TO THE MAN who drew a happy face in the “O” when he signed his suicide note, I suppose there’s no such thing as irony. But you’d figure even someone with O.J. Simpson’s Teflon bravado surely wouldn’t show up in Los Angeles:
1) on the 10th anniversary of being acquitted of slicing two people to death;
2) at a Halloween/comics/collectibles event called NecroComicon (necro as in death, comic as in funny, a play on a word dreamed up by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft);
3) to autograph sports memorabilia for money (“I’m not doing this for my health”);
4) in what was promoted as his first public appearance in a dozen years, not counting celebrity golf games or court dates for stuff such as road rage charges (not guilty), racing a speedboat through a protected manatee zone ($130 fine) and pirating satellite TV ($25,000 fine).
Yet here he was, back again like a bad penny in a Bruno Magli loafer. Ten years after a criminal jury declared Simpson not guilty of murder, and more than eight hears after a civil jury found otherwise, it makes me squirm to remember those grinding, obsessive months of courtroom voyeurism, the impassioned declarations about racism, especially as we struggle with what Hurricane Katrina sent flooding into New Orleans -- not just toxic water but the noxious buildup of poverty and neglect in black and white.
Against that massive and tragic display, it’s embarrassing to reckon all the airtime and ink expended on Simpson, sieving the matter of race relations through such a meager filter: the gossip gold-standard double-murder trial of a rich and famous black athlete/actor/sports commentator accused of slaughtering his white ex-wife and her white friend.
The BBC lists among the significant historical events of Oct. 3 the Polish surrender after the Warsaw uprising, the end of postwar tea rationing and the Simpson acquittal. “Frontline,” on PBS, revisited the Simpson matter Tuesday night. In its documentary, “The O.J. Verdict,” the black clientele and staff in a Los Angeles barber shop said they didn’t believe that Simpson was innocent -- but neither was the LAPD. “They framed a guilty man -- that’s all it was,” said the barber.
For many white Americans, Simpson was slam-dunk guilty, and for many African Americans, he was a stand-in for every poor black man ever put in the dock. In the end, Simpson walked because he had it both ways: He could accuse the police of racism just as a poor black man might, but he could backstop that with the top-dollar defense only a rich man could afford.
It’s pretty shameful the way we gawped at the TV screen, mesmerized as a rich and famous man gave us to understand that he too was a victim -- of racism. By comparison, the race and class cleavage on the Gulf Coast has all the tabloid titillation of a shrapnel wound to the gut. At least we’ve been watching that too, albeit again through subjective filters of our own.
Reports of vicious post-Katrina crimes -- almost all of them found to be false -- may have registered higher on white viewers’ plausibility index because the people supposedly committing them were black. And African Americans were far readier to believe rumors, such as the 9th Ward being deliberately flooded -- the legacy of credulity created by the reality of incidents such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in which hundreds of black men were allowed to go untreated, sometimes without even being told what was wrong with them.
Patricia Turner teaches African American history at UC Davis, and she’s the author of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture.” I called to ask her about the scale and contrasts of the virtual hurricane Simpson and the real one named Katrina. “It just reflects the messiness of our understandings about race at this moment,” she said. “The notion that somehow or another we’ve gotten beyond race as a factor in the lives of Americans -- it’s not the case. Katrina showcases that so visibly, and I think the tenacity of attention to Simpson also focuses that.”
Over the weekend, Simpson and his pal A.C. “Getaway” Cowlings were booked for three appearances at the Northridge mini-mall convention. My colleague Andrew Blankstein said Simpson seemed uneasy about the gory Halloween decor, but he signed the sports memorabilia with a game face. If it’s his autograph you want, there are bargains going begging on EBay.
No one deserves any credit out of this, least of all us gawpers. Riveted by the inflated grievances of one celebrity, we forgot for too long the real grievances of nameless American millions.
PATT MORRISON’s e-mail is email@example.com. Her recent columns are at latimes.com/morrison.