Two-time Emmy winner Renee Sotile had a moment back in 1994. A video journalist at the time, she was part of the media circus on a lawn in Brentwood. She was taking footage and, all of a sudden, she felt someone’s whole body next to her before being pulled in for a hug.
Her partner, Mary Jo, viewing this from the car, let out a guttural roar: “Get away from her!” And then, trying to alert Renee: “Renee! Get in here! Come back!”
The eerie story of O.J. Simpson — alleged murderer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman — invading Renee’s personal space may still creep her out today, as she, Mary Jo, and I sit at Palihouse in West Hollywood. Despite all the gruesome news stories Renee had covered over the years, she never had nightmares. But that night, after that hug, she did. It was only weeks after the murders, and O.J. Simpson was still a free man. Signing autographs and smiling for pictures, he got on with the show as the famed footballer America loved, as innocuous as Mr. Rogers, just with black skin, a burlier build and more testosterone.
If you were old enough to remember 1994–95, certain moments likely remain etched in your mind from the Trial of the Century: The white Bronco chase, the exhausted yet eager lawyers, the glove that didn’t fit, which, according to lawyer Johnnie Cochran, meant you had to acquit. And of course the verdict, which either made you sick to your stomach or jump for joy, depending on your perspective. For Renee Sotile however, who was working for KTLA at the time, such recollections aren’t primary. Waiting outside the courtroom in 1995, she was in full view of the victims’ families when the elevator door opened.
“I specifically remember Denise Brown and her face — and the looks on their faces were just heartbreaking — and that just stayed with me,” Renee tells me. “And I said I wanted to do something.” So did Mary Jo (MJ), Renee’s partner.
MJ also remembers meeting Denise Brown: “She was saying they kind of make [murderers] into notorious names, and you don’t remember the victim. All these people that have hurt people, we know their names.”
Renee asked Denise what she wanted — what, if anything, could possibly assuage the trauma of her sister’s death. “She said that she wanted people to remember Nicole,” Renee shares. This turned on a lightbulb for songwriter Mary Jo: “That sounds like a song,” she remembers thinking. “A song title,” Renee adds. And “I Remember Nicole” was born.
“I Remember Nicole” is a four-minute music video described as “A Global Anthem Reclaiming Power Over Domestic Violence. Raising Awareness while Raising the Roof!” They found a producer, and once the singers, Hollie Cavanagh and Melodye Perry, were on board, it organically came together. Originally, they just had a lyric video, but Renee wanted it to be shot in the style of a documentary. Once they told Tanya Brown, one of Nicole’s sisters, about the project, she was eager to get involved.
The video, which the City of West Hollywood sponsored, features scenes from demonstrations all around the country. Protesters hold up signs encouraging victims of domestic violence to reach out for help and to love themselves. Tanya Brown is also in the video, shown on Nicole’s favorite surfing beach.
The video encourages reaching out, lending an ear, a shoulder, or a helping hand to a loved one suspected of being abused. Its mission, however, is to speak directly to those who may be suffering from domestic violence and to give them a voice, helping them to find their own. Per their website, “In viewing ‘I Remember Nicole,’ a victim of abuse may see herself in the faces of the hundreds of women no longer afraid. She may hear her life in the lyrics. Our hope is that I Remember Nicole will help her find her own voice. And ultimately, be empowered to turn her life around.”
The driving force behind “I Remember Nicole” is a small group of dedicated women who volunteered their time, effort and expertise. In addition to Renee and Mary Jo, Margarita Sweet has been instrumental since the very beginning as a producer, guiding the mission and fundraising.
Their goal is simple: To have people share the “I Remember Nicole” video link as much as possible, so it has the best chance of being viewed by anyone who may need to see it. Songs, they note, can be incredibly powerful, influencing our hearts and seeming to give us the message we need at just the right time. It’s easy to see how the lyrics could catalyze someone suffering from abuse to get help:
I WILL FREE MYSELF, BELIEVE IN
I WILL KEEP MYSELF SAFE AND WHOLE
I WILL LOVE MYSELF, REACH OUT FOR HELP
THIS IS WHAT I KNOW, I REMEMBER NICOLE
“We do hope it’s talking to people who could be in a situation now,” Renee says. “And they just need a little empowering.”
“It’s about finding your voice,” Mary Jo adds.
In addition to sharing the video on social media, it’s helpful for “I Remember Nicole” to be screened at events. Madonna Cacciatore, the executive director of L.A. Pride this year, has invited them to screen the video at FEM(ME): the official L.A. Pride women’s kick-off party on June 2. After a couple of comedians and speakers, they’ll show the video and Tanya, Nicole’s sister, will speak. “I would love it to be a part of other events,” Renee tells me. “In group settings it really comes alive and people start talking about it, and it seems to really affect them and they get the message. I hope they’re getting the message on YouTube as well, but we would really love to see it part of events.”
On June 12, it will be 25 years since the murders. And Nicole Brown Simpson is still being remembered. There’s an upcoming temporary exhibit called “Passion for Life: Nicole Brown Simpson” at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Featuring artifacts that belonged to Nicole, the new exhibit’s focal point will be the “I Remember Nicole” video. Renee and Mary Jo want the video to become an even stronger movement.
For the West Hollywood community specifically, due to its high LGBTQ population, the “I Remember Nicole” mission may be especially relevant. From the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Sotile discovered there’s more “intimate partner violence” in the gay, lesbian, and trans community than in the straight world. Mary Jo explains, “We were saying that we think that the queer community probably is a little more compromised because you’re kind of raised to not know what a relationship should be like, especially when it’s non-traditional. You might not have the family support or the role models to know what’s okay and what isn’t.” Further, Mary Jo offers that because LGBTQ folk aren’t part of the mainstream, their self-worth may take a hit. “So you kind of get this constant feeling that you’re less than, maybe. That you don’t qualify as much. And maybe that translates into your relationships, too.”
Irrespective of where it’s most prevalent, domestic violence is still an epidemic, often hiding in plain sight. Mary Jo had suspicions a neighbor was being abused and noticed sometime later that that neighbor’s leg was in a cast. Once, while picketing at UCLA, Renee and Mary Jo chatted up a woman who was curious about their cause. They asked if she wanted to hold a sign. “She seemed like she was just going to say ‘yes’ and the boyfriend walks up and said, ‘what’s going on?’” Renee explains. “He goes, ‘no, no’,” telling his girlfriend that she wasn’t going to carry a sign. Mary Jo stood up to the boyfriend: “Well, she has a voice!” But the woman didn’t say anything. If she is being abused, seeing the video could help her find her voice, if not do a lot more.
To share the video or be part of “I Remember Nicole,” visit iremembernicole.com. You can find @IRememberNicole on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those in immediate danger from domestic violence should call 9–1–1. For anonymous and confidential help 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799–7233.