AFTER THE FALLOUT : Putting an Infamous Trial in Its Place, at the End of a List of Defining Moments
Less than 48 hours after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, I stepped through the metal detector, snatched my purse and carry-on bag off the conveyor belt and hurried through the usual LAX crowd of travelers, well-wishers, airport personnel and others, half-trotting toward my gate. With my mind on the four-day weekend business trip ahead, I scanned my mental checklist to be sure I hadn’t forgotten anything vital, wondered about the weather, worried about my car-rental reservation and hotel accommodations and hoped everything would go smoothly.
But as I walked by, the turn of heads, snaking as if to strike, and the distinct snatches of heated conversation disrupted my self-absorption. The confluence of talk-bytes from clusters of people flowed together to create an uncanny and spontaneous chorus of whispers:
I felt chills. I was being watched and so, probably, was every black person on the premises. This was a new phenomenon tinged with an all-too-familiar ring. It was as though I had stepped out of the Los Angeles of October 1995 and into the city of my childhood, 30-odd years earlier. The architecture, clothes and hairstyles had changed, but the atmosphere was the same. Hostile eyes were all over me, searching and sizing me up, those mean, measured stares that pointedly reminded me that I’m black and that I’d best watch how I behave in public if I wanted to remain unmolested.
Shrugging this off, I made my way to the counter at the gate and was greeted by a smiling attendant and given my boarding pass. Since I was thirsty for something sparkling and had 10 minutes to spare, I headed for the nearest airport bar.
I stepped up to a spot near the end of the crowded bar, leaned against one stool and plunked my bag on the empty stool next to it. A young, brown-haired, white male, who looked thirtysomething, occupied the next stool over, adjacent to the TV monitor.
A local station was airing its final segment of what I had dubbed “The O.J. Show.” Between the opinions expressed by the program moderator and designated pundits, the young man made cryptic, double-edged remarks. His strong voice was flatly ironic, directed at no one specifically, yet his tone was calculated to unsettle and anger certain African Americans or O.J. sympathizers. I ordered a club soda from the bartender of Asian extraction, paid for and drank it while half-listening to the O.J. wrap-up, half-listening for my call to board. When it came, I hoisted bag and purse and headed for the gate.
As I approached the exit, a sudden movement to my left caught my attention. My amused glance was momentarily held by an extremely handsome white man with silver-gray hair, wearing whitewashed denims. His spectacularly clear, deep-blue eyes radiated the most animated and virulent race hatred I had seen in decades. It was the kind of stare-down I had grown impervious to on L.A. school grounds, encountered rarely since the civil rights movement, except when passing through small California towns or suburban enclaves of bigotry.
On board, as the plane readied for takeoff, I heard another faint “O.J.” above the typical passenger jostlings and grumblings. As I watched other takeoffs and landings, I thought of the events that define my postwar generation: the assassination of President Kennedy; the burst of militant black pride after Watts burned; the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination; the Charles Manson slayings; the shootings at Kent State; the day the Vietnam War ended; the mass suicide at Jonestown and its eerie replay at Waco; the Challenger explosion; our Rodney King-inspired blitzkrieg; the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. Wearily, I assigned the Simpson verdict its place among these all-American milestones and speculated on the next.
Because the next is inevitable.