In the wake of the Rodney King non-indictments Judge Ito weighs up whether the tapes of Mark Fuhrmans racist musings will set things off again
At a crucial juncture in episode 9 of The People v OJ Simpson, Judge Lance Ito turns to gaze into the lens of a camera mounted on a wall to his left. He looks, not out of vanity, but out of fear. Because of those ever-prying cameras, the decision on whether or not to admit audio tapes of LAPD detective Mark Fuhrmans admission of racism, evidence planting, perjury and all other manner of police misconduct doesnt just affect the Simpson trial, it carries the potential of setting the entire city of Los Angeles on fire. The events depicted in this series were only a couple of years removed from the Rodney King riots.
The wounds left by the acquittal of the officers who beat King within an inch of his life were still fresh. Another outburst of civil unrest was very possible. But, more immediately, Itos reputation was on the line too. Ruling the tapes as inadmissible would inflame the minority communities of LA. This is what black people have always known. And now its here, for everyone to hear, Johnnie Cochran says of the inflammatory contents of the Fuhrman tapes. On the other hand, admitting the tapes would mean derailing the trial and casting a spotlight on Fuhrmans conduct rather than the question of whether OJ Simpson murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
The decision Ito makes to admit only the portions of the tape that confirm Fuhrman lied under oath about his use of the N-word was a half-measure, but it was more than enough to eviscerate the detectives testimony and reinforce the reasonable doubt within the minds of the jury. Would Ito have made the same decision if he had not been living under the constant scrutiny of the media? What would have happened if he wasnt worried about how hed come off to pundits on CNN, Court TV and the rest?
As intriguing as these questions are, theyre nearly impossible to answer. Its likely that nothing would be the same and that the choice to allow cameras into the courtroom poisoned the trial from the start. If the 20 years of reality television that followed the OJ trial have taught me anything, its that no one is themselves when a camera is present. Some people are better, but most of them are worse. All of them are hiding, just like Mark Fuhrman.
With a tape recorder on, Fuhrman could be himself. He could speak freely about his bloodlust, his racism, his sexism and his general contempt for the city he was sworn to protect. But stick a video camera in his face and a jury in the room and he morphs into a square-jawed, right-minded supercop. Early in the series, Marcia Clark called him Jack Webb, a reference to the actor who portrayed Joe Friday on the police drama Dragnet in the 1950s and 1960s. To a certain type of TV viewer, Joe Friday represented the strict morality of the LAPD, their dedication to their jobs, and their untarnished professionalism.
In hindsight, Joe Friday was the last vestige of the old order the cop with the buzzcut who bemoaned the hippie lifestyle, thought marijuana would cause the downfall of civilization, and was prone to talking down to suspects whenever possible. Dan Aykroyd would resurrect the character of Joe Friday for a parody Dragnet remake in 1987. This was pre-Rodney King and pre-OJ, when it was acceptable to make light of the LAPDs fascistic tendencies and turn their anachronistic behavior into something heroic or noble. By 1994 and 1995, real-life Joe Fridays like Mark Fuhrman inadvertently tore down the very superstructure designed to encourage their hateful behavior.
Listening to the Fuhrman tapes, even dramatic recreations of them, is harrowing and unpleasant. Every death of an unarmed black person at the hands of a police officer is an echo of Fuhrmans voice, gleeful in the moments where he recounts the savagery he inflicted on the citizens of LA. Opponents of movements like Black Lives Matter rail against those who find reason not to trust the police. What those people fail to remember is the police, as an institution, have given us reason to be skeptical. Their unwillingness to see and hear those breaches of trust allow the divisions in our society to get larger and larger.
With the trial clearly lost, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden apologize for all the ways they let each other down. Guess we shoulda listened to each other. In a way, that scene of a white woman and a black man acknowledging their own stubbornness is the true ending of this series. In the United States, we havent listened to each other for over 200 years, and at this rate, we might never.
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