I remember the Central Park Five. I remember them well. In the spring of 1989, I was not much older than the boys themselves, an undergraduate at nearby Sarah Lawrence College, just a 30 minute Metro North train ride from the city where, it seemed, everyone had convicted the teenagers accused of brutally raping and nearly killing a woman jogger in the north end- the Harlem end- of the park.
Four of the five boys were black, like me. The victim was a woman, like me.
The prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, DA, mayor were all New Yorkers, like me. And the city was torn apart, like I am now, after watching Ken Burns’ stunning film, The Central Park Five.
I normally dislike the overuse of the first person in journalism. The story, after all, should be about the subject, not the writer. But The Central Park Jogger case is about me. It is about all of us. I am complicit in the denigration of five innocent boys who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman 24 years ago. All of us who rushed to judge these boys, to allow the media coverage of the case to overwhelm what should have been a quiet, meticulous investigation of the evidence, are equally complicit in the wrongful incarceration of five beautiful young men.With delicate photography and an effective use of period footage and sound, Burns makes what may be the most important film of his career - and makes a case against our own deeply ingrained prejudices.
Now, in our post-9/11 world, during an era of Stop and Frisk and racial profiling, of gentrification, of displacement of black people from cities like DC, and especially after the horrific attacks during the Boston Marathon, we all need to watch “The Central Park Five”. The film details the case, placing it in the context of a city in transition, and traces the journey of the five boys who very quickly became men in a criminal justice system that destroyed their innocence, their potential, their personal power. It also challenges the viewer, asking each of us to question our knee-jerk responses to big media crime cases, to question our responses to the beautiful brown boys who are our neighbors, who are our children.
When the infamous Central Park Jogger case began, New York was just emerging from the near-bankruptcy of the 1970s and entering a period of lavish conspicuous consumption that was fueled by Wall Street in the 1980s. Black culture was just emerging from the empowerment of the Black Power Movement of the 1970s and entering a period of disenfranchisement that was fueled by the Crack Era of the 1980s. Five boys were caught in the space in-between, trapped by a system that hardly noticed when a black woman was raped and thrown from a Brooklyn rooftop around the same time the white woman in Central Park Jogger case became a media sensation.
Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, and Raymond Santana, all between 14 and 16 at the time, are victims as much as the jogger herself, Trisha Meili. The fact that the case was named after the Central Park Jogger – and not the Central Park Five - expresses the institutionalized racism that privileged Meili and demonized the boys wrongly accused of attacking her.
The film tries to establish that the police coerced these children, lied and told them they would be able to go home if they confessed, and told them what to say on camera about a crime they did not commit. It also presents an argument that the prosecutors ignored obvious discrepancies in the evidence used against the boys. (Ed Note: The NYC police department and prosecutor's office deny deliberately engaging in misconduct) The media sold papers by using heinous language that amounted to little more than regurgitated hate-speech of the post-Reconstruction South.
And we all let them get away with it.
Meanwhile, one promising white woman lost her potential and personal power – and the respectful, accurate handling of her case that she deserved. The real rapist roamed free, and more women were victimized, and more families were destroyed by the inefficiency of institutionalized racism, which distracted law enforcement, lawyers, jurors, judges, and journalists from truths that Burns’ makes devastatingly apparent in the film.
Jim Dwyer, a New York Times writer featured in the film says: “The police controlled the story from the beginning” and laments the fact that he and his colleagues did not do their jobs better when covering the case. Investigators working for law enforcement and criminal justice ignored timeline discrepancies, an absence of any physical evidence linking the boys to the rape, and obvious contradictions in the very videotaped confessions that were used to convict the Central Park Five. As one person in the film says, had this case opened in the Jim Crow South, the five boys accused of raping Meili would have quickly been lynched. Yet not enough of us were outraged when a larger than life personality like Donald Trump took out four full-page newspaper ads calling for these five boys to be executed.
Subjects in the film ask what the media coverage would have been if the victim had lived in Bed-Stuy or Harlem, if the victim, like the boys, had been a black woman. They ask if Donald Trump would have been involved in the case at all.
It is a question we all need to ask, all of us who simply did not stand up with activists like Al Sharpton, who protested on behalf of the wrongfully accused boys.
The demonization of our children continues, of course. Our brown babies are too often criminalized by police, by prosecutors, in the media, in our own communities – even in our own homes. The only redemption we can hope to achieve in the aftermath of The Central Park Five case is that we all get honest with ourselves after watching this film. The only hope for real, enduring justice is that we all back away from swift judgment of people caught up in a system that was never intended to protect them in the first place, people who look like you and me.
The Central Park Five can be viewed in the Washington area on WETA TV26 & WETA HD, Tuesday April 16 at 9:00pm and 11:00pm and Wednesday, April 17 at 2pm.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel about the experiences of the women left behind when a young man is shot and killed. Follow her at www.EisaUlen.com and on Twitter @EisaUlen