By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) O.J. Simpson is an awful person, a serial perpetrator of violence and likely a double murderer. If you have a concept of hell, he should be sitting somewhere in the mental image. Simpson is also someone who sold out the African-American community, eschewed racial politics and got chummy with Los Angeles cops during a time when that city was one of America’s biggest powderkegs ever in terms of police/minority community relations. Unless you’re his blood relative or can profit off him, he’s entirely unlikeable, so long as you don’t let his sociopathic charm win you over.
There will be plenty of opportunities for Simpson to woo the public this autumn and beyond when he leaves a Nevada prison. He was granted parole Thursday, nine years into a 33-year sentence for participating in an armed robbery.
As he should have been.
O.J. Simpson no longer needs to be in prison. Years have passed since that’s been the case. His robbery sentence was excessive, seemingly retribution for beating the system in an adjacent state more than a decade prior. Our legal system isn’t supposed to operate out of spite, though it so often clearly does. Being detestable isn’t grounds for excessive punishment, and desiring Simpson to pay extra in prison time for a crime separate from that we, with no connection to him or any of his alleged victims, are still angry about in 2017 speaks to something far more awful in us that has played a role in far more cold-blooded murder.
We see people killing other people on the news daily. Celebrity murder cases have garnered heavy attention but have never reverberated so severely in the moment and for so long after as Simpson’s. His greatest crime was deeply offending and betraying the white people whose acceptance he so desperately craved, one that he’s still paying the price for and will until the day he breathes his last. Our jails aren’t supposed to be for that price, though.
History tells us what Simpson most craved and valued can never be repurchased. Ask Michael Vick or, like Desus & Mero noted (language NSFW), just run a Twitter search of “Vick dogs” to see people still tweeting every day — even before his unfortunate comments on Colin Kaepernick this week — about a man who served federal time, lost all his money and works to this day for animal rights to help turn a negative of his into a positive. It will never be enough for some, indicative of so many prison sentences being for life no matter when someone is released for paying a supposed debt to society.
Vick never sold his soul, though. In Simpson’s case, you only have one soul to sell. He quickly learned after his arrest in 1994 that no amount of money or sports statistics or starched golf foursomes could erase the societal stigmas that come with his race. He’ll get his beloved golfing back but not what came with what Robert Lipsyte recalled in the incredible documentary O.J.: Made in America.
Quoted from Newsweek:
“O.J., during a night out with the New York Times columnist at the start of his NFL career, relates how he once heard a woman say, ‘Look at those n—ers sitting with O.J.’ Lipsyte offers a few words of sympathy, but Simpson brushes him off. ‘Don’t you understand?’ he says. ‘She knew I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.’ Lipsyte, relating this story for the film, says, ‘And at that moment, I thought, He is f—ed.’”
On his recent “The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z raps:
Light ni**a, dark ni**a, faux ni**a, real ni**a
Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a
Still ni**a, still ni**a
O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” … okay
House ni**a, don’t f*** with me
I’m a field ni**a, go shine cutlery
Along with the video (language NSFW) that contains many important layers, the pregnant pause before the telling inflection of “OK” in that song is a dissertation’s worth of critical race theory while summing up the socio-politics of the Hall of Fame running back. Following the murder trial, Simpson was then left a man without a social support system and deservedly so. Whites had quickly vilified him. He was not O.J., he was black. The African-American community, many of whom had celebrated the not guilty verdict in the murder trial not as a vindication of Simpson but a validation of hundreds of years of valid complaints about the severely-flawed American systems of law and law enforcement, wasn’t about to embrace a man who publicly for decades had turned his back on them. He wasn’t black, he was O.J. — just no longer in the way he had defined either of those things.
Notice how Vick so vehemently apologized for the Kaepernick comments. He figured out quickly that Jason Whitlock can’t help him and can only cost him both sides, so Vick apologized rather than risk “being O.J.” in this sense (like Whitlock is considered by many in the black community). Simpson probably killed two attractive white people, Vick fought and killed cute dogs and Kaepernick protests issues in policing. Those three will never again be in the good graces of the status quo.
Mike Tyson raped a black woman, and Ray Lewis played a role in the murder of two black men. They’re still graciously allowed to entertain us.
But Simpson was still considered not guilty of murder after receiving due process. Unfair as that individual case may still seem, you must hate the game more than the player. But we have a tough time grappling with real history of corrupted justice in America. Just as we’re hesitant to blame a detective, Mark Fuhrman, for fouling up a slam dunk case because that would make us reconcile the history of American prejudicial policing.
Anger that still tends to focus most on Simpson isn’t a proper prerequisite for continued prison. The same should be said for George Zimmerman, for whom you don’t hear the same demands for an excessive sentence for any of violence he’s allegedly committed since being acquitted of murder (and profiting from it) from those decrying Simpson’s parole.
Nine years for robbery seems more than enough for a 70-year-old man who’s now being released into a world of 24-hour camera phones and social media that hardly allow for a celebrity convicted felon to operate comfortably on the outside. We might forget this is a world Simpson doesn’t know — everyone is now paparazzi, and publishing is instant. Simpson himself with access to social media in the weirdness of 2017 is potentially dreadful but not necessarily criminal.
Nauseating as the prospect of Simpson profiting off his likeness and infamy is to the decent among us — and that he’s found ways to continue to never pay a dime of the $33.5 million civil verdict to the Brown and Goldman families — that can’t color our desire to keep him behind bars for the crime he was specifically convicted of.
He stole what he considered to be his own stuff. Accomplices used guns, not him. We need to be careful not to make an example of one individual to justify a problematic system or to quench our lust for vengeance.
Besides acknowledging that his employer had televised the parole hearing as a “ratings grab” and hopes that parole doesn’t lead to Simpson on a reality series or fetishized through tabloids, Michael Smith of ESPN’s SC6 said Thursday that:
“It reminds of Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained — ‘I’m curious why you’re so curious.’ Like, what is our fascination still with O.J. Simpson? And I think it’s really because the court of public opinion is still in session as it relates to that double-murder trial. The Trial of Century continues well into the 21st century even though he was acquitted from that double-murder.”
O.J. Simpson is a known woman-beater and probable murderer. I despise him entirely. Legally, though, he has been convicted of none of that. An old caricature hastily and clumsily trying to steal back memorabilia that was the remaining scraps of The Juice that he had lost forever by his own choices — that as a vendetta for acquittals elsewhere isn’t what we’re supposed to be as a society. Though plenty of less privileged people in this country languish in prisons serving excessive time for crimes they did or didn’t commit only because they can’t afford bail or silky attorneys or have no celebrity status to disrupt procedure or just get screwed by an often unfair system that much of America doesn’t care about until it offends their biases.
None of this makes Simpson a sympathetic figure, but punishing him for being an exception instead of the rule would bear a very American hypocrisy.
The 1994 O.J. trial for most of its audience was never about the crime of murder, just as the 2008 trial and conviction wasn’t even close to being about armed robbery.
So keeping a 70-year-old scumbag in jail wouldn’t be, to most of us, for the sake of any real justice but instead as a trophy. Saying that we never forget and will always make you pay for the most heinous crime of all.
One that isn’t written in any actual criminal code.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.