Wissot: OJ, George Floyd, and getting away with murder
26 years ago this fall, O.J. Simpson got away with murder when he was acquitted of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her male companion, Ron Goldman. I sure as hell thought he was guilty, and I bet if you are old enough to remember the trial you did, too. Certainly, according to polls taken at the time, you did if you were white.
In October 1995, when the O.J. verdict was rendered, 76% of white people polled by CBS News thought he was guilty; 69% of Black people found him not guilty.
It was not clear, at the time, what the Black community’s approval of O.J.’s acquittal actually meant. Was it the affection for a former black athlete who had become a famous household name? Or was the acquittal of a guilty Black man retaliation against an unfair judicial system that historically had convicted innocent Black men? We still don’t know the answer.
I tell you all this as I am concluding my second week of watching the testimony of witnesses in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis for the murder of George Floyd. The nation’s attention is riveted to the proceedings, as it was in the O.J. trial, waiting for the verdict that will decide Chauvin’s fate.
On the surface, a Black celebrity and a white police officer have little in common. But beyond the obvious differences, O.J. and Derek Chauvin share one disturbing similarity: Both had a history of abusive behavior right up until the time they were charged with murder. Nicole Brown Simpson, in a diary found after her murder, wrote that O.J. “beat me for hours.” A reporter summarized the testimony of six people who alleged that when Chauvin arrested them, he demonstrated, “a heartlessness, a callousness to their pain, to their cries for air.“
As I watch for the umpteenth time the video of Chauvin applying lethal pressure on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, I am appalled at the look of sadistic stoicism on Chauvin’s face. It is with a creepy calmness that he executes a man using his knee. I think someone would have to be a huge fan of police brutality to find Chauvin not guilty.
The tragic history of racial injustice in this country is influencing what my eyes are seeing and my brain is telling me. I view Floyd’s murder through the prism of a legal system that from the time of the Founding Fathers has systematically denied equal treatment under the law to African Americans. Its origins can be traced back to the Constitution, which when it was written pretended to be color blind by making no mention of race or slavery. The census of 1790 showed that there were 700,000 slaves representing 18 per cent of the U.S. population enslaved in both the North and the South.
The cards are clearly stacked against poor Black men when they are accused of a crime. If O.J. had not been rich and able to afford a “dream team” of exceedingly skilled lawyers, he would probably be rotting in a jail cell right now. Bryan Stevenson authored the book, “Just Mercy,” which was subsequently turned into a movie. The book is about his life as a civil rights attorney working to prove the innocence of wrongly convicted Black men on death row in prisons around the country and advocate for marginalized people who have been harshly sentenced. Stevenson illustrates my point when he writes about a criminal justice system that “treats people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”
Chauvin is a product of a law enforcement culture that has allowed a few, albeit a few too many, police officers license to commit criminal acts under the guise of protecting the public from criminals. In the case of Floyd, his alleged crime was passing a counterfeit $20 bill, a misdemeanor offense that would threaten the safety of no one, and certainly did not warrant his murder.
If I were a young Black man living in a crime-ridden area, I would fear the potential for being assaulted by the police who routinely stopped me on the street as much as I would the thug who might rob me later in the exact same spot.
There’s a famous photograph taken in 1936 of a flag flying from the window of the NAACP’s headquarters on Fifth Ave. in New York City. On the flag are written the words, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.”
George Floyd’s memory should have been honored the moment we saw the video of his murder by having t-shirts printed reading, “Another Black Life Didn’t Matter Today.”
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.