Why The George Floyd Trial Won’t Be The O.J. Simpson Spectacle

“The O.J. Simpson case was not compelling to me personally as something to watch and to observe and to talk about because I felt the deepest terms in relation to Guy Debord’s work on the Notion of Spectacle, it was situated as spectacle from the very beginning. It seemed to me that that construction of it as a kind of carnival, as a spectacle meant that one could actually not participate in that, without in fact colluding with the very forces, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that had led to the violent death of Nicole Simpson in the first place.”

—bell hooks

Why did the media love the O.J. Simpson trial? In many ways, it was the perfect storm. America got to play out its greatest fear through a perverse modern spectacle. What is America’s fear, from its founding? The fear at the heart of the American spirit is fear of the Black man. The symbol in need of protection, without political rights, is the white woman.

However, the dynamic of the Simpson trial was even worse than that. The modern form the right takes is the sleight of hand. In the O. J. Simpson trial, the enjoyment occurred at two levels. The first level, with a lot of historical basis, is the image of the white woman being in danger, with the Black man being the predator. Such was the site of enjoyment for lynchings.

The historic justification for this of course would be that the white woman would be saved by the lynching and that this was what made the white man civilized. What modern America needed was not the same story, for this is a story that would upset us, we want to think we have progressed.

What modern America needed was a new story, one that wouldn’t publicly lynch the Vlack man but would rather justify doing so, in the past, but also, in the future. The perfect storm for this was a public spectacle, one in which the Black man was clearly guilty of killing the white woman. If the Vlack man could get away with this then it would prove that Black men in general still were dangerous and that we should celebrate O.J. Simpson because his ability to get away with murder gave us permission to kill the rest of Black men.

The layer of misogyny is just as important as white supremacy here. It was vital that the white woman who had slept with the Black man be murdered brutally. The question was never if the murder happened but if we could really get away with it. If we could, what would it prove? Not that women are routinely abused in the home, something commonplace for a third of women worldwide.

We would instead prove the perversion of Black people, especially Black women, who must like the abuse. We would cleverly frame the O.J. Simpson trial as Black people’s revenge when really O. J. Simpson was a product of capitalist commodification, another body that could be traded in for a higher market purpose. As bell hooks notes the whole dynamic is playing out right in front of us. It is not that we sincerely question whether he did it. But rather we marvel at the idea that somehow we could become who the media says we are. We too could be part of something bigger than ourselves.

The power of money and fame and the hatred of women won the case for Simpson but that’s not the story we get. Why wouldn’t George Floyd get the same treatment as O.J.? Why wouldn’t the law, supposedly governed by a diverse violent mob of cancel culture elitists save Floyd like it did Simpson?

Of course the appealing thing about the Simpson case is that he is guilty. George Floyd cannot be. If anything Floyd succeeded in uniting a movement because it was a case that needed no trial. The system was guilty as hell. No story cooked up by Tucker Carlson could change our minds. The particular spectacle of Mr. Floyd’s death was genuinely uniting for America. Rather than passively watch the rich play with our heads as they did with Simpson we saw a genuine global outrage that revolved not around passively watching the television but by actively seizing the streets.

Rather than have the narrative dictated to us we created the narrative from our own lives. Because of this order broke down, and the law itself was in disarray as masses of nonviolent people expressed themselves in a way no one was prepared for. Misinformation and police brutality spread like an airborne virus but it did not stop the truth.

We knew before the glove went on Simpson, he was guilty. The test of the glove fitting was to see how far the spectacle could go. How long would this remain a game? In this way the Simpson trial was an open mockery of the American system but the intent of the trial was deadly serious. It was a warning to white women in one way, to Black men in another, It was a calling for white men to do their duty and complete erasure of the possibility of the intersectional in general, Black woman, especially.

Would we be right to say that Simpson vs. Floyd was a question of class. Yes. But I can already hear the complaints from the populists about Floyd’s family getting 27 million from the government for their loss. The issue of course is not about this number (who could put a price on death) but rather how we can universalize justice across society rather than intervene into a broken system through the spectacle of individual cases.

It is in this way that we see all the actors serving a purpose in the capitalist system of playing their roles. I think this is what is going on with the police too, which is where I push back on some of the leftist emphasis. What are the police protecting? For whom are they enforcing the law? Who is hiding behind their violent expression of ruling class ideology? How can we better understand the actions of individuals as materially inevitable?

How are we, when we exist without the abolition of class, subject to being passive workers, hustlers, liars and beggars amidst an active polluting ownership class? How are they manufacturing reality itself through mass control of both our work life and increasingly, all elements outside of it? How is capitalism attempting to assert itself as not only the sole economic and political system but also the sole social and ecological system? When the people rise up, the system is forced to respond. When this happens society is no longer something to be consumed but a reality within itself and for itself.

In this way the genuine human spirit expresses itself, unscripted. The narrative of this expression is untold by the ideological apparatus that produces a simplistic populist narrative that attempts to reduce people to the role the powers that be imagine for them. Just as the O.J. Simpson trial was a reaction to Americans saying no to lynching there will be a new narrative that emerges in order to subvert our resistance to George Floyd’s murder.

The Simpson trial was an attempt to assert the power of specifically the urban ghetto to unleash horrible monsters on the rest of us. The George Floyd protests prove that people aren’t buying it. The same challenge remains, in a way. We have the powers that be now saying that people’s movements are in fact just centrist calls for civility that have nothing to do with class rule.

Because George Floyd was innocent, because he could not punish the women we claim to protect, because he did not provide us with a way out of society’s cry for help, because he only further problematized our mess, because of all these things, George Floyd cannot be reduced to a spectacle. Because of this humanity relates actively, propelling society into communist utopia, leaving populist delusions on the shelves of capitalists, unprepared for something genuine in an age of overwhelming propaganda.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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