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Gary Younge

OJ Simpson (centre) with his attorneys F Lee Bailey (left) and Johnnie Cochran (right) after being found not guilty of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman on October 3 1995. Photograph: Myung J. Chun/Los An
A nation divided?

Two and a half thousand miles away, 12 jurors trooped back into a Los Angeles courtroom. Anise Ascherbach, a 60-year-old white woman, smiled - something no one in court had seen her do in nine months. Defence lawyer Carl Douglas turned to his client and whispered, "We won."

Then Dierdre Robertson, the law clerk to Judge Lance Ito, read the verdict: Orenthal James Simpson - better known as former football star and wife-beater OJ Simpson - was "not guilty" of murdering his wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Another juror, 44-year-old Lionel Cryer, gave Simpson a clenched-fist black power salute.

By 1.10pm, America was divided again. An ABC news poll showed that 83% of blacks agreed with the verdict, compared with just 37% of whites. At concourse A in Atlanta airport all but a couple of the mostly white passengers stood silent. Across town in the dormitories of the historically black Morehouse college - which boasts Martin Luther King among its alumni - 400 young men cheered.

"There was less consensus in the black community than was portrayed at the time," says Linda Burnham, head of the Black Women's Resource Centre in Oakland. "I didn't believe in his innocence. But, like most black people I knew, I wasn't interested in talking to white people about it unless they had sorted themselves out around the issues. This country just doesn't have the tools for black and white people to have those kind of conversations." Burnham recalls driving a white acquaintance to yoga and the woman asking her what she thought of the verdict. "If you think I'm going to talk to you about that, then you're crazy," Burnham told her.

The trial played into some of America's key obsessions. "It had celebrity, a brutal murder, race. Nicole was a blonde, there were racist cops - it had everything," says Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor for the Chicago-based magazine In These Times. "It was an extravaganza."

The implications of the verdict similarly went beyond the legal. Bob Herbert, an African-American columnist for the New York Times, appealed to the nation: "It is a time for men and women of courage to assert themselves, to try to find a way to bring together people whose ignorance of one another is profound, and whose hatreds are intensifying."

Clinton dealt with the verdict as though it were an affair of state, calling for respect for the jury's decision and sympathy for the victims' families. In a speech two weeks afterwards, on the day of the Million Man March, led through Washington by black separatist leader Louis Farrakhan, the president raised the spectre of civil war. "Abraham Lincoln reminded us that 'a house divided against itself cannot stand'," he told a crowd at the university of Texas in Austin. "Differences so great, so rooted in race, threaten to divide the house Mr Lincoln gave his life to save."

Ten years later, much has changed. The rape allegations against basketball star Kobe Bryant, and the trials of Michael Jackson for child molestation and Sean "Diddy" Combs following a shootout in a New York bar, produced nothing like the levels of racial animosity seen in Simpson's trial. But Hurricane Katrina has revealed how much has stayed the same. The nation was once again united before its TV screens. Once again, Americans saw the same thing; once again, they drew different conclusions, on largely racial lines.

About 71% of blacks said the disaster in New Orleans shows that racial inequality remains a major problem in America, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; 56% of whites feel this was not a particularly important lesson. Two thirds of African-Americans thought the government's response would have been faster if most of the victims had been white; three quarters of whites disagreed.

This time a very different president appeared with a similar pledge of racial healing, admitting that black poverty "has roots in a history of racial discrimination". And Bob Herbert of the New York Times appeared to have all but given up hope that sufficient battalions of men and women of courage would be found. Referring to the New Orleans poor, he wrote. "Those were the residents who, for the most part, were left behind to suffer and die when the people of means began sprinting toward higher ground. They are the ones who are always left behind, out of sight and out of mind, and I'd be surprised - given the history of this country - if that were to change now."

For a man who had the nation's attention focused so firmly on him, Simpson managed to disappear from the public eye surprisingly easily. After five years in Los Angeles, he moved to Kendall, a sprawling suburb of Miami full of classy stucco homes and endless strip malls. It wasn't just the sun he was after. After his acquittal in criminal court, a civil court found him liable for the "wrongful death" of Nicole and Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5m to their families. Florida is one of a handful of states that protects homes, no matter how large, from creditors. If he went there he could buy a house and not worry about having to turn it over to settle his civil costs. He put his two children, Justin and Sydney, into the expensive Gulliver private school, bought a place for $625,000 and decided to scrape by on his $16,000-a-month pension from the National Football League.

Gulliver Academy is no stranger to high-profile pupils. On the school gates there is a notice forbidding photographers and media from entry. But some were concerned about this new addition to the PTA. On the children's first day at school, one parent described OJ to the Miami Herald as "morally bankrupt". But she also warned her children not to joke about his past. "Nothing about gloves," she said. "They realise the children have been through a horrible experience."

Simpson said he was seeking normality. If he wanted to hobnob with the stars, he could have gone to Miami Beach. Sightings of him around Kendall are frequent, if erratic. And whatever else he lavishes money on, it is not luxury restaurants. Rita in Roasters N' Toasters, where he would sometimes pop in for a coffee after dropping the kids off at school, hasn't seen him for a while. "Nobody gives him any trouble when he's in here," she says. The waitress at Jakes has a friend who has seen him but she can't remember where. "He's always around someplace," says Ronald.

'He's still getting into trouble'
Indeed, the only thing that seems to undermine OJ's desire for privacy is OJ himself. Just a few months after moving in, he called the police to say that his on-again, off-again girlfriend Christie Prody had run off on a drug binge with the former Los Angeles Dodgers star Pedro Guerrero. "She's loaded out of her mind and in her Mustang driving around town somewhere," he said. "She needs to be stopped." He has made local headlines with a scuffle with Prody, a road-rage incident and a row with his daughter. In July this year, police were called out after Prody started attacking him and his friend. A few days later, he was ordered to pay $25,000 in damages for pirating satellite TV signals from DirecTV.

"He's still getting into trouble," says Sue Thompson, of Splash news agency's Miami bureau. But he is no longer big news. "There's no OJ beat or anything," agrees one local reporter.

Last year, on the 10th anniversary of the murders, he told Fox News that he was about to re-enter public life with a TV show in which he would pull practical jokes on unsuspecting victims. On a scale of one to 10, "it's 7 or 8 that it's gonna happen," he said. It never happened.

In many respects Simpson seems an inadequate receptacle for all the emotional and political energy that was invested in him 10 years ago. As a running back for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco '49ers, he was an impressive footballer. But after his professional career ended in 1979 he was a B-list celebrity going south in the alphabet, despite film roles as a dim-witted assistant detective in the comedy The Naked Gun and a man framed for murder in The Klansman.

He also played a lot of golf, sometimes as an honorary guest at white-only country clubs. He had never shown much affinity with the black community. In a country where mixed-race marriages are rare, he left his black wife for a younger white woman. If he was going to find himself in a race row, the smart money would have expected him to be the object of black people's ire, not their support.

But there were bigger forces at play than Simpson's own character. In 1994, the year he was arrested for killing two white people, Republicans swept to power in Congress thanks to a new voting bloc - angry white males. Their anger focused on affirmative action - efforts to improve the employment or educational opportunities of racial minorities and women. "Why did 62% of white males vote Republican in 1994?" the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole asked two years later. "I think it's because sometimes the best-qualified person does not get the job, because he or she may be one colour. I'm beginning to believe that may not be the way it should be in America."

But white anger went much deeper. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a member of a rightwing anti-government militia, blew up the federal building in Oklahoma city, killing 168 people. He is thought to have modelled the bombings on a similar event described in The Turner Diaries - a white supremacist novel he was carrying with him at the time.

African-Americans were angry too - particularly in Los Angeles. In 1991, the videotaping of the savage beating of Rodney King by members of the LA Police Department exposed what many had been saying for years - that there was a vicious racist streak within the LAPD. When his uniformed assailants were acquitted the following year, riots broke out in LA. Footage of black protesters dragging a white man from his truck and beating him raised racial tension throughout the country to breaking point.

In the year OJ went on trial the US overtook Russia for the first time to become the world's number one jailer, with 565 out of every 100,000 Americans behind bars. African-American men were eight times more likely than white men to end up in jail. According to the US Bureau of Justice, in 1994 almost one in 10 black American men was either in jail, on probation or on parole.

"It was a very acute racial moment," says Muwakkil. "The trial about a black man killing a white woman exacerbated the anger of the angry white man and made the black community feel like they had to defend themselves."

It was against this background that Simpson had jumped into his white Ford Bronco on June 17 1994, the morning he was due to surrender himself to the LAPD, and led the police on a 50-mile car chase, holding a gun to his own head before finally giving up. Seven helicopters leased by local TV stations broadcast the pursuit nationwide. It was the beginning of a more than year-long media binge. CNN devoted a staff of 70 to the story; USA Today ran two OJ headlines for every three about Clinton. It was the subject of more stories than the Rwandan genocide.

An American nightmare
The entertainment value of the Simpson trial often overshadowed the grim circumstances that gave it life. Six days before the car chase, Nicole and Goldman had been stabbed to death outside their home in LA. Nicole's head was almost severed from her body. Goldman had struggled so hard it took 30 stabs to finish him off. OJ's DNA was found at the crime scene, while Nicole and Goldman's was found on his clothes and in his truck.

It seemed like a open-and-shut case, but OJ spent several million dollars on a dream team of lawyers. Johnnie Cochran and his colleagues went straight for a racist policeman involved with the case, Mark Fuhrman. One of his acquaintances, Kathleen Bell, said he told her that if he wanted to arrest an interracial couple, he would invent a charge if necessary. He was caught on tape saying "nigger" several times. Simpson's lawyers claimed the evidence had been planted. Thanks to sloppy collection work, they were also able to claim it could have been tampered with.

The thrust of the defence was not so much that OJ was innocent, but that he could not be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And if OJ was on trial, so was the LAPD. "Fuhrman is a nightmare, but he's America's nightmare, not just black people's nightmare," Cochran told Time magazine before the verdict. "And everybody needs to understand that."

After 266 days and more than 1,100 pieces of evidence, it took the jury of nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic less than four hours to reach a verdict. Afterwards they slammed the prosecution's evidence as "garbage" and claimed race had registered "barely a blip" in their considerations. There was a fear in some circles that if Simpson were found guilty there would be riots. Black radio host Tavis Smiley raised another concern: "The question ought not to be, will they riot, but rather, what if they don't riot? If the city doesn't burn, will we return to business as usual? Will rogue cops still police our streets? Will the coroners' office still go about its work so sloppily?"

In the film Barbershop, a comedy set in a salon on the South Side of Chicago, Eddie (played by Cedric the Entertainer) decides to slaughter some of black America's holy cows. Insisting that there are some truths African-Americans have to come to terms with, he calls Martin Luther King a "ho", claims Rosa Parks was just too tired to move to the back of the bus ("Ain't do nothin' but sit her black ass down") and says: "OJ did it." The first two remarks drew stiff criticism from both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The third went by without comment.

Ten years on, it is difficult to find many who would argue that Simpson was innocent. But there are plenty who believe he should not have been convicted because the prosecution did not make a strong enough case. "OJ Simpson is not Everybrother," African-American novelist and essayist Jill Nelson said during the trial. "Likewise, Nicole Simpson is not Everyvictim and Mark Fuhrman is not Everyracist ... Whatever the verdict, I don't think the OJ Simpson trial will have deep, profound or lasting resonance in American culture. It will not be transformative. It's a bad mini-series gone out of control."

The OJ case may not have changed America, but America has certainly changed a great deal since the OJ case. The incarceration of black men remains high, but race no longer appears to dominate when famous black men go to court. Facing several counts of child molestation, Michael Jackson brought Farrakhan's Nation of Islam into his inner circle, reportedly allowing them to make key decisions about his legal defence and media relations. His brother Jermaine went on TV to suggest Michael's treatment amounted to lynching, while the accused compared himself to other unjustly accused "black luminaries" such as Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali. Yet Jackson's case never became imbued with the level of racial acrimony that Simpson's did.

When LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a white woman in his hotel room, there was even a huge amount of support for him from white men. "Ten years of misogynistic lad culture later and women victims are still on trial," says Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation magazine. The criminal charges against Bryant were ultimately dropped, and a settlement was reached in a civil case.

Muwakkil believes a court case could still divide America on racial lines. But, he says, only a particular, explosive set of conditions could elevate a drama into a crisis. The OJ trial, with its blend of gruesome murder, high political emotion, interracial relationship and celebrity, was akin to laboratory conditions.

A decade ago, with Jesse Jackson Sr still a potent force and Farrakhan on the march, there were several prominent African-Americans who could demand national attention if they stepped into a crisis. When the authorities bungled the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, however, the prominent black voice came not from a politician or a preacher, but the rapper Kanye West. On a live NBC special to raise funds for the victims, West said: "I've tried to turn away from the TV because it's too hard to watch. Bush doesn't care about black people. It's been five days [waiting for help] because most of the people are black. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible."

That it took a rapper to articulate - however crudely - the views and anger of a large swath of black America says a great deal about the absence of political leadership within black America. "White America only has these kinds of conversations about race and poverty when they are forced to," says Burnham. "But there's no national organisation or individual that can claim to speak for large numbers of black folks." Illinois senator Barack Obama and Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr are coming through the ranks, but they are not there yet.

In New Orleans it was anonymity, rather than celebrity, that put black people centre stage. But Katrina also showed that race was still a factor in how people both lived and understood their lives. "Our historical experience shapes our perception," says Muwakkil. "We have all been socialised with the same images but we interpret those images differently. To white people, police mean law and order. To black people, they mean oppression and maintaining a racial hierarchy."

The white comedian Jon Stewart told the Guardian that it didn't surprise him that black people would understand Katrina differently from whites. "I would think black people think everything is about race," he said. "They are the ones who are on the outside of the game. They are the ones who face it every day."

"The Negro is America's metaphor," the black novelist Richard Wright once wrote. The enduring lesson of the OJ Simpson trial is that no matter how many times black and white Americans rally around the same flag, black Americans occupy a philosophical and material landscape that white Americans only become aware of in times of crisis and conflict.

When tens of thousands of mostly black Americans were forced to take shelter in the New Orleans convention centre, the then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency admitted as much. In a rare moment of candour, Michael Brown told one interviewer: "We are seeing people we didn't know exist"

Trials and tribulations
A decade of racial tensions

Million Man March

Two weeks after the OJ trial, African-American men converge on Washington, summoned by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the separatist group the Nation of Islam. President Clinton, in Texas, raises the spectre of civil war.

Presidential elections

George Bush wins Florida by a razor-thin margin. Opponents claim many black residents have been robbed of their votes. 'Florida has always been a microcosm of hate,' says a veteran civil rights campaigner.

Trent Lott

The leader of the Senate's Republican majority is forced out of his post after apparently endorsing the segregationist policies of the 1940s. George Bush insists the remarks did not 'reflect the spirit of our country'.

Kobe Bryant

A white woman accuses the black basketball player of raping her in his hotel room. Bryant denies the charges, which are dropped the following year. A civil case is settled. Many white men back the sportsman.

Michael Jackson trial

The star is accused of abusing a teenage boy at his Neverland ranch. His brother Jermaine goes on television to claim that Michael is being lynched, while the singer likens himself to Mandela. He is found not guilty.

Hurricane Katrina

When the order comes to evacuate New Orleans, many poor blacks are unable to escape. Racism is blamed for the mishandling of the disaster. Rapper Kanye West says in a live broadcast: 'Bush doesn't care about black people'

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