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The O.J. Syndrome: Race, Civil Unrest, and America

July 22, 2016

Television has sucked me into a vacuum lately. My screen time has involved a copious amount of historical docudramas, most notably, documentaries and shows focused on famed football player and accused murder OJ Simpson. I’m not sure why in the midst of tragedy around the world I tend to be a glutton for more sorrow, but this long-term form of coping has always been one my defense mechanisms. This tragic head space began months ago with “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson”. Each episode drew me into the horrific death of Nicole Brown Simpson and the unhealed wounds of systematic racism across America. Just when I thought I could breathe again once the claustrophobic, captivating effect of “The People Vs. O.J.” ended, ESPN’s “30 for 30” series made its way into my sights on the back of the ever-growing, current social unrest in America.

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Despite everything I thought I knew of the O.J. trial based off my own experiences growing up with the case and having just finished “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson”, “30 for 30” managed to further school me on the radical nature of America at the height of the Simpson’s murder trial. Then, halfway into watching the series, news hit that Alton Sterling was killed by police as the chilling video made its way into my consciousness. I was completely at a loss for words and still reeling from the racial tensions already plighting the country. Any semblance of a band-aid of healing got ripped off repeatedly by the wall-to-wall O.J. drama I kept digesting. The next day news of Philando Castile’s murder hit and the video instantly transplanted itself into my memory. That’s when I shut down. I immediately felt drained. Every essence in my body, soul, and mind broke and a miserable depression fell over me. It felt as though I had devoted entire lifetimes on a solution only to see it explode into burnt ashes in my hand.

Over the course of 40 years in America it feels for many as though nothing has changed. This heavyhearted feeling is problematic. In 1965 Marquette Frye, a Black man in L.A. got stopped in Watts for reckless driving. The resulting scuffle between him, his mother, and officers caused Frye to get forcefully subdued by officers sparking anger in the Watts community of L.A. This predominately Black neighborhood subject to routine abuse at the hands of law enforcement fought back. A six-day riot took place. In 1979, Eulia Love, a mother of two, got shot to death on her front lawn by L.A. officers disputing a gas bill. In 1993, 13-year old Latasha Harling was murdered by a convenient store owner. Trayvon Martin’s death on 2014 ignited fervent anger and resentment as well as a chain reaction of Black bodies succumbing to their death at the hands of police on camera. There are hundreds of unnamed victims before, after, and in-between each of the aforementioned citizens. The Washington Post tallies 533* deaths by police in 2016 alone. The website Killed by Police counts 643*.

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Alton and Philando’s deaths along with the shocking murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge shortly after had everything to do with me as an individual. Initially, it felt like an odd sentiment to hold, seeing as how these men were adults with their own lives and loved ones who feel a pain that I can’t imagine. I am me, a Black woman with relatively astute privilege in life that has lived ignorantly to the fear of cops over my body. I can only wish love and comfort for the families of these victims. I am not Philando Castle or Alton Sterling. But, these men are my people. Their deaths hit me hard. Once again the historical oppression I have always been aware of and the inherent fear of Black bodies that only recently began to truly get unpack and understood was reaffirmed. 

I am all too aware of the painstaking hardships Black bodies have endured under the oppression of white authority. I am aware of the lynchings, house burning, beatings, forced labor and public scorn men and women of the African Diaspora have encountered so that America could rise to power. I know how Blacks have worked tirelessly to catch up to a society that has been allowed to speed ahead. And, whatever fruits African-Americans have come to own of their own accord have been spoiled and left to rot at the hands of others resistant to change and progress.

I know the long road of the Civil Rights moment, the Black is Beautiful movement, and how disparaging it was for Black citizens who finally felt they had a chance at true freedom, the pure taste of light, only to have their leaders killed, their organizations destroyed, and their people dissipated by crack, heroin, crime, systematic oppression, and violence. These issues were created and still held in place by a society that fears change and refuses to allow Blacks the same agency that they themselves receive. Racial tensions creep beyond skin deep issues, they are a socio-economic matter. This racial construct of “whiteness” even eluded Irish citizens who came to America in the early portion of the 20th century.

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When Alton and Philando died it felt like progress once again not only hit a halt, but barely ever existed. Watching “30 for 30”, “The People vs. OJ”, and CNN’s underrated series “The Seventies,” I came to realize how the exact same issues that plagued our society barely 40 years ago are still chipping away at us today. This notion nearly defeated me and my charge for social and political justices. What’s the point of fighting it anymore? Our leaders were way more organized and closer to the zeitgeist of change in the 60s and 70s than we are now, and we’re still in fighting the battle. I felt depressed. Unwilling to do anything else except shut my brain off and cry.

Then a spark happened. While watching the 3rd part of “30 for 30” when the trial begins and the focus shifts to how the people of America, essentially aided in Simpson’s not guilty verdict. Black America felt so exasperated with the American justice system, a system that had just excused the actions of police involved in the Rodney King beating, that the masses took advantage of their power to mobilize. The trial of O.J. Simpson is an anomaly, a truly awe-inspiring event that changed the course of history leaving ripples along the way that still bubble at our feet today. On an individual level, Simpson somehow transcended race. He looked within himself to be the best and created an impenetrable wall around him that kept him exalted. He avoided controversy early in his life by living a parallel existence.

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While Stokley Carmichael and Fred Hampton fought, got exhaled, and died for the equality of African-Americans, O.J. avoided politics, earned money, then franchised himself to become an entrepreneur that left racial issues in the dust. Simpson’s case is a rare breed, but it opened the door for dialogue on race and society that continues today. This is a topic that many are dying to ignore and others are dying because it’s undeniable. Skin matters. We may not want it to, but it does. The repeated deaths of Black individuals throughout history isn’t as simple as a racist with a badge and gun.

This complex reality is because we live in a society where Black bodies have been feared for centuries. Black bodies are despised. Coveted. Hated. Ignored. Looked down on. Centuries of this type of thinking has embedded itself into our psyche. So much so that it feels normal to avoid certain parts of town because it’s the “Black side of town.” It becomes commonplace to clutch a purse when around Black men or cross the street at night when a Black person is nearby. “Driving while Black” remains a dangerous reality. These biases exist for a reason, and when we don’t contemplate or discuss them in conversations with each other, they only fester to a point of fear and reaction.

We have become a reactionary society in our contemporary time. We react with anger ,then move on forgetting about the past instead of evolving to a better place. We can’t afford to be reactionary and despondent anymore. Innocent lives are hanging in the balance. Now is the time be creative and enlist community help. To change laws. To mobilize. A whole slew of Americans fed up with the lack of justice in their communities ultimately helped a murder, and possible sociopath, walk free to capitalize on his crimes. In 1995, it wasn’t because they didn’t know any better, or because they were race-baiting. It was because they were angry and tired of watching a criminal justice system work for some and not all.

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We as individuals and on larger scale are allowing these injustices to continue when we just sit back and complain. Atlanta alone has shown the power of mobilizing in the wake of these issues. After five days of protesting racial injustice, the city got the attention and ear of the Mayor. We have the power to make change on a larger scale when we are faced with tragedy. We must remember to keep fighting, and not with fire or guns, but with our bodies and voices. We’ve all agreed to a social contract that pits people of color below whites. This social contract gives us credence to fear each other based off race. We are not bound to this contract. We can break it at any time. We must. Lives depend on it. 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 22, 2016 12:45 PM

    Great post and so very right –the injustices will continue if the people keep their mouths shut. I live in New Orleans, went to LSU in Baton Rouge…so the Alton Sterling shooting really hit me hard. Couldn’t believe it.

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