All White Bronco Brunch
“In 1994, television networks and cable news channels aired two hours of nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson spectacle. The former football star led police on a two-hour chase across Southern California in his white Ford Bronco after he was charged with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. As the slow-speed chase dragged on, people gathered on overpasses to wave and witness Simpson drive into the history books. It was, as one entertainment lawyer put it, ‘the day Los Angeles stopped.’”
Richard Winton & Joseph Serna
On June 17th, 1994, the O.J. Simpson chase became the most infamous and well-televised car chase in Los Angeles history. To this day it is the 6th most-watched event in American media history with the third most-watched event being the reading of the verdict in OJ’s criminal trial. The OJ chase created what media researchers called a standard recipe for a mass media phenomenon: one part celebrity, one part criminality, and one part unpredictability.
The nineties was also a historical ‘sweet spot’ for these kinds of mass media events because during this decade, major networks still held a monopoly on viewership. Less than half of American households had cable television and it was the last decade before the internet dispersed our attention across an endless network of webpages. This isn’t to say there will no longer be media events on par with the OJ chase, but the barrier to entry to become a mass media event today in real-time requires a much higher threshold of sensationalism to break through the social media feeds, because today we have all been turned into a mini-media node vying for attention in a cacophony of content. In this way the chase, although sensational in its own right, is inextricably linked to the confluence of factors that created the media ecosystem of the nineties, where a few dominant outlets could still create an exaggerated focal point for our collective attention in real time.
The OJ criminal trial that followed the chase also marked a watershed moment for reality television or what was initially called ‘actuality television.’ The trial coverage was the first time viewers consistently consumed more reality-based television than scripted programming during daytime hours. Media writers conjecture that the OJ trial single-handedly destroyed the soap opera industry as well as marked the ascendance of reality television as an official genre.
Whether the chase was OJ’s conflicted attempt to commit suicide or it was his botched effort to flee his murder charges as indicated by the fake beard and mustache found in the Bronco, for Angelenos the chase proved to be a lightning rod on how people perceived O.J.’s innocence or guilt, which usually fell along racial and class lines. Where many of O.J.’s closest rich white friends perceived the chase as a deep compromise of his innocence if not a complete confession, many black and brown Angelenos defended OJ’s run given the long history of racist practices by the Los Angeles Police Department and a double-dealing criminal justice system. The OJ chase occurred just a little under two years after the Rodney King verdict and the social unrest of 92, a freshly seared memory in the minds of many minorities in Los Angeles.
But the OJ Chase, for all its minute-by-minute coverage, told us very little about the surrounding city in which it happened and like any media spectacle, we are asked to over-interpret a few staggering clips in exchange for a more comprehensive context. When writing on the televised car chases that often happened on Los Angeles streets, Howard Rosenberg of the LA times puts it more sharply, “There is no care or craft in the making of these live pictures, and you’re rarely smarter for watching them. You learn nothing about the fugitive motorist, nothing about what brought him or her to this moment…nothing about the conditions of society that may be the incident’s backdrop.” The OJ chase suffered from the exact opposite: an over-exposure of the whys, the hows and the what fors, but in ways, this epics of a celebrity scandal only better hid the things on the periphery; the stuff that makes Los Angeles a wonderful city.
For this event, we reexamined the chase by pointing attention away from yet another reheated serving of OJ scandal by focusing on the food establishments along the chase route that still physically exist, those family-owned and operated businesses that are in operation today just as they were back on June 17th, 1994. The goal of the Bronco Brunch was to revisit the chase as it relates to the city now, and what better to relate to a city than eating at the establishments run by other Angelenos. So to thicken our understanding of the neighborhoods that often get rendered down through media spectacle, for this event we made a map of the chase route that identifies food places that outlived the scandals and the spectacle. Additionally, we also gave each participant a custom box of DK Donuts, a Cambodian-owned and family-operated donuts shop that has been in operation for over 30 years.
Lastly, in addition to re-framing the chase through a map of family food establishments still in operation from 1994, this event attempted to experiment with “earned media.” If media in a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles becomes the mutually binding polymer of our collective experience, ‘earned media’ is the gold standard since it is created by the attention of ‘onlookers.’ The term itself is a Public Relations specification to indicate when an event is truly “successful,” aka interesting enough to attract the attention of others who were not involved but choose to become involved by recording it. In more behavioral terms, earned media is any situation when others who have nothing to do with what you’re doing feel compelled to turn their camera on you to document what it is you’re doing. In this way maybe ‘earned media’ is the measure of “real” attention in a landscape of algorithmically augmented voices. And by real we simply mean that something happens in a way that modifies the behavior of someone to compel them to pay attention or look, and it’s in that spontaneous modification, that ‘look,’ that reality remains, even if fleetingly, intact.
On June 17th, 2017, 23 vehicles and 49 participants took part in the recreation of the now infamous eight-hour chase that captivated a nation 23 years ago. At 11:30 am, starting at Robert Kardashian’s former residence in Encino, the participating cars following a the pace vehicle, 1994 white Bronco, all caravanned along the 405 freeway, stopping off at family owned restaurants on their way down to the Lake Forest cemetery in Orange County where OJ and AC supposedly spent most of their time during the missing hours from 12-6 pm. The Bronco then lead the caravan back to the former (now demolished) Brentwood residence where O.J. ended his moving standoff at a little before 8 pm.
Additionally, each car was given a 9-hour soundtrack of the 94’ radio hits with intermittent breaking news interruptions from that day around O.J.’s whereabouts. And lastly, each registered vehicle was given a point and shoot camera to document the event and were encouraged for the nine hours to not use their cell phone by “black bagging” their digital device (Black bagging is sealing a mobile phone in an opaque blackmailing envelope which can only be ‘opened’ by destroying the bag itself). If the drivers completed the route and didn’t break the seal on their black bagged phone, they were awarded with an original 1994 bronze OJ chase POG slammer.
All documentation of this event was captured with the very technology available to most bystanders at the time of the original OJ Simpson chase: standard 35mm film. The entire event exists only on the still images taken by the participating drivers themselves. The only video that may exist of the reenactment would be anything captured, or any ‘earned media,’ by actual bystanders on the freeways who were not involved in the chase and who may have only witnessed the caravan of cars with “Slow Speed Chase” pennant flags hanging out of their windows tailing a classic 1994 white Ford Bronco along the chase route.