What do O.J., the "Naked Mile", and the Women's Rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. all have in common? Before I answer that question let me give you some preliminary information. I think the evidence they have against him is shoddy, and if the jury goes strictly by the evidence, he'll walk. As to how I feel--I don't care. I wasn't old enough to see O.J. run, with the exception of him jumping over luggage in those Hertz commercials looking like Sambo. O.J.'s attempt to be white has made it very difficult to sympathize or empathize with him, and although it is his right to try to get his loot on however he sees fit, I could care less whether he is found guilty or innocent. It ain't that deep. But because there are many others who think it is that deep, I thought I'd try to talk about O.J.'s case without actually talking about O.J. per se, using the concept of The Other employed by both African-American and feminist theorists. The purpose of The Other is to lend gravity to the existence of the Self, who is defined in terms of The Other. So what is White is defined by the Black Other--white being all that black is not: pure, good, clean, etc. Crucial for my purposes is the fact that The Other defines the Self when it is and isn't present. Even though I don't refer to O.J. per se within the work, his presence or absence (as The Other) is still the defining moment in the lives of white people in America.
First ImageI mentioned the Naked Mile. I currently attend the University of Michigan, where I am working on a Ph.D. in Political Science. A yearly ritual starting no more than ten years ago, the Naked Run entails a mad dash through campus on the last day of school at exactly 12 midnight -- naked. Every year, this event has gotten larger and larger until Tuesday, April 18, 1995 (two days before I began to write this) there were at least 200 naked participants weaving their way in and around approximately 15,000 spectators (I'm bad at estimating, but all I know is that I don't think I've ever seen that many people on the campus at one time). This year, even the hockey team ran, with helmets, hockey sticks...and nothing else. One unfortunate cat got tripped, took a loss, then got up and was about to start a fight. Don't get me wrong, but I don't think there's a weapon in existence to minimize the fact that you're naked and your opponent ain't. Not a Glock, not an Uzi, nothing. But I digress.
Although there are usually only a few female participants, this year there were more than the average. Far more than the average. I wouldn't say that half of the group was comprised of women, but there were enough women that it was noticeable. As usual there were only a few Black faces (this year I saw two faces and one body -- one sister wore a gas mask and a hat just to be sure she wouldn't be found out). But this year I saw something which really tripped me out, and made me think of O.J. as soon as I saw it. The Naked Run is a circular run through the campus, and after the mad dash is over, runners put their clothes back on. Makes sense right? Run through the night, when its cold as hell, you ain't got no clothes on. What's the first thing you think about when you get back? Putting your drawers back on. This year, though, several runners decided to do something different--actually hanging out nude in the dead of night with thousands of clothed strangers around them. I wouldn't necessarily trip if men were the sole "streakers" so to speak, parading around in their birthday suits after they've made their dash. I mean, I wouldn't do it, but I can see why others might. It's a strong statement about freedom, and if you've got it like that, a chance to get your groove on.
Only there were white women doing it -- several of them.
This occurred on a campus where only a few months ago Black men were stopped routinely and ordered by the police to give DNA samples because of a series of rapes which had occurred in the city. In an ironic reversal of the law, brothers were told that they would be taken off the suspect list if they would be so kind to give the police department a DNA sample. Black men were so concerned about getting the Rodney King treatment that they didn't walk alone at night, for fear of not having an alibi. And you know that white women didn't walk alone, didn't even walk in groups of less than three, for fear of being attacked by The Other who just so happens to look like most of the Black men on campus. So many people looked at ME funny at night when I was walking alone behind them, that I started checking in with my wife, making phone calls every half hour or so, so she would know where I was, and that I didn't get jacked.
This occurred on a campus that just two weeks earlier held a "Take Back the Night Rally" for the purpose of empowering women so that they felt safe enough to walk through the streets without having to constantly look over their shoulder.
However, even though the campus is not and has not been a safe haven for women in general, on this night white women felt so free that they could not just run naked, but hang out in dense crowds for up to an hour afterwards, with their pubes showing. I was dumbfounded. Didn't these women know that they could get straight up gaffled in the bushes with the quickness? Being fondled by oglers while running wasn't enough (many non-runners had come not just to watch but to participate in their own special way) for them to realize the precariousness of their position? It finally dawned on me, not just as an intellectual insight but as a heartfelt Epiphany, that these women had absolutely no fear whatsoever of being attacked -- because they were surrounded by thousands of white people their age, and with their economic and social backgrounds. Ain't no white rapists! The rapist is the stranger, the black hood wearing, Nike shoes sporting, neck choking, chlorophyll using, deep breathing, strong as a horse, pounding brute of a man. Who just happens, in most cases, to be Black. Right? "Have the Naked Mile in Detroit," I thought, "See who runs then, and how quick they are to put their clothes back on--in fact--to carry their clothes with them."
Next SceneA Women's Rights gathering at Washington DC. I happened to catch a little bit of it, and I saw Salt -N- Pepa, and other strong women of many different backgrounds speak against rape, against sexual harassment, against the Contract "On" America, and against mean-spirited welfare reform. Then I saw Denise Brown, Nicole Brown Simpson's sister, appear on stage holding a t-shirt, with what looked like crayon-and-marker paintings on it. As she talked to a cheering crowd, she held the t-shirt up high, and I realized what it was. The children of both O.J. and Nicole had written on the t-shirt in honor of their mother. "We miss you Mommy," one of the signs said, in what appeared to be bright blue marker. Denise then used the t-shirt and the writings of her sister's children, in order to gain support for her new foundation dedicated to opposing spousal abuse. I think I tripped as hard as I did after the Naked Mile. I asked my wife to look at the image of Denise holding up the t-shirt, in order to make sure it wasn't just me.
What I saw was a woman who was willing to use children in a perverse effort to gain support both for her cause, and against O.J. I wonder how she was able to convince the children to do it? Did she tell them that she was going to send the t-shirt to Mommy up in heaven? That Mommy would be watching on TV when Denise waved it in the air? I really don't know, but for some reason I don't think she told them, "Draw this for mommy, and I'm going to use this to help put your daddy in jail, and to help stop the pain I feel now that my sister is gone. 'Kay?"
Final ImageThat of Nicole Brown Simpson herself. According to the prosecuting attorney, to Denise Brown, and others, she was the "innocent victim." The carefree beautiful blond who had it all--until a jealous husband ended it tragically. Sounds like another edition of Hard Copy right? As I write this essay I can even hear the music in the background. But is this really the case? I remember hearing about the prosecution attacking the credibility of some of the witnesses of the defense for their drug usage and their alcoholism. I have heard behind the scene allegations about Nicole and Ronald Goldman that posits that they too were both alcoholics and drug users. From some of the testimony, as well as other information we know that O.J. was an alcoholic at the least. So if people are being attacked for their characters, everyone should be placed under similar scrutiny. Even the victims. Granted, there is a reason why the prosecution is acting the way that it has.
Now at this point I do want to say that it is tragic whenever someone dies like this--especially when children are involved. I am in no way condoning what happened to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, nor am I saying that they were to blame. But there is more to the historical revisionism being employed to make Nicole a saint, than simply getting O.J. convicted. It has to do with working the subliminal images already staining our minds.
The OtherAnd it is these impressions that are most important in dealing with this case and its affect on our communities. One of the most pervasive images in European society in general is that of The Other. Used as a metaphor in literature, a scare tactic in political rhetoric, and a forboding presence in art and the media, it is this image which mediates much of what has happened since June 13, 1994. O.J. becomes The Other--the dark, brute, with fists of ebony granite, the nightmare we try to escape, but cannot. In this way his story becomes related to those of Mike Tyson, Willie Horton, and Clarence Thomas, The Other "posterboys." I intentionally didn't talk about O.J. specifically because The Other is something that is never directly seen, but something that exists on the edge of our peripheral vision. Just like the Boogieman that we hid ourselves from when we were children, seeing him out of the corners of our eyes but never perceiving him. So rather than talking about him directly, I thought I'd talk about the effect that The Other has on society, using the "peripheral" mode of analysis.
When naked white women paraded through the streets of Ann Arbor at 12 midnight, they did so because The Other was nullified. Oh It was there all right, but Its power looms largest only in those dank, dark, and lonely places where we all fear to tread. The Other had no juice in a crowd of 15,000 white people (no pun intended). Surrounded by literally thousands of "friends," they felt a sense of ultimate safety--a safety sorely lacking on every other day of school. When Denise, in some sort of perverted sense of gender consciousness, uses O.J.'s children to both a) convict him, and b) call for support for spousal abuse, she is using The Other in a way all-too-familiar to our communities, as a tool of political and economic policy designed to scare "normal" people into taking stances against those who don't look like them.
Note that the problems addressed by Thomas' hearing, Tyson's case, and now O.J.'s case were and are real. Sexual harassment, rape, spousal abuse, these aren't psychosomatic--they don't exist solely in our heads. They are chillingly real, and if we haven't been affected directly, we all, whether or not we are cognizant of the fact, know someone who has. But we also know The Other isn't unfamiliar--he is all too familiar most of the time. He may be the kid we play ball with, or the brother we work with, or just a friendly face on the street.
And this is the most troubling aspect of the case to me. One of the best episodes of Star Trek:The Next Generation revolved around an encounter with an evil alien being. Upon further analysis it was revealed that the alien was the personification of all the evil that the denizens of the planet had within themselves. With their evil contained, they left the planet as gods. White people in and outside of America have created an image of themselves based on this idea. We are all that is evil in the world, and our images serve to bolster their godhood, and also to "cleanse-by comparison" the small impurities they notice within themselves. The question I ask myself in wake of not only the O.J. case, but the dozens of similar cases and images before it is, what are the consequences of creating such a perfect and false image of yourself, at the expense of someone else? I think the tragedy of Oklahoma City may provide some of the answers, as well as more questions.