THE SIMPSON VERDICT : Scandal & Redemption

Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. His newest volume of California history, "Endangered Dreams: the Great Depression in California" will be published in December by Oxford University Press

Tested by fire, flood, earthquake and civil insurrection, the citizens of metro Los Angeles now find themselves faced with the latest, and in so many ways, the most demanding challenge of all: the re-integration and reaffirmation of a shockingly divided city. After more than 200 years of Spanish, Mexican and American existence, Los Angeles has managed, at long last, to have truly scandalized itself.

Before last Tuesday, Los Angeles would have seemed to be beyond scandal, at least in terms of itself. This is the city, after all, that witnessed the Manson and Menendez murders and did not take them personally. This is the metro-region that routinely sees 15, 20, even 30 violent deaths occur over a long weekend and does not take them personally. Other cities, faced with such a harvest of violence and pain, would have long since let forth a howl of rage--but not Los Angeles. Nothing could scandalize Los Angeles. The City of Angels had seen it all.

Then, suddenly, the veneer began to crack, ever so slightly, with the gunning down of a 3-year-old girl, who was riding in a car that had taken a wrong turn, and the shooting of a 12-year-old boy, who was being driven home from a Dodgers game. Like smaller quakes before a larger seismic event, these

tragedies, and the emotional shock of their aftermath, set the stage, as it were, for the Big One on Tuesday.

Since the not-guilty verdicts in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, at least half the city--indeed, half the nation, so the polls tell us--are asking themselves and each other: Do we, in fact, have a system? Not just a criminal-justice system, this half population of doubters is asking, but do we have a civil system, a moral community, a city held in common? Had the Tuesday verdict been otherwise, another half of the population would most likely be asking the same questions, albeit from a different perspective.

The verdict itself, together with its reception--for or against, jubilant or appalled--has revealed a city catastrophically divided on even the most basic of questions. Can murder, for example--murder of anyone, by anyone--be placed in an extenuating social or political context, such as the sad history of racial oppression in the United States? Or does murder, especially when it is thought to be first-degree, transcend such questions and demand judgment strictly on the basis of evidence presented in a court of law? Have our institutions so failed us--our Police Department and our prosecutors, especially--that it now becomes plausible to believe that evidence can be fabricated and that the district attorney can knowingly bring such fabricated evidence into court?

On the other side of the question, it is being answered: "Yes, yes, yes! What you call paranoia is our experienced suspicion. Don't tell us about your so-called basic institutions. We have felt the force of their oppression. We have looked in our rear-view mirrors and seen the flashing lights and felt the sickening fear in the pit of our stomachs that despite everything--our college degrees, our tailored suits, our briefcases filled with company business--we are about to be pulled over and, at the least, questioned and, at the worst, spread-eagled and patted down?"

How can the people of this city carry on knowing, as they now do, what a chasm of perception and value has thrust itself between them? How can citizens so estranged from each other on either side of the question, so differing in their view of an even more basic institution of society, the law, continue to advance the most complex institution of them all, the city and urban life? No mere boosterism can come easily to our aid in the face of such deep division.

Los Angeles has long been a city of sensational trials, some with strong racial and sexual overtones, nearly all involving violence. One of the most heinous acts in the city's history--the lynching of 18 Chinese Angelenos on Oct. 24, 1871--barely warranted a grand-jury inquiry. The city instantly forgave itself.

Race figured most dramatically in the conviction, on second-degree murder charges, of nine Mexican American men in the Sleepy Lagoon trial, in January, 1943. The trial was so flawed and perjured, that the Court of Appeal ordered the defendants freed two years later.

Yet, none of these cases or others (had the murderer of Elizabeth Short been apprehended and brought to trial in 1947 or 1948, it would have no doubt been the most sensational trial in Los Angeles' history; for the life and terrible death of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, struck a chord of sympathy and identification in the collective psyche of Los Angeles) have come close to the Simpson double-murder trial. In nearly all previous trials, the citizens of Los Angeles regarded the spectacle as a species of entertainment. In the case of the trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, however, the drama of the courtroom, indeed the entire spectacle, beginning with the Bronco chase, reached out and gripped something fundamental, something existential, in the consciousness, subconsciousness, and superego of the city.

But it must also be recognized that the city has carried on. The people of Los Angeles have gone about their tasks together, as must always be the case in a city, despite the voids of interpretations separating them. Los Angeles has not collapsed, although it may be weakened in ways that may take years to reveal themselves. Deep and catastrophic fault lines of fear, suspicion, distrust of people and institutions, all this based on race, have now surfaced from the subconscious of Los Angeles: chasms of suspicion and non-understanding, which parallel geological fault lines and are even more dangerous. A city shaken by earthquake, after all, can be rebuilt. A total absence of trust offers no foundation for reconstruction.

There must be some way forward. The first phase of any recovery is a refusal to allow the rest of the nation, or the world for that matter, to blame Los Angeles for what has happened. True, the celebrity status of the erstwhile accused, now the acquitted, together with the exotic locale of the murders, and the fast-paced life of all protagonists, acquitted and deceased, had a certain Los Angeles cast and coloration. And yes, the televising of the trial was an only-in-Los Angeles kind of event. But no one blames Oklahoma City--much less Michigan, where the bombing plot was allegedly hatched--for the mass murder at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Second, Los Angeles must take the lead, in its deepest of selves, in resolving to live well and with continuing dignity after acknowledging the chasms in its culture. Such is a big order: to live day by day, publicly, sometimes even privately, in a city where the truth was most boldly proclaimed: a significant percentage of American people think, believe, intuit and feel in a radically different matter regarding certain basic issues of law, justice and atonement.

What a sad and solemn burden! To recognize that those with whom we work, laugh, play, worship, go to Dodgers games, people so like us in every other respect, continue to nurture wounds within themselves that cannot be healed. Bearing a distinctive version of this larger American burden now becomes, for the time being at least, the special challenge facing Los Angeles.

Yet, we remain bonded to each other and to the fearsome processes of history. History has given us this nation and this city. We have nowhere else to go. History has given us each other. We have no one else to turn to.

In one sense, Nicole Simpson and Goldman, for all her glamour and his youthful ambition, were ordinary Americans. They had their virtues, and they had their faults. By their deaths, however, they have entered history; and history has transformed them. They have become symbols of that deep need for justice and atonement that pervades American life.

The verdict came on the eve of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. If we, citizens of the city, struggle for healing, for a better Los Angeles, Nicole Simpson and Goldman will not have died in vain. Their deaths will not be forgotten. In the light of eternity, a light that reflects itself in the struggle for the just and good society on a frequently dark Earth, they will have, someday, at long last, the justice they deserve. They shall have their atonement.*

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