For a tingling instant, the city stopped--its freeways nearly empty, sidewalks clear, the day's business put on hold as people gathered silently before their televisions.
Then out came all the emotions generated during a trial that mesmerized the world, a high-voltage discharge of jubilation and outrage, relief and sorrow. No urban violence accompanied Tuesday's not guilty verdicts in the O.J. Simpson trial, but there were plenty of screams, songs, raised fists and tears.
In hair salons and coffee shops, hotel lobbies and living rooms, hundreds of thousands celebrated while others fumed and lashed out. There were spontaneous loud cheers for the movie star and former football hero--the unwitting symbol of black America--now set free. And there were angry denouncements of a justice system that came up empty, a climax that leaves two deaths unexplained and a killer--somewhere--on the loose.
Sense of Cynicism
It was a day of stunning contrasts, most of them shaped by the same entrenched racial issues that have bedeviled Los Angeles for so long--issues that steadily gained prominence during each passing week of the trial, overshadowing many other elements of the case. A heavy sense of cynicism invaded even the thoughts of some who were glad to see Simpson go home.
"That's how it should be 'cause white folks been doing stuff to black folks for all these years," said Andrew Brown, 21, a student at L.A. Southwest College, a predominantly black and Latino campus in South-Central Los Angeles.
"I don't care if he did it or not," Brown said. "There's been a lot of injustices done to the black community. So what if he did it and got away with it? Hey, that's life. He had the money to get the good lawyers."
Benny Davis, 54, a clothing store owner at Florence Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, had much the same reaction, saying he has had friends framed by the system.
"Yeah, he did it," Davis said of Simpson and the murders. "He did it and got away clean. It's about time a brother got away with something around here."
In many white communities, there were similar levels of cynicism, but usually far less sympathy for Simpson. At Corbin Bowl in Tarzana, the noise of crashing pins quieted to only the hum of machinery and air conditioning as the verdicts were read. A disgusted Lois Scherer of Encino harked back to the famed slow-speed freeway chase and said she wished that Simpson, allegedly gun in hand, had ended the drama then.
"I'm sorry that a year ago June 17 he didn't just go ahead and kill himself," Scherer said. "It would have saved us all a lot of money. This is just sick. I'm embarrassed to be from Los Angeles."
At Residuals bar in Studio City, an actors' hangout festooned with a plastic dummy of Simpson used in the "Naked Gun" movies, producer Cal Brady said he was nauseated.
"The last time I was this shocked by a verdict and thought it was this wrong was the original Rodney King decision," he said. "What's going on in this town . . . is that we're using our legal system as a manifestation of our racism--and it wrecks [that] legal system."
A crowd of early morning drinkers convened at Hennessey's, a Laguna Beach watering hole where O.J. and Nicole used to go for dinner. A pre-verdict pool was running 75% in favor of conviction.
"The prosecution blew the case," said band manager John Hughes, 34, just one of many patrons who voiced anger and disgust.
There were segments of the populace that believed steadfastly in Simpson's innocence; those men and women rejoiced over his hard-won freedom.
At the Jolly Jug restaurant in El Monte, where cooks emerged from the kitchen to watch the verdicts alongside customers having breakfast, there were whoops of excitement.
"I'm ecstatic," said Ken Bonner, 32, a car salesman. "The defense proved that a lot of sinister things went on."
At the headquarters of Danny Bakewell's Brotherhood Crusade in South-Central, there was substantial support for the theory that key evidence against Simpson was planted by former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman and possibly others. About 50 African American community leaders cheered, cried and hugged one another after hearing the verdicts.
"It's a justice system that for a change has worked," said Conrad Mohammed, minister for the Nation of Islam Mosque 27 of Los Angeles. "The jury believed that that racist character [Fuhrman] laid that evidence."
Silence fell as the Rev. T. Larry Kirkland of the Brookings AME Church in Los Angeles offered a prayer of thanks, saying, "We thank you for this day of victory. We thank you for justice. The people have won. We won."
But in some quarters, sentiments for Simpson ran counter to the lingering uncertainties about who committed the crimes.
In a hushed, high-ceiling room of the Gospel Memorial Church in Long Beach, five black ministers were forced to deal with those emotions. When the acquittals were read, they leaped to their feet and slapped hands in high fives; and yet their joy came with misgivings, too.
As the camera panned the courtroom and found Kim Goldman, the sister of murder victim Ronald L. Goldman, weeping in anguish, one of the ministers shook his head and repeated, over and over, "It's hard, it's hard."
"The only thing the verdict resolved is how an affluent black man did not get the justice a normal black man would get," said another in the group, the Rev. Richard Harris of the Golgotha Trinity Baptist Church in Long Beach. While Harris attributed the acquittals to Fuhrman's tainted testimony, the five men of the cloth agreed that they saw moral good in a verdict that went the way of a black man.
"This trial rejects racism," said the Rev. Garon Harden, pastor of the Greater Open Door Church of God and Christ. "It's sending a message that we won't tolerate it any longer."
Opinion polls taken during the trial showed that blacks were far more likely than whites to believe in Simpson's innocence, but everywhere there were exceptions and unexpected reactions. At Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue, one 46-year-old African American woman, who asked not to be identified by name, said: "He's guilty. He's guilty.
"I hope he steps off a curb and gets hit by a car."
Meanwhile, at Florence and Normandie avenues, a flash point of the 1992 riots, four young men reacted to the verdicts by spraying graffiti on the side of Tom's Liquor. In black paint, their cryptic message read: "O.J. you owe the gangster of Florence and Normandie your life."
Only minutes later, the four youths were intercepted while driving away by a convoy of police units. They were ordered out of a car and down on a sidewalk, where they were handcuffed before being hauled away. A crowd began to form, but after several minutes the crowd and sudden tension began to dissipate, even while several onlookers expressed anger at the police.
"You going to arrest people for graffiti?" said a man who goes by the single name Kakawana, and who owns a nearby carwash. "I don't give a damn about O.J.," he said, "because he's going to go back to them white folks anyway. It's the fact that this whole case has opened up the Pandora's box about the Police Department and what they've been doing here that matters."
Throughout much of the black community, there had been fears that the verdicts might lead to more violence, the way the Rodney G. King trial touched off days of looting and fires three years ago.
A Riot on Paper
At the Magic Shears barbershop on Crenshaw Boulevard, owner Mario Guillmeno felt so sure that Simpson would be found guilty that he prepared a black, red and green flag intended to show that his shop was black-owned. Shortly before the verdicts were read, he shouted over his buzzing hair clippers to order an employee to put it out.
"If there's trouble," he said, "we're prepared."
Moments later, Guillmeno shut off his clippers and there was absolute silence in the shop as all eyes focused on two TV sets attached to the wall. The decision brought a collective gasp and then high-pitched yelps of delight.
"They didn't go for any of it!" one patron shouted.
"Look at him, he's a free man," said Wilmer B. Dixie, a microcomputer consultant from South-Central, who was in for a haircut.
As the small assembly cheered, an employee folded up the black flag and returned it to the back room.
In the Crenshaw district, a man who identified himself as "Morg" composed an impromptu rap song to celebrate Simpson's freedom: "Just got de word dat dey let da Juice loose. I knew da Klan was ready with da swinging noose. . . . Hip hop hooray, let's raise up for O.J., and to the judge and jury I'd like to say, 'Justice so there is peace.' "
"This time," said Ed Jones Jr., a security guard at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw shopping mall, "the riot was done on paper."
To much of the black community, Simpson was seen as a beloved idol who could not possibly have committed such a crime. Blacks such as Jim Fantroy, 42, a real estate investor from Long Beach, saw him as the victim of a conspiracy.
"Twenty years from now we'll find out what happened," Fantroy said over breakfast in the coffee shop of the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw Boulevard. "It'll be like John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The FBI set them up."
Neighbors of jury forewoman Armanda Cooley, who lives just west of the USC campus, became caught up in the media circus outside Cooley's modest apartment house--sitting in folding chairs, drinking sodas, even while five satellite trucks invaded the street. They, too, said they believed in Simpson's innocence from the beginning.
"We all supported him all along," said Sheneka Monroe, 19, who suggested that black prosecuting attorney Christopher A. Darden "should be ashamed of himself" for working against Simpson. As she spoke, Monroe's 2-year-old daughter, Ashia Ali, jumped around nearby, saying, "O.J. innocent! O.J. innocent!"
The pleasure and relief stood out in vivid contrast to the scenes elsewhere, especially those in the predominantly white, upscale neighborhoods of the two victims.
When the final courtroom session of the yearlong trial began at 10 a.m., the streets were quiet outside the Brentwood home of Nicole Brown Simpson. About 10 people, mostly neighbors, came by jogging, walking dogs, pushing baby strollers. They stopped to gaze at the sidewalk where her body was found alongside Goldman's; it seemed as if some were expecting apparitions to rise. The Spanish-style condominium was still blocked off by yellow police tape.
The crowd grew larger--and more incensed--after Simpson was ordered released.
"I had to get out of my house--I'm so angry I could vomit," said Elaine Katz, who lives on a nearby street in Brentwood. "If I had stayed in my house I would have started throwing the furniture."
Katz, who said she was acquainted with the Simpsons, added: "I hope [Simpson] doesn't get the kids back. He'll make circus animals out of them with all the TV coverage."
Leslie Friedman, another neighbor, had taken her three young children for a walk along Bundy Drive because she, too, was distressed over the verdicts. Friedman had watched the trial's dramatic conclusion with her children, some other family members and her husband, who had stayed home from work for the occasion.
"What am I supposed to tell my children?" she asked. "I want them to believe in this country and in this system, but I don't believe in it. . . . So how can I teach them?
"I keep telling them that sometimes mistakes are made and this was a mistake."
Randy Kline, a Manhattan Beach real estate salesman who lives on the Westside, said he made the pilgrimage to Nicole Simpson's former home because the case touched him.
"I needed to come here," he said. "I felt a real pull. Coming here connects me with the reality of what this circus is all about--Ron and Nicole's death."
A cable TV repair truck was offering glimpses of the courtroom proceedings on a television rigged at the back of the van.
"This is bigger than the Super Bowl," repairman Donnel Brown said while standing by, lest anyone lose the precious video feed.
Across the street from the Mezzaluna restaurant, in a Starbuck's where Nicole Simpson liked to hang out, about a dozen patrons watched four televisions provided by TV news crews. Although most were restrained in their reactions, a number believed that Simpson was guilty and had bought his freedom by hiring expert lawyers. They also said the verdict sent the wrong message about domestic violence.
"No one had any question he was guilty," said Elizabeth Condelli, 47, of Brentwood, who said her daughter danced with Simpson's. "I thought the jury would be stronger and convict him.
"Johnnie Cochran and the 'Dream Team' only cared about the race issue," she added.
George Allenby, 43, a marketing executive, said there will be further disrespect for police because of the widespread suspicion of planted evidence. He also expressed anger toward Simpson's lead attorney, saying, "I think Cochran earned his money. If there was an Academy Award, he'd win it for best acting in a legal profession."
However, there were dissenters even in Brentwood: Kevin Blake, 38, the only black patron at Starbuck's, said the decision was a good one.
"I knew he was innocent," Blake said. "He's not a killer. I believe it was a police conspiracy."
In the Agoura Hills neighborhood when Goldman grew up, several teen-agers gathered a few doors down from the Goldman's home and cried after the verdicts were read.
"There is no justice," said Breann Christopherson, 15. "O.J. Simpson is going to rot in hell."
The intense emotions stirred by the trial seemed to bring much of the metropolis to a grinding halt. At a bus station in El Monte, a row of empty cabs lined the curb, doors ajar, while their drivers gathered around the one car with the working radio, listening to the verdicts.
Despite hot summery weather, beaches were deserted; at least one Laguna surf shop was closed.
"No customers," said saleswoman Meredith West.
At the Burbank airport, the crowd at the Air Hollywood bar grew hushed, all but frozen before TV screens. Michael O'Hara, a Briton who has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, faced a difficult decision: stay and watch, or board his departing flight to Phoenix.
He stayed--and agonized over what he saw.
"I think it's a very sad commentary on American justice," O'Hara said. "There's nothing I've heard that makes me think he's innocent."
College classrooms were emptier--some professors at Cal State Northridge even canceled lectures--but student unions were packed. At UC Irvine, the P.V. Cues lounge was at double capacity as students filled couches and sat on the floor to see a 60-inch screen.
Ali Tehrani, 21, joined those who cheered. "I'm very pleased that an innocent man is free," she said. "Only in America."
But another student, 20-year-old criminology major Angela Avila, found herself baffled. "DNA is DNA," she said, referring to to the blood evidence in the trial. "I don't see how 12 people could sit and listen to all that evidence and still come back with a not guilty verdict."
There was down time at supermarkets, Laundromats and computer firms.
"We've had no work at all, all morning," said controller Matthew W. Rivera of Servo Products Co., a small Pasadena manufacturer of machine tool accessories. Servo had taken precautions to back up its computer data, just in case rioting broke out. (Several of its windows were smashed in 1992.) But this time, Rivera said, the only damage came from the fact that everyone was standing around, not being productive.
The same was true at a dental office in Woodland Hills, where drills and tooth polishers went silent. Having brought in two six-inch black-and-white portables for the occasion, members of the office staff stood watching, while at least one patient climbed out of a chair to join them.
Receptionist Diane Lafaurie said, "I don't think anybody will be calling now," and left the front desk, adjusting the antenna of one set to clear up the picture. "Sorry it's not in color," someone told a patient.
Fascination with the trial even caused an hourlong delay of a public hearing to explore allegations of criminal misconduct involving local cemeteries. A TV was rolled out, courtesy of the office of Assemblywoman Juanita McDonald (D-Carson), so that an audience of 150 could watch the verdicts and not leave the proceedings at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Some yelled for the hearing to begin--which it did--but the TV never went off. At the crucial moment, all stopped to listen. The mostly black crowd rejoiced.
"I'm glad they brought out the television," Betty Hampton of Marino Valley said later.
As the final live images of the so-called Trial of the Century faded from TV screens, there were many who sought to bring some measure of perspective to it all.
During the third inning of the Dodgers' playoff game Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, a group of six young men behind home plate stood up, whisked off their shirts and revealed blue painted letters on their chests: G-U-I-L-T-Y.