was chatting with one of my co-workers. It was drawing close to the end of the trial. He turned to me with a look on his face I can hardly describe. It was like he just knew how I really felt about this case, despite my never having said it aloud. He just knew I was an undercover brother, a spy in the enemy’s camp. And, that my position was so beyond him that he could not bear to even suspect I was harboring thoughts of OJ’s innocence in my head.
Of course, I wasn’t. I was harboring thoughts much more consequential than that. But, he kind of disgusted me with this display, this suggestion that my humanity was in question if I even remotely doubted Simpson’s guilt.
Who the fuck did he think he was???
So, when he asked, with finality, if I believed, in my heart of hearts, that he was innocent I, pretending to play the devil’s advocate as I was apt to do, said, “Of course he is…come on. Think about it! Who kills with a knife these days? What is this? West Side Story? Maybe some street kids in some under-developed nation…maybe. But, premeditated murder with a knife? He went to Bundy with a knife to kill his ex-wife? Come on…A millionaire? He could afford a gun with a silencer, you know? I mean, you think he’s some ex-Marine or something? He’s a goddamn ex-jock. He’s a B- actor. Then…he disposes of the murder weapon but conveniently leaves his bloody gloves laying around for a dirty cop who hates blacks with money and who marry white women to find…? Come on…”
My co-worker was gutting me with his eyes.
“Relax, I’m just fucking with you…” I said, and laughed. It felt good. “Who knows? I mean, he’s a celebrity. Morally, most of them are about a rung above child molesters.”
Then, one afternoon in October, my boss called the whole sales department into the window-less conference room, where a TV was set up. Management had noticed the tension, so we were all going to watch the verdict together. Me, the only black guy in the room, as I recall. Everyone sitting around the conference table looking very excited. Myself included. I told myself, if he loses, big deal. If he wins, dig deal. Ain’t shit gonna change. I realized later I was just trying to manage my anxiety by eliminating expectations.
I can’t remember everything exactly, the reaction of the others in the room at the moment “not guilty” came from the bailiff’s lips. I think I had one of those experiences that people describe as “out of body.” What I do vaguely remember is jumping up out of my seat and sounding a loud guttural shameless barbaric yawp, which might have sounded like a “Yeah!!!” (but may have had some expletive attached to it) and pumping my fist in the air. Then, after a moment or two (during which I might have danced a jig or something) I realized that I was alone in my celebration. UTTERLY alone! 15 or 20 sets of stunned eyes upon me! Friends and co-workers, my boss and his boss…everyone stupefied at my display.
And, as self-consciousness returned, a little shame set in, just a bit, and I sat back down. Some people were crying, others were in varying degrees of shock and rage. I was trying to contain my spasmodic rapture, dying to get to a phone, or to run to the shipping department and hug up Jamel, Raheem and whatshisname, Keith, or to escape from that office and from the scrutiny of my humiliated colleagues, to get with someone I could share this inexplicable ecstasy with…someone who could appreciate it fully.
…to be continued