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Cheering for O.J. wasn’t my most shining moment

I thought he was guilty, but glad he beat the rap

Yes, I rooted for O.J.

Chances are, you did, too.

It probably wasn’t your most shining moment. It certainly wasn’t mine.

When a jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the double-murder trial of former NFL great and actor Orenthal James Simpson on Oct. 3, 1995, more than 100 million people worldwide were reportedly watching on television.

No matter how you want to look at it through the prism of all these years, the hard facts are that Simpson was likely guilty of brutally slashing two people to death, one his ex-wife and mother of his children, the other an innocent character, in a deadly act of jealousy and obsession.

And he beat the rap.

I watched the verdict with a crowd of students at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where I was taking a break from an interview with a visiting African-American author, Glenn Loury, who had written extensively about race and crime in several books.

When the verdict came, the room instantly divided just like the rest of the nation, with black students cheering and white students subdued in their disappointment. Both Loury and I had restrained “adult” reactions befitting two professional black men in a crowd of young people.

I’m not totally certain what he felt, but for me, it was hard to deny the obvious burst of excitement that signaled my approval of the highly anticipated verdict.

Basically, I was cheering inside.

The majority of African-Americans in my social circle cheered when Simpson was found not guilty that day, which is not like saying most of them believed he played no part in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

What it meant was that after two years of treating the O.J. Simpson murder trial like a Super Bowl in the media, it was only natural that most observers felt compelled to pick a side to root for.

After all, that’s what you do at the Super Bowl. Still, I’ve come to believe my own reaction came at a personal cost.

Part of a crowd of pedestrians react as they watch the Jumbotron television screen in New York's Times Square, Oct. 3, 1995, and the news that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Part of a crowd of pedestrians react as they watch the Jumbotron television screen in New York’s Times Square, Oct. 3, 1995, and the news that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

AP Photo/Rosario Esposito

From the first reports of the death of Simpson’s wife and her friend under unknown circumstances in June 1994, I had expressed a steadfast belief in his likely culpability. Although a fan of his athletic achievements – he still ranks among my personal list of the top five NFL running backs – once his name was linked to the deaths, my position was unchanged.

In numerous private O.J. conversations with friends and acquaintances, the range of opinions seldom wavered among most African-American friends. They were always willing to challenge my skepticism about Simpson’s innocence with their dubious narratives and conspiracy theories about the government’s case against the former football and media star.

Clearly, many weren’t ready to accept a revised image of a celebrity most of them had grown up revering, though it had been more than a decade since Simpson had been relevant in any discussion of black achievement.

The constant rationales and excuses about the likely scenarios that had left Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman bloodied and butchered outside her Southern California condo seemed flimsy to me. I remained unmoved in my conviction that they were being swayed by senseless loyalty to a deeply flawed hero.

“If he wasn’t guilty, what was the Bronco chase all about?” I would ask friends during our regular O.J. discussions, citing the infamous slow ride on a Southern California freeway while being trailed by multiple police squads. In my mind, an innocent man simply didn’t run from the police, particularly not an innocent man as famous and well-connected as O.J.

For me, it simply didn’t compute. The view of those who defended him was confounding and even infuriating coming from a group of folks I had formerly considered intelligent and fair-minded people.

As a journalist who had spent a few days in Los Angeles writing about the case on an assignment for my former employer, the Milwaukee Journal, I had seen and heard up close many of the dynamics of the murder case after talking to Los Angeles residents who showed up at the courthouse each day to stand vigil.

I didn’t spend much time at the Simpson trial during that L.A. visit, but did get a prescient notion from my interviews that any official decision about his guilt or innocence was likely connected to the fragile state of relations between the police department and black residents in the aftermath of citywide riots sparked by the exoneration of white cops who had beaten Rodney King in another high-profile case years earlier.

Before the jury’s verdict was announced, I honestly expected to feel some sort of vindication for my refusal to bow to peer pressure during heated debates with my friends. When the not guilty words came, I was shocked to recognize the deep and abiding sense of satisfaction I felt that this African-American suspect had beat the system.

In the end, I was no better than any of my friends. In the end, race trumped everything else.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally felt guilty about abandoning my initial conviction that Simpson was a murderer who somehow escaped being held accountable for his heinous crimes out of a surreal sort of reverse political correctness. I even briefly assumed the default position that my immediate euphoria about Simpson’s acquittal was the residue of centuries of so many black men convicted and even sentenced to death for much lesser crimes, including their fraternization with white women.

I’ve never spent much time grieving about the death of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman. To do so would have been inauthentic.

But in my quiet moments, I knew I should have cared more about the deaths of two innocent souls. I knew no past injustices were being made right and the racists in the L.A. police department would remain just as racist even as Simpson went free. I knew it wasn’t a civil rights case by any stretch of imagination. It was a straight-up case of vengeful murder by an egomaniac who believed he could get away with it.

Like so many, my reaction came because I had been blinded by the manipulation of facts by a masterful African-American attorney and infected with a relentless groupthink victim mentality that allowed us to get swept up in an emotional tsunami against our better, more reasonable judgments.

My brief surge of euphoria was short-lived. I remember feeling drained that day, spiritually and physically and embarrassed, unwilling to join in the celebrations and high-fives even while cautiously allowing that yes, the verdict seemed just to me.

You know: to us.

So many years later, I know now that having the courage of your convictions is a moral test of character that should hold true even in the midst of a swirling storm. It’s as stark as being set adrift in a life raft and having to decide who lives and who dies based on nothing other than righteousness.

I failed that test when I rooted for Simpson’s acquittal. I suspect many of you did, too.

May God forgive us and have mercy on our souls.

Eugene Kane is longtime Milwaukee columnist, Temple U. grad and North Philly native who has never lost his attitude.