Twenty years ago this month, Al Cowlings drove his friend – the football star, actor, and accused murderer O.J. Simpson – around the freeways of greater Los Angeles in a white Ford Bronco, trailed by police and with our entire nation watching. Ever since June 17, 1994, Southern California, for better and for worse, has not been the same.
In its two decades as a touchstone of American culture, the Simpson case has been an enduring platform for shamelessness and hypothetical thinking – the most notorious example being O.J.’s 2006 confessional, “If I Did It.” In that tome, Simpson “imagined” how he might have brutally killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
So here’s another hypothetical: Let’s imagine that Al Cowlings (known as A.C.) hadn’t been there to take his friend into his white Bronco. Let’s imagine that A.C. hadn’t driven him safely and slowly (35 mph on the freeway) before helping him surrender to police. Let’s imagine that A.C. had failed to persuade O.J. not to take his own life.
Let’s say that the Simpson case had ended before it began. Let’s say there were no criminal charges against O.J. Simpson, no trial, no acquittal, no subsequent civil trial (where Simpson was found liable for the deaths), and none of the cultural conversation and media spectacle and social reflection the case inspired.
Without Al Cowlings, where would any of us be today?
At the time, commentators from left to right saw the Simpson case as one more sign – along with the riots and the early 1990s recessions and Proposition 187 – that L.A was falling apart and could not be redeemed. Depending on what you read, Simpson’s trial represented the crackup of the news media, the collapse of the criminal justice system, and the end of public trust in government.
I say that the Simpson case, despite the horrific crime at its heart and the cultural traumas and legal blunders that defined it, left us in a better place.
Would the Innocence Project and its work using DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted have become so prominent without the Simpson case, which made its co-director, O.J. defense team member Barry Scheck, a household name?
Would the country and California have made so much progress in combating domestic violence – in new laws and new infrastructure to protect women – without the revelations of O.J.’s battering of his ex-wife? How many lives were saved as a result?
What would policing be like without the Simpson case? Before the white Bronco, the LAPD was a mostly white preserve that tolerated racism from people like Detective Mark Fuhrman. In exposing the department’s failings, did the Simpson case – along with a later scandal in LAPD’s Rampart division – force greater oversight and help create a more effective, better educated, and more diverse police force in which whites are no longer a majority?
Did the Simpson case – and the disparate public response it provoked along racial and class lines – make it more difficult to ignore the divides of race and class in L.A.?
Since the mid-1990s, L.A. has spent billions on new schools, and the remaking of old ones (including Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School), and has begun building a new transit system to better connect L.A.’s disparate parts.
But many of the case’s most far-reaching impacts – for better and for worse – have been to our culture, which has become undeniably more populist in the past two decades.
Without the Simpson case, would we ever have had the chance to keep up with the first family of American pop culture, the Kardashians, if their father, Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian, hadn’t become famous because of the case?
Would California’s most aggressive news organization – TMZ – exist today without the Simpson case, which raised the profile of its eventual founder, the legal journalist Harvey Levin?
Might L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, whose office prosecuted Simpson, have gone onto higher political office if there had been no Simpson case? Without Al Cowlings, would the Garcetti family’s political ambitions have turned so quickly to Gil’s son, Eric?
Unlike others in the Simpson drama, Cowlings has stayed out of the limelight, and was never properly thanked. Why not find the white Ford Bronco and place it in Grand Park? Why not present A.C. with the key to the city where his actions opened so many doors?
How ’bout it, Mayor Eric Garcetti?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.