It's been almost 20 years since the OJ Simpson acquittal divided the country. Back then, reactions to the verdict were stark; one could say -- and some did -- that the reactions were night and day, black and white. Many people were absolutely convinced of OJ's innocence in the stabbing deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Others were as irrevocably sure of his guilt.
Ten years after the verdict, PBS ran a series of interviews about the trial's significance. In 2005, Charles Ogletree, Jr. said, "The one thing that's amazing about the Simpson case ... [is that] no one's mind has been changed in a decade. The whites who thought he was guilty haven't budged an inch, and the blacks who thought he was not guilty haven't budged an inch." He went on to say:
This case is a watershed case for African Americans because it helped them celebrate the fact that when there's a doubt in the system, people will be found not guilty. It was a watershed case for whites because it led to remarkably short-sighted and dangerous suggestions about revamping the criminal justice system because one man was found not guilty; that we would give up hundreds of years of justice and a jury system that worked ... because one man was found not guilty.
I was struck by Ogletree's statements because of how they compare and contrast with sentiments coming out after this weekend's verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman. Once again, there are a group of people celebrating that when there's a doubt in the system, people will be found not guilty. And, another group of people are questioning the integrity of the criminal justice system because one man was found not guilty. In some ways, nothing has changed; but, in another way for many, the proverbial shoe is now on the other foot.
Regardless of which shoe is on which foot this time around, with the Zimmerman verdict, here we are again as a polarized nation, one group of people praising the not-guilty verdict and another group decrying it. Once again, we appear to have opposing sides refusing to, as Ogletree framed it, "budge" in their absolute beliefs. During the trial, assumptions about Trayvon and George ran rampant. After the trial, those assumptions have spilled over, to stain each respective side. How are we, as a nation, supposed to find a way toward understanding and consensus in such a charged atmosphere? How can such diametrically opposed sides ever come together?
During the trial, I was particularly struck by testimony on July 5th. This was the day Trayvon Martin's mother and George Zimmerman's mother testified that the voice heard screaming for help on the 911 call was their respective sons. How can that be? How can one voice be the voice of two people? The answer is it can't, but is the answer also that one of the mothers was lying? Not necessarily. It's possible both women heard those screams for help and had a mother's reaction of empathy, distress and connection.
Therein, I think, lays our answer and our challenge as a nation -- to react with empathy, distress and connection, no matter whose voice we think is on the tape.
I'm not sure any of us really knows whose voice is on the tape. If we say we know for a fact it was Trayvon's or George's, it is not our knowledge that gives us surety; it is our belief. If facts are something that must be evaluated to reach the truth, shouldn't beliefs be also? Each side has certain beliefs at the heart of what they think happened that night. In order to have any sort of meaningful dialogue, before we interrogate others, shouldn't we first interrogate ourselves? Shouldn't we first look at our own assumptions that shape those beliefs?
Which mother is right? Maybe we need to act as if both are.