Walking the racial divide

February 14, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

JOHNNIE Cochran spoke last night at UMBC. He was everything I thought he'd be, only shorter.

Also, he wore a dark suit when I had my heart set on the famous Cochran lavender or maybe even (dared I hope it?) periwinkle.

The tie was suitably bright, though. And the handkerchief matched.

And so did the talk.

Oh, he can talk the talk.

Which is why his man, O. J. Simpson, got to walk the walk.

Cochran said it himself: "There's no doubt in my mind that if Mr. Simpson didn't have the resources he had, he'd be in prison right now."

Since Simpson had the resources (read: money), he got Cochran. And the world, for both men, would never quite be the same again, although only one of them has a new video coming out.

So, who is Johnnie Cochran?

He's the man who turned the Simpson trial into a trial of rogue cop and "genocidal racist" Mark Fuhrman. When the jury found Fuhrman to be a racist, Simpson was on his way to freedom.

Cochran's a genius, that's what he is. And he's the rarest kind of genius, the kind you can find in the yellow pages, as if he were just another Stephen L. Miles.

And when he came to UMBC last night for the rare opportunity to meet with college students and also for the opportunity to make $25,000 (important to a man who has a Rolls and two Jaguars to feed), Cochran chose the perfect post-O. J. topic.

It's the racial divide. And here's the twist: He talked about how to bridge it.

This was Cochran as conciliator.

This is how you persuade people that the racial divide predated any closing argument you might have made. And besides, courtroom histrionics are basically show biz. So, how are you going to hold it against him?

Some do, and not just his co-counsel Robert Shapiro, who famously accused Cochran of dealing from the bottom of the race-card deck. In the UMBC school paper yesterday was a column headlined: "Johnnie Cochran at the Fieldhouse: (A) $25,000 Mistake."

Cochran says he's warmly received wherever he goes. He was warmly received last night.

He tells the story of being on a plane two days after the verdict. The pilot, he said, whispered to him that he'd done a great job.

"I thought, 'Why is he whispering?' " Cochran said.

When he flew into Baltimore, the story continues, the pilot sent him a note and then came back to shake his hand. This is Johnnie Cochran rehabilitated in the eyes of America, or at least that part of America five miles above America.

That's his story anyway. Of course, O. J. says he's loved, too.

Cochran didn't have anything startling to say on the topic of racial divide. We have to get to know each other better. We're a separate and unequal society, and that must change. We came to America on different ships, but now we're all in the same boat. That kind of thing.

He also said one of the great problems in race relations today is the refusal, by some, to admit there's even a problem anymore.

"As one who is given to using a little poetry to make a point: 'We shouldn't run and hide; we should acknowledge the divide,' " he said.

It was lousy poetry. But the point was good.

But there was a point he didn't make. If anyone brought the racial divide to our attention, it was Johnnie Cochran himself.

He pleads not guilty, of course. And we haven't got the $10 million to take him to court. Besides, he'd probably win anyway.

"For anyone to think the Simpson case caused the racial divide," he said, "is the essence of delusional thinking."

The verdict, he said, simply brought into focus that divide.

What's interesting, in Cochran's case, is where he plays in that divide. Cochran grew up in a middle-class L.A. neighborhood. He went to high school with Dustin Hoffman.

His life changed, he says, in the early '70s when he took on the case of a Black Panther. It was then he began to understand how the police worked. He learned it well, too.

Eventually, he would grow rich suing the L.A.-area police forces in wrongful-death suits. With each case, he grew richer still. And before he knew it, he was the kind of lawyer who gets invited to Liz Taylor's house, where she talks him into defending Michael Jackson.

Now, he's a celebrity to match any client he could hope to find.

He'd like, of course, for people to get past the O. J. case. He even says he thinks people will.

"I saw a cartoon the other day," he explained. "It said, 'Extra, extra. O. J. Simpson is still not guilty.' "

Except many people think O. J. is still guilty. And nobody seems to have found the real killers. And there are those who wonder if Cochran did his job too well.

But, because he did it so well, Johnnie Cochran, defender of the downtrodden, gets $25,000 to drop by a college campus. Next time, I hope he wears lavender.

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