In Los Angeles, the O.J. Simpson Case Defined a Turbulent Era

It would become an indelible memory for those who couldn’t stop watching and watching and watching: a white Ford Bronco cruising steadily on the open highways of Southern California, a trail of police cars not far behind.

His passenger, of course, was OJ Simpson, and the two-hour chase on June 17, 1994, which interrupted regularly scheduled programming, transfixed an entire nation.

“I watched it until the end. I didn’t leave the TV. Who came off the TV to go on a chase like that? said Richard Smith, 67, gathered that day with his family to watch it all unfold on television in their South Los Angeles apartment.

Mr. Simpson’s saga, from prosecution to criminal trial to aftermath, would be closely followed, debated and dissected by millions, becoming part of Los Angeles history and propelling the city into what seemed to be the center of the universe.

On Thursday, as news spread of Mr. Simpson’s death at age 76 from cancer, many residents were forced to recall events that seemed distinctly personal, touching on issues of race and celebrity that have been hitting Southern California for a long time. And the affair took place on their home turf only a few years after the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots.

Mr. Simpson, at the time, was seen as someone who had transcended the tense and deadly relationship other Black Angelenos had with law enforcement. Rising from his poor beginnings, he carved out an international career in show business and lived in the affluent enclave of Brentwood.

And more than most celebrities, he was a local fixture. Rare was the Angeleno without a story of sighting OJ, now golfing in West Los Angeles, now dining on Greek fare at John Papadakis’ tavern in San Pedro, now frolicking on the sand in front of his vacation home in Laguna Beach.

Before the murder charges and reports of domestic violence surfaced, Mr. Simpson was an icon, revered for his athletic prowess as much as for his commercial success in movies and his role as a spokesman for the rental company. Hertz cars.

“It made you want to be something better,” recalls Mr. Smith, who still lives in South Los Angeles.

Mr. Smith’s neighborhood would soon be captivated by Mr. Simpson’s trial, after he was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Taking place live on television, the trial lasted 11 months and everyone had their opinion. “All day, every day, people were stressed and arguing, ‘He did it, he didn’t do it.’ I mean, it was going down,” Mr. Smith said.

Along the way, villains and heroes were created based on your position, becoming almost caricatures in a city known for creating dramatic storylines.

A tabloid boon, the trial was also a cross-section of Los Angeles at the dawn of the 21st century: a famous black defendant surrounded by top lawyers; a white Los Angeles police detective accused of racism; a Midwestern show business wannabe living in the guest house; the Orange County family of the defendant’s ex-wife, the distressed relatives of the Westside waiter who was killed with her; the housekeeper, an immigrant from El Salvador; Judge, the son of Japanese Americans sent to incarceration camps during World War II.

“Things have happened that no one would believe,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School who became an early legal celebrity by commenting on Mr. Simpson’s trial on television. She said she still celebrates Passover with lawyers and members of the press with whom she has bonded throughout the case.

“The thousands of journalists. Wall-to-wall network coverage, even interrupting soap operas. Glove demonstration. Race issues. The issues of domestic violence. Cameras in the courtroom changed the way trials are viewed in this country to this day,” Ms. Levenson said.

But the bloodshed that cost two lives was often lost in the tumult, she said.

Los Angeles has a way of hitting the set and recreating itself every couple of decades, and the city where the Simpson trial took place can be difficult to locate now. His mansion on North Rockingham Avenue disappeared, lost to foreclosure and razed in 1998 after the Brown and Goldman families won a $33.5 million civil judgment against Mr. Simpson.

Many of those closely associated with his case have long since died or disappeared from the scene. Johnnie Cochran, the charismatic defense attorney who led Mr. Simpson’s legal “Dream Team,” died in 2005 of a brain tumor. Robert Kardashian, who stopped speaking to Mr. Simpson after the trial and whose daughters and ex-wife became reality TV moguls, died of esophageal cancer in 2003.

News of Mr. Simpson’s death spread across Los Angeles on Thursday, with residents searching for half-forgotten memories.

That was the case for Sandy Kinder, 72, and her husband, David Kinder, 87, who have lived in the Silver Lake neighborhood for about four decades.

The couple remembers being glued to the television, watching the slow chase and thinking, “How is this going to end?” »

“It was a very sad time,” Ms Kinder said. “Very brutal.”

When out-of-town guests wanted to see where Mr. Goldman had lived, the Kinders would go to the Brentwood apartment.

“And, sure enough,” Ms. Kinder said, “the police, you know, rushed at us and told us to get out.”

Patrik-Ian Polk, 50, recalls his recent transplant days, attending film school at the University of Southern California, where Mr. Simpson was first catapulted to national stardom and won a Heisman Trophy.

Mr. Polk arrived from Mississippi in 1992, weeks after riots erupted over the acquittal of police officers filmed beating Rodney King. Mr. Polk filmed burning buildings in South Los Angeles for class projects.

“I mean, it was all this destruction, you know?” he remembers. “I was still a hopeful young artist, happy to be out of Mississippi and in a big city.”

Watching the police chase, one of the first broadcast on television, had been shocking, but even more so was learning that Mr. Simpson was inside.

“As a black icon, he was obviously very important to the African-American community,” said Mr. Polk, a black filmmaker. “Now we are used to seeing celebrities fall from their perch because of the advent of social media and technology,” he said. “It was one of the first times I remembered something so infamous.”

Los Angeles, at the time, seemed like a place in transition. The acquittal of white police officers in the King case and the riots that followed lingered in people’s minds, and many city residents experienced the Simpson trial through the prism of the racial reckoning that followed.

To some, Mr. Simpson’s acquittal seemed pure proof of the power of money; for others, the verdict, secured with the help of a black defense attorney, was a huge symbol of justice.

“The police were so mean to blacks and Hispanics that when he won, yeah, I was thrilled,” said Don Garrett, 65, an actor who has lived in Los Angeles for four decades. “It felt like a victory for black people.”

But Mr. Garrett was disappointed by what Mr. Simpson did after the criminal trial: writing a book hypothesizing about how he might have committed the murders, and ultimately being convicted of stealing sports memorabilia under at gunpoint with five other men, for which he served nine sentences. years in prison.

It was this coda that Mr. Garrett said elicited no emotional response from him to Mr. Simpson’s death, only a small wish: “I hope he finds peace.” »

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