NB: A recent CNN opinion piece by Dorothy A. Brown entitled “Why Holder Remark Made White People Mad” has a lot to say that is right in line with what I say here.
You know, 20 years is a long time, and yet not so long…
Late in the evening of Friday June 17, 1994, I was in the lobby of The Founder’s Inn in Virginia Beach, VA watching the news on a television there while waiting for my (first) wife to finish up her work for the evening at the hotel’s bookstore and gift shop.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the conservative Christian universe, The Founder’s Inn is on the campus of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the headquarters for Pat Robertson’s television ministry. I had only recently been hired there, to manage a software development department in their IT Division.
As I stood there, up on the screen came a “news alert” followed by a live telecast via helicopter of the famous “slow motion chase” by police down Interstate 405 in Los Angeles of a white Ford Bronco carrying O. J. Simpson, who was sitting in the back seat of the vehicle, pointing a gun at his own head. At the time, he was the prime suspect in the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Standing next to me watching that broadcast was a gentleman I barely knew, but whom I heard a great deal about and admired: Ben Kinchlow, a prominent Black evangelist and activist, and (at the time) co-host of Pat Robertson’s daily “700 Club” broadcast.
We stood side by side, wordlessly watching the spectacle unfolding before us for around 20 minutes before we both went our separate ways.
The irony of the moment struck me as I stood there, and is one I still think of from time to time even now, 20 years later: There I was, a theologically progressive Christian working for a conservative Christian organization, standing next to a man who had once been a black nationalist, heavily influenced by Malcom X; then ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and who was founder of an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged African American kids and a man who for many years had been a prominent member of CBN’s leadership.
I stood there, disgusted by the whole situation: a murder overhyped by the media, a suspect, and now a strange slow motion car chase. And, the whole time, I was wondering what Ben was thinking and feeling about it as we stood next to each other, watching that bizarre live television event together. I was afraid to discuss it with him right then in large part because I did not know how to begin such a conversation.
In the years since, many of my friends of color are still convinced that OJ’s subsequent acquittal (in that famous overhyped and media-heavy trial in Los Angeles) was a good decision by that jury. On the other hand, most of my white friends of disagree: saying that OJ was obviously guilty, and should have been convicted.
Both are correct.
You see, even though it has been 50 years since the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, the goal of equality for all is more fiction than fact, despite the progress that has been made, and which is now eroding. In particular, the perception (and, in most places here in the USA, the reality) is that being a person of color accused of any crime almost guarantees a conviction. And, usually – even if they really were guilty of something, they are charged for a more severe crime than a European American person would be charged-for for the same incident. Finally, the sentence they receive will typically be more severe than European Americans receive for the same charge. So, any black man who beats a serious charge is a big deal – a rare event, if not unheard of.
So, when I hear one of my black brethren says that OJ was not guilty – I understand: the US’s legal system does not have a good track record when it comes to providing true justice for non-Europeans. Therefore, when a person of African descent is found to be not guilty, how could it be otherwise? From this perspective, it goes against reason that an African American would ever go free if he (or she) actually committed a crime, especially murder. I might also point out that to claim that OJ’s verdict was “unjust” presumes that the system is, in fact, “just” for all Americans. It is not. Therefore, for our African brethren to say that OJ truly is innocent is just as defensible and valid a claim as as – say – a white man saying that George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Travyon Martin was just, or perhaps we should consider the hundreds if not thousands whites who were not convicted by state and local authorities for lynchings and other terrorist acts against blacks, in places like Cicero, IL in 1951, Birmingham in 1963, or the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991…
You could also look at it from another perspective – which is that maybe OJ was guilty, but is it wrong to refuse to contest the jury’s decision after centuries of unjust judgments and punishments against all other people of color? Can we insist on justice in one specific instance while ignoring the massive injustices of the past?
From a white man’s perspective, do I think OJ was guilty? I think it likely, and I am certain that Nicole’s marriage to him not only far from ideal, but that she was subject to domestic abuse from him; but I am not absolutely certain of his guilt for her murder, even though it seems extremely likely. From what I’ve seen of him in the mass media, I think he is in many ways a product of that sense of entitlement bred by his status as a football star, a sense of entitlement also tinged by a lifetime of bigotry and injustice against him and those close to him – all because of the color of his skin. And, I should add, saying that I understand where his violence comes from is not the same as saying I excuse it, far from it. However, it does help me better understand where he’s coming from, and helps me have what I hope is a more informed and balanced view with regards to these events of 20 years ago and subsequently.
But, to emphasize what I already said: to focus on this one man’s guilt misses the significance of his acquittal, and assumes that we can insist that justice be served in the way we feel it should be served when we notice it; and yet be blind and therefore silent to the multitude of injustices occurring all the time for others all around us.
We, that is those of us who are of European descent with the law on our side, need to understand that it is problematic to insist on guilt in the specific instance of OJ’s crime (if indeed he really did what many think he did, including me) unless we’re willing to acknowledge, and somehow offer adequate redress for, the untold numbers of men and women and even children who have unjustly suffered under the same system of justice that – remarkably – set OJ free. Among other things, it is a system that allows 1 in 9 black children have to an incarcerated parent as compared to 1 in 57 White Children. And, a system that upholds a society where it is still more likely to hire a white man who has been to prison than a black man.
Unless we want our hypocrisy to be revealed to all, I don’t see how we can claim we want justice in the case of Nicole Brown Simpson without committing ourselves to reforming such a system when it is the source of so many other miscarriages of justice in the past for so many people of color; especially since those injustices have continued, if not increased in scope and scale, in the 20 years since her death. …Let alone righting those wrongs.
Consider the figure of Lady Justice, often seen gracing courtrooms, and the friezes or foyers of courthouses: a blindfolded figure holding a scale in her right hand and a sword in her left. The blindfold is symbolic of the need for objectivity in the Law. The scale is symbolic of the need to weigh the merits of a case’s support and opposition; and the sword symbolizes the power of Reason and Justice, which may be wielded either for or against any party. (I also suspect that Justice is a female because women are seen as more community oriented and better at communication and compromise than are men.)
And, it is balance that concerns me here. By insisting on O.J.’s guilt while remaining blind to the numerous injustices inflicted on others by the justice system, are we being objective? Are we (as a society) balanced in our application of the Law? And, is the intended symbolicism of the sword: that justice can be wielded against either party, actually true in our current legal system?
OJ’s acquittal in the Nicole Brown Murder trial means that it is possible for a Black man to have a fair chance of acquittal in a justice system that heavily favors the wealthy and the white. (On the other hand, he was judged innocent, at least in part, because he was wealthy and could afford the best possible legal representation.)
So, when remembering this famous murder and the events leading up to OJ’s acquittal 20 years ago, ask not whether justice was served in the case of OJ, or in the case of Nicole Brown Simpson and her family, or in the case of Ronald Goldman and his family. Ask instead whether a 222 percent increase in the incarceration rate since 1980 is just. Ask instead whether the over-representation of persons of color in prison is just, especially given that rates of drug abuse and violent crime among whites and nonwhites are not nearly as out of balance as the relative rates of incarceration for each race would indicate. Ask whether you’d prefer that a person be judged based on their innocence, or on their race – or wealth.
What was Ben Kinchlow thinking that night, as he stood next to me? I still don’t know. But, I have reached out and asked for him to comment on this article, which I will post on this blog should he choose to respond. It is Ben’s voice we should to hear, not my own speaking in his place: if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years, it is that justice begins with ensuring that all voices can be heard, regardless of race, status, or wealth. And, our votes, our voices and our labor make a difference; so, the task of ensuring that others are heard begins with us – it is not someone else’s responsibility.
Despite the significant differences between our theologies and our understanding of the nature of God, Rev. Kinchlow and I have something in common: our faith drives us to constantly seek to empower those whose voices are not being heard in the halls of justice and power in our society. Likewise, we all – regardless of race or status – have the joint responsibility to ensure that all who come before Lady Justice will be heard with objectivity and reason, and that those who appear before her can expect the outcome will not be prejudiced in favor of either party, no matter who they are.
I am silent no more.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)