20 Years Ago, A Story of Freedom (For OJ and Me)

the juice is looseI sat on the bleachers during gym class, listening to the radio on my Walkman. A few other kids, maybe four or five, stood around me. I had my headphones on, and every twenty or thirty seconds I would tell everyone what I was hearing. I’d give them updates. The other students were playing basketball, I think, although I’m not sure because I wasn’t paying them any attention. It was impossible to.

The “Trial of the Century” was about to finally reach its conclusion.

Our gym teacher was a short blue-eyed man with a white beard and a whistle that hung around his neck at all times. He walked over to the little group assembled around me and asked what we were doing. His voice was more irritated than it was curious.

“I’m listening to the OJ trial,” I told him. “The jury’s about to give the verdict.”

He was quiet for a moment and then he nodded his head. “How long?” he asked.

“Any minute now.”

The gym teacher walked away and went into some backroom, some place where they presumably kept soccer balls and the school mascot costume and things like that. When he came back out, he was holding a small silver boom box. He placed it on the floor and called me over.

“Find the channel,” he instructed me. I knelt down and turned the knob until I located the AM news station that was broadcasting the verdict. Pretty soon more students wandered over and, upon realizing what was happening, stopped playing basketball (or whatever) and sat down by the radio. It only took another minute or so for the gym to go completely silent with the exception of the voices coming from the radio. Every single student had now gathered by that small silver boom box, their heads tilted slightly towards its speakers like a flower moves ever so slightly towards the sun.

I’ve been thinking back to that day a lot recently, for a couple of reasons. First, my 20 year high school reunion was this past weekend. I wasn’t able to go, but I must admit that I poured over the pictures posted on Facebook with great regard. I wanted to see what had become of everyone. The second reason, the other thing that’s transported me back in time, was the fantastic ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America,” which I’d binge watched over the last few evenings. Seeing the footage from the courtroom was, in some ways, a lot like looking at the pictures on Facebook. I saw faces and my brain immediately dredged up names that I haven’t thought about in decades.

Oh, there’s Kim and that dude Jon that I used to get into lame fistfights with. And there’s that girl Becky that sat next to me in science class and never talked to me, ever.

And hey, there’s F. Lee Bailey and Judge Lance Ito! Shit, man, it’s like I’m reliving 1995 all over again!

Anyways, back to the verdict. I should mention that I went to an almost all white, middle class, suburban high school in western New York. Everyone wore Umbro shorts and all the boys looked like Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The girls typically went heavy on the hairspray so that their hair stood up like Kelly Kapowski. Mostly everyone was on the honor roll, had a short list of colleges they wanted to attend, worked at Wegmans, and dated someone who was also on the honor roll and had a list of SUNY schools and got their pay-checks signed by Mr. Wegman too.

Which is to say it was a decidedly anti-OJ crowd. These weren’t the people that cared about police corruption or if one of the detectives had used the N-word. Hell, I’d personally heard about half the kids in my graduating class use the N-word themselves. In all the discussions leading up to that day, it was obvious that the vast majority of my high school was pulling for a “guilty” verdict. Even though we lived only an hour or so from Buffalo – where OJ had played for years and was revered like a God – if the jury was composed of my classmates, they almost certainly would’ve found him guilty without even having to deliberate and then immediately sentenced him to be executed.

That wasn’t where my head was at, though. Not at all. I loved OJ, and really, legitimately believed that he was innocent. And at the same time, I hated most of the people I went to high school with. I don’t hate them anymore, as time heals all wounds made during puberty, but back then I surely hated them. If they were on the side of the prosecution, then I would proudly be siding with the defense. Really, to some degree, it didn’t even matter if OJ had actually murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. I wanted to be on OJ’s side because that’s where I felt I belonged. I didn’t own any Umbro shorts, hadn’t even thought about college, was jobless, and had less of a chance finding a girlfriend in that school than OJ would’ve had if he enrolled the following week.

Judge Ito had the bailiff pass an envelope to the jury foreperson. Her voice cracked a little as she read the name ‘Orenthal James Simpson.’ It was even and clear, though, when she said those two words that mattered most.

“Not Guilty.”

My entire class groaned. People stared off in disbelief. Some of the boys yelled until their faces were red. The gym teacher furrowed his brow and tugged at his beard. When the bell rang, I walked into the hallway and saw more faces contorted in rage. My classmates were visibly upset, practically unable to handle the idea that the Juice, despite all the evidence, had been turned loose.

I was delighted. I practically floated down the hallway. Never before had I felt so happy walking to class. It was October 3, 1995, and I would be graduating in June. Thinking ahead to that graduation ceremony, I couldn’t muster much excitement. No,this day, the day of OJ’s victory, would be the high point in my high school experience. That would be the day I would feel free too. Free from being weird and wrong and different. All the anger coming from my classmates couldn’t change what had just happened. The establishment had just lost. They had not been on the winning side.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call OJ Simpson an inspiration or anything like that. But I would say that, if for only one day and for better or for worse, it was an acquitted murderer who made me feel like the future did indeed exist.