Meaning differs for each watcher Individuals see race, celebrity, money as key; For some, it's been a bore; Activists, historians, writers, politicians offer their views.; THE O. J. SIMPSON VERDICT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Edgar Wideman, the Simpson case highlights just how dangerous skin color has become in the United States.

For Mario Cuomo, it symbolizes the hypocrisy of the death penalty. For historian Arthur Schlessinger Jr., the case doesn't mean a "damn thing."

For millions of Americans, the O. J. Simpson case is resonating with deep personal meaning. But with its messages of racism and domestic violence, privilege and police corruption, it is taking on different meanings from one community to another around the country.

Many agree that the case teaches us important, powerful lessons about life in America. But what, exactly, are those lessons?

To explore the symbolism and significance of the case, The Sun interviewed poets and authors, historians and statesmen, film makers, artists and community activists around the nation and in major international cities.

The reactions ranged from outright rejection of any meaning behind the case to eloquent soliloquies about the impact the trial may have on race relations, domestic violence or jurisprudence.

Many said color played a pivotal role in the case, consuming far too much time, providing a distraction from the central point of the double-murder trial. Others said the case demonstrated just how far white police officers will go to try to convict African-American suspects.

Some said the trial exposed a troubling bias in the white news media. Some hoped the case would not prevent battered women from seeking help from the courts. Others said the case has little to do with race, and more to do with wealth, power and fame.

While 20 people agreed to talk about the case, more than 40 others never returned requests for interviews or refused to comment.

Among them: poet Maya Angelou, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, author Alice Walker, former President Jimmy Carter, Baltimore political strategist Larry Gibson, writer Pearl Cleage, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and actors Laurence Fishburne and Charles Dutton.

Here are those who agreed to share their thoughts:

A dangerous distraction

John Edgar Wideman, novelist, Rhodes scholar, English professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of many books, Widemanincluding "The Homewood Books," "All Stories Are True," and "Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers, Sons, Race and Society." Mr. Wideman's brother and son are serving life sentences for murder:

"There should be at least an illusion that there is equality above and beyond the law. We have a desperate need to feel that the courtroom is the place to resolve guilt or innocence. But it's a real question, when you ask, is this about the lives of, most immediately, three people, two dead and and one in trial for his life, or is it equally about our collective destiny.

"It has consumed a lot of time, energy and money, and anybody with a brain who looks back will say, 'Isn't it bizarre that there are forces in a society that can focus its attention so absolutely to the denial of all of the other things that are going on? Isn't it dangerous that one thing is chosen to be the centerpiece of a nation's reflection about itself? Isn't it dangerous that we can lose ourselves in that kind distraction?'

"Issues of race are being played out daily, in the Congress, in the schools, in Bosnia; but the trail becomes a cartoon, where very large things are reduced, and we ask very simplistic questions. Somebody has the power to draw this cartoon that the whole country pays attention to, but we have no control over what this cartoon happens to feature, whether it's kids in Calvin Klein underwear or O. J. Simpson. It works like race itself. It's a distraction."

The popularity factor

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, now a radio talk show commentator and member of a Manhattan law firm:

"We've learned that if you are rich, you have an immense advantage. Most poor people and struggling middle-class people who get into trouble cannot afford Cochran, and Dershowitz, and Bailey, and all the investigators. Money can buy you reasonable doubt. I say that with no bitterness. It's just a fact.

"It also says something about the death penalty. The person accused of this crime is accused of taking a weapon, a huge knife, and spending five minutes cutting and slashing away, destroying the life of two human beings. And still, despite all that, the prosecution fails to ask for the death penalty. How do you explain this?

"If he is not subject to the death penalty, who is? What we did here we did for a different reason. We did it because we had a very popular defendant. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying he's guilty. But some unknown man who commits a murder in the course of burglarizing a home, he's gone. Death penalty. Let's kill him."

A rich man can buy justice anywhere

Gary Solis, an American attorney who became a celebrity in England after explaining the Simpson case for months to perplexed Britons on his "Sky News" television broadcast:

"It's not a good advertisement for American justice, but American justice will go on. A rich man can buy justice anywhere. Not just the United States. The only thing left is the billing."

Dramatizing hypocrisy of death penalty

Studs Terkel, writer, author of "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession" and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for "The Good War: An Oral History of World War II":

"It's a reflection on the nature of capital punishment. The Simpson case shows me that capital punishment is as fraudulent as a three-dollar bill. If O. J. Simpson were not celebrated or wealthy, he would have faced the death penalty. This has nothing to do with his innocence or guilt. It has to do with his circumstance. If he was poor or anonymous, he would have faced the chair or the needle.

"It tells me that official murder, as I call it, in no way deters crime, but it is the height of hypocrisy. The very existence of this case dramatizes the hypocrisy of the death penalty. Capital punishment merely diminishes us all. I understand the feelings of frustration, but it has nothing to do at all with justice."

Police departments are founded on racism

Charles W. Bowser, the first African-American deputy mayor of Philadelphia, who belonged to a commission that examined the bombing of the MOVE headquarters in 1985. He wrote a book about the bombing called "Let the Bunker Burn":

"Aside from guilt and innocence, aside from the case, an enormous national service has been rendered by revealing, in its most tragic aspects, the amount of racism in law enforcement. It's almost like something divine, because we've been going through this period where people are saying, 'Don't play the race card, we're better than that.' Now the nation knows what I learned as a boy: Police departments are founded on racism. I don't think it's changed today.

"The other symbol here is people are trying to say,'We don't want to create racial divisions.' The polls would show that 70 percent of blacks think that Simpson is not guilty, and 70 percent of the whites think he is guilty. That has to do with racial experience. The O. J. Simpson trial has uncovered the vast differences in racial experience between white Americans and black Americans.

"What the news media did is a crime. The white news media has been following this case as if they never heard of the idea of innocence until proven guilty. I have never seen such racist, one-sided reporting before on a national level. To me, the O. J. Simpson case makes even more urgent this issue: That after winning the civil rights laws and defeating racial segregation, it is clear to me that African-Americans cannot participate as fully included Americans in this county as long as there is a news media that daily wants to destroy the image of African-Americans, both by what it reports and what it does not ** report."

It has become a national bore

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., author of numerous books, including "The Imperial Presidency," "Robert Kennedy and His Times" and "The Disuniting of America":

"It has occupied a disproportionate share of the nation's attention. It's become a national bore, except for the families of those two people who lost their lives. I reject the whole damn thing."

Country is too hungry for notoriety

John Waters, Baltimore-based actor, writer and director of numerous movies, including "Cry Ba- Watersby," "Hairspray" and Serial Mom":

"To be honest, it's one of the few cases where I've rooted for the prosecution. I'm a bleeding-heart liberal. I'm friends with people who went to jail. I think criminals who admit they did it can be rehabilitated. Those that don't can never be rehabilitated. I don't know one person who [thinks] he didn't do it. I'm not a racist, but I am a sports bigot. Right away, that would exclude me from the jury.

"But the case has ended my fascination with murder trials. I waited for two days to get into the Patty Hearst trial. Now everybody gets to see the trial on TV. I think the case will keep cameras out of the courtroom. This country is too hungry for celebrity and notoriety.

"Basically I'm glad there isn't going to me another trial. I don't think even I could have stood that. I don't want to read another word about. I've had it."

It's simply contemptible

Friedrich Kueppersbusch, host of "ZAK," an irreverent weekly newsmagazine on German television -- kind of a cross between "60 Minutes" and "Late Night with David Letterman":

"It's like a bunch of fat, cheerful people in the grandstand at the Roman Colosseum. It's simply contemptible. To be entertained by this is like sticking a feather down your throat, vomiting, then gorging yourself again."

There are a lot of Mark Fuhrmans

David Bradley, novelist, English professor at Temple University, winner of the 1982 PEN Faulkner Award, currently writing a book called "The Bondage Hypothesis: Meditations on Race, History and America":

"One of the things that has struck me about the case and the responses to the case is all the divisions that have emerged, racial divisions, but also a lot of people don't understand what Los Angeles is like in terms of law enforcement. Police corruption has a different meaning in Los Angeles. Money doesn't matter. ** They dealt with that back in the '50s.

"Police corruption in Southern California basically has to do with abuse of power. California is the state that was willing to create concentration camps for the Japanese. What strikes me is how little people understand other parts of the country and how things work there. If you were talking about Mississippi in 1963, everyone would say, 'Oh, sure.' What we're talking about here is Mississippi in 1963. Mark Fuhrman is not one bad apple. There are a lot of Mark Fuhrmans."

Need for professional jurors

Tom McMillen, former professional basketball player, Rhodes scholar, former U.S. congressman, currently co-chairing the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports:

"I'm not a lawyer. I look at this as a layman. It became too much of a carnival circus. It brings forth the need for professional jurors and speedier trials. The difficulties of the jury system stem from the fact that we have lay juries. Professional jurors who are skilled and learned in the way of the courtroom can go through these things in a speedier fashion. The right to a trial and justice is not interminable. This just boggles the mind."

Judge is part of prosecution team

Ishmael Reed, novelist, essayist, poet, English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of "Mumbo Jumbo," "God Made Alaska for the Indians" and "Airing Dirty Laundry":

"The bottom line is, in the African-American communities, the police have carte blanche to do anything they want to do, and they will be backed by prosecutors who will tolerate their lying on the witness stand, and the judge is part of the prosecution team. I always suspected this, but after watching this case, I just come away with the opinion that there are probably a good number of African-Americans and Latinos who are behind bars who shouldn't be there.

"I don't know of any African-American who hasn't had a bad experience with the police. You get the feeling that African-Americans are treated as if they are part of an enemy nation. Until African-Americans are viewed as part of this country, they are going to continue to have these Bosnia-like problems in this country."

More conspiracy theory than race

Mark Crispin Miller, media critic, professor at the Johns Hopkins University:

"Obviously, we don't know what the jurors were thinking. But it seems that they were swayed by a conspiracy theory, which probably has more to do with their decision than race. They seemed to be too quick to credit the view that the system is so corrupt that Simpson might well be innocent.

"Strangely enough, the Oklahoma City bombing bears some relation to this because its perpetrators and its defenders are convinced that the government is involved in a big plot with the U.N. to deprive us of our rights.

"The people who cling to this belief are inclined to forgive Timothy McVeigh, or whoever committed that crime. That forgiveness of an atrocious act is evident in this decision by the Simpson jurors."

A lot of damage to notion of jury trial

Heinz Klug, law school professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, once exiled for being an activist for the ANC during the apartheid years:

"I think this trial has done a lot of damage to the whole notion of a jury trial. They used to have juries here, but it was a disaster. It was all white men who would convict almost any black who came before them."

Example of race pervading everything

Amin Sharif, a work-release counselor for inmates at the Baltimore City Jail and co-editor of a book about Harlem Renaissance figure Marcus Christian, "Marcus B. Christian: Alchemist of Old New Orleans":

"Race gets in the way of so many things. That's what's wrong with America. Race gets in the way of justice. Whenever a black man goes on trial, he's doubly tried. He's tried for being black, and he's tried for being an alleged criminal. A lot of people don't comprehend that when they look at the criminal justice system. We see a blind woman holding a sword, and that sword strikes black people all the time.

"I can remember when a black person couldn't try on a pair of shoes in Baltimore. The race card has always been played against us. We need a whole new deck of cards. I'm frankly tired of the whole thing. It's just another example of race pervading everything. You don't deal with the issue, you deal with the issue of whether someone is black, or white, or Latino, or whatever."

Simpson case is peculiarly American

Victor Shendorovich, head scriptwriter for "Kukly," a popular Russian satire television program that has been prosecuted for publicly humiliating government officials:

"I can't really say this case troubles the Russian public. He is a U.S. sportsman, not a famous world figure. The Simpson case is peculiarly American with its themes of racism, hero worship and love of scandal.

"America is quite a lucky country -- nobody shoots the parliament there with tanks. And they don't kill businessmen or intellectuals in the streets every day. Therefore, Americans can afford to be consumed with this case for a whole year. People like the shows no matter from which country they come from, and because this show is better than any on Broadway, it is quite understandable why they are occupied with it."

Privilege has its way, with impunity

Ralph Wiley, author, former writer for Sports Illustrated, currently working on a book called "Dark Witness," a satirical look at life and death at the end of the 20th century. It includes a section about O. J. Simpson:

"This was a crime of privilege. It's the powerful killing the powerless. It happens every day. Privilege has its way, with impunity. Juice was always a man of the privilege. From the very beginning, you're charged with a double homicide, and they take the handcuffs off you? Then the police ask, 'When do you wanna surrender, next week?' Come on. I'm must be living in an #F alternate universe.

"Everybody's going to say it was race and the jury, but look, the whole system is designed for the privileged man to beat the crime. Don't blame any jury or try to blame black people. That was a systemic verdict. That was a crime of privilege. It doesn't bode well for women, and it doesn't bode well for underprivileged African-Americans who have to encounter the criminal justice system."

Spotlight on domestic violence

Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth in Baltimore, a shelter for battered women:

"If anything comes out of this trial, it will be that people will pay attention to domestic violence.

"I hope that people do not conclude from this case that there is no justice and there is no help for victims of abuse.

worst fear is that battered women believe that there is no help.

"The fact of O. J. Simpson's fame and his involvement in the sports and media industries helps to raise awareness that domestic violence is not a crime that impacts [only] poor people.

"It's a problem that involves all kinds of people."

Justice the prize in elaborate game

Joyce Carol Oates, writer, the author of numerous books, short stories and plays, including "Women in Love," "Angel of Fire" and "Foxfire: Confessions of a Gang Girl":

"My thoughts about the Simpson case are very complicated.

"Primarily, I think most Americans feel dismay that 'justice' -- if it can be said to exist at all -- seems to be the consequence of an elaborate, highly professionalized game very few citizens can afford to play.

"This is quite apart from the actual case, which is an extraordinary blend of celebrity, race, sexual sensationalism, all of which have resulted in unfortunate distractions -- as if a serious murder trial were in fact a form of entertainment."

Everybody wants to be right

J. California Cooper, writer, author of "A Piece of Mine" and another collection of short stories called "Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime."

Many of her writings deal with the struggle between men and women:

"One of the things that has struck me is how many different people can see a written sentence and everybody sees something different. People can even change some of the words. It's amazing. I've noticed how many different minds there are.

"When Johnnie Cochran mentioned [Detective Mark] Fuhrman was Hitler, I wanted to know, what was the difference. One had more power. But the bottom line was hate. If you have power, and you have hate, the difference is what you do with that power and how much power you have.

"When I was growing up, my mother taught me it's not important who is right, but what is right.

"In this case, everybody wants to be right, and they lose the perspective on the truth. The most impressive thing is how many different ways people look at things and how they will never in this world agree on anything."

Race relations hurtling backward

Taylor Branch, a Baltimore-based historian who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for "Parting the Waters," a book on the civil rights movement:

"I think that the real significance is the conflict between the way we treat jurors and the critical dependence we have to have on the jury system. People readily project thoughts into the minds of the jurors without any basis of racial assumptions, and those thoughts are usually demeaning to the jurors. The lawyers, and to some degree the judge, indulge themselves at great length without regard for the endurance and even the rights of the jurors.

"Culturally, we surf on obsessions in the media and we lose sight of the essential things -- the responsibility of jurors and the need to deal honestly with race relations. The bottom line is, race relations are hurtling backward in the 1990s as much as they hurtled backward in the 1890s."

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