Marx said that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The civil rights movement is no exception. The death of Martin Luther King was the tragedy; the OJ trial was the farce. It was a grotesque caricature of the issues that framed the civil rights movement.
What a painful time that was! The OJ trial was a terrific scar on the American psyche that only the Obama campaign has gone some measure to heal. I think that the legal case was summed up by the last statement in the program, that the LAPD “framed a guilty man.”
Should a murderer go free because of questionable police conduct? Mark Fuhrman certainly made that the important question. I think the commentator was right who said that the prosecution made a significant mistake by focusing on the bloody glove. They had enough physical evidence without it, and allowing the bloody glove allowed Fuhrman to become the focal point. He was a disaster for the prosecution.
But I think focusing on the legal issues misses the point. The legal drama played out in the context of a much larger social drama, which certainly affected the legal outcome and enlarged the passions on both sides. It has always been my contention that the OJ trial was the death of the coalition forged by Martin Luther King. It highlighted the contradictions inherent in the civil rights movement and became the focal point of white resentment of affirmative action, which played such a crucial role in the Obama campaign.
The genius of Martin Luther King was to forge a coalition of white and black that supported black issues out of a sense of justice. Affirmative action threatened that coalition by turning justice into a zero sum game. It is always the role of social policy to stop the progressive momentum of social movements, and affirmative action has played exactly that role. Once affirmative action became the law of the land, the question became whether the civil rights movement was about justice or was it about racial self-interest.
Martin Luther King was, himself, ambivalent about affirmative action, and never gave it his full-throated support. At the time of his death, he was in Memphis in support of a strike by sanitation workers. He clearly saw that the issue of justice, his primary concern, was moving from the racial to the economic sphere, which is why he was in Memphis supporting a strike. Had he lived to make that bridge from the racial to the economic, he would have maintained the multi-racial nature of the movement, and, I think, the history of this country would have been very different. The tragedy of his death meant that the contradictions of the civil rights movement would never be resolved.
The OJ trial focused those contradictions in the starkest possible terms: justice vs racial self-interest. OJ’s obvious guilt heightened the tension. The black community’s jubilation over the verdict destroyed the coalition forever. Clearly, the black community had chosen racial self-interest over justice. The fact that OJ was such an unworthy object of support made the conflict that much more bitter.
The behavior of the LAPD was part of the syndrome. Liberals had always attacked police misconduct to pursue justice. So the prosecution, primarily liberal Jews, didn’t get it when the defense used that tactic to pursue other ends. White liberals felt deeply betrayed. The black-Jewish defense lawyers became a grotesque caricature of the black-Jewish coalition that characerized the civil rights movement. The tragic legacy of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman was destroyed in this farce.
Social policy is almost always reactionary in its import. I see the OJ verdict and the exultation that followed as the victory of the black petit-bourgeoisie called into being by reactionary social policy. I find the self-righteousness of the black intellectuals defending the verdict particularly smarmy. They declared victory for themselves at a time when the vast majority of the black community is still mired in poverty and hopelessness, untouched by the policies that distorted the energies of the civil rights movement into raising up mostly a black petit-bourgeoisie.