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Reaction to Zimmerman verdict an eerie O.J. reminder

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

-- Talking Heads

I experienced a sense of deja vu last weekend with the announcement of the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder/manslaughter trial.

As I watched people celebrate the verdict, people who had no connection to Zimmerman; to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Zimmerman shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 last year, or to anyone even remotely associated with the trial, I was taken back to 1995 when a verdict was announced in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

The Simpson case had become an American obsession. People couldn't get enough of the trial of the golden star athlete-turned-actor who had all but confessed that he'd killed his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her boyfriend, Ronald Goldman. But justice took a funny turn that day.

After prosecutors bungled their way through what was perceived as an open-and-shut case, the jury found Simpson not guilty, giving rise to one of the most nonsensical murder defenses in the history of the American justice system: celebrity attorney Johnny Cochran's moronic, but obviously effective (at least in California), "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

When the verdict was announced, I was at a public place, unaware -- and, I must admit, pretty much unconcerned -- that the jury was about to make a decision. A young lady that I barely knew ran up to me with a look of pure glee on her face. "Not guilty!" she shouted and hugged me as if I were a long-lost relative.

I looked at her as if she's grown a second head, and she exclaimed, "They found O.J. not guilty!"

My first reaction was, "So?" Then I found myself amazed that the verdict in his trial had had such an impact on this young African-American lady. I remember thinking, "O.J. Simpson is whiter than I am, so why should a not guilty verdict make someone in South Georgia who probably has no idea why Simpson is so famous happy?"

I didn't want to admit it, but it was all about skin color. Because Simpson was black, his acquittal was seen by many blacks as a "victory" over the American justice system. Never mind that this verdict was not about black or white, as so much is in America, but was about green, the color of money. The African-American community pretty much universally celebrated Simpson's verdict as a win, and that made me very sad.

Last weekend as I watched people I didn't know hail the Zimmerman verdict as a "victory," I noted that the only difference this time was the skin hue. It was white people who were proclaiming victory, marking the half-Hispanic, half-white Zimmerman as some kind of hero because he'd managed to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager and get away with it.

No small part of these people's celebration -- and other such reactions I've observed in the week since -- is the fact that the young man shot and killed happened to be black.

Call it a reverse O.J.

As I watched these two very different but eerily similar bastardizations of American justice play out, I was left both times with feelings of despair, feelings that somehow along the way we'd gotten this all wrong. We disregarded the fact that a man and woman who had done nothing wrong had been brutally murdered and that a 17-year-old kid had been shot to death for wearing a hoodie and walking in a rich person's neighborhood.

Even in a country that touts itself as the most evolved in the history of mankind, race still trumps right. And in communities both black and white across this nation, there's shame enough in that for us all to share.

Email Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.