A Lynching In Central Park
Last night I watched a compelling documentary about 5 Black teens falsely accused, arrested, and convicted of a brutal assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in the Spring of 1989. This documentary, entitled ‘The Central Park 5″ chronicles the unfortunate story of how these teens were arrested, prosecuted, and railroaded every step of the way. Perhaps what was most poignant about this documentary is how inescapable the feeling of “this could easily have been me” was. I found it hard to divorce myself from the the accounts of these men, now in their thirties, detailing their treatment. It’s a story worth knowing about.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam. I use the word children because that’s what they were at the time. There ages ranged from 14 to 16. The story goes that on the night of April 19, 1989 the kids were engaging in horseplay in the Northern Portion of Central Park. It was a rather large group of kids, and the five just happened to be with them.
Elsewhere in the park, Trisha Meili was jogging when she was assaulted, hit many times in the head, raped, and essentially left for dead. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley. She lived on the upper East side of Manhattan and worked for the investment bank Salomon Brothers.
Without going into too much detail here, because you can actually just watch the entire film on the PBS website, the five kids were arrested on the day after the attack. This was mostly because they happened to be in the Park the night of the rape, and on little other suspicion. What is worth noting, however, is that once taken into questioning, the five were separated, and interrogated for hours. No food. No water. No rest. This eventually led to written confessions by four of the five and later videotaped confessions of those four.
This is where the connection I feel with these young men was felt most poignantly. They were teens. Isolated from their parents and each other. Interrogated for hours and swiftly they were convinced that if they just wrote down a story implicating each other, they would be allowed to go home. But one wonders why, when some of their parents did arrive, why they didn’t refuse to confess. Especially if they didn’t do it. Well, I think it has to do with the nature of inner city, minority communities and police. If there isn’t outright distrust of the authorities, there is a stubborn acquiescence to police abuses. More educated people and communities may know their constitutional rights to refuse questioning. Or not to speak to the police without an attorney present. These kids didn’t. Even when their parents were in the room, they still didn’t request counsel. Many of the parents were convinced themselves by police that if only their son would tell the story, the boy would be able to go home. And considering the age of the boys, their extended questioning, and pressure from officers, when it came down to it and their parents encouraged confessing, it’s easier to see why they did.
Perhaps the scariest part of this was how the media treated these boys. No skepticism. No inquiry into the chronology of the night and the lack of a DNA match. The major contribution of the media to the story was to label these kids “The Wolf Pack.” It’s been done for centuries, when you can separate and dehumanize the “other,” it makes it easier to sell them down the river. The boys were characterized as a savage pack of animals who were in the park “wilding” on the night of the rape. This term, “wilding” was construed in the major media to mean wanton and reckless violence. The term shocked the lighter denizens of the city and galvanized the public to condemn these teens.
At one point a historian in the documentary said that had these boys been rounded up in Mississippi in 1901, they would have surely been lynched.
I asked myself while watching, “Why the Hell was this not called a lynching.” You had a mob of people who knew little actual details calling for not justice, but revenge. An often enraged White populace was interviewed and used this case to state reasons for bringing back the death penalty in New York state. All that was missing was the morbid photo like the one shown above with smiling Whites in the midst of the beaten, castrated, and often burned bodies of the dead Blacks.
If the city of New York could have actually lynched these boys, they likely would have.
As a young Black man this resonates with the inner, delicate part of my psyche. The part I can’t quite explain to my Beige classmates. The part that makes you tense up when you’re driving peacefully down a dark road in the South and you see those blue light flash behind you. The part that makes you think back to the dumb things you did when you were 14 and just wanted to fit in. You jumped fences with your friends. You may have stolen some small things. You may have been in places you knew you had no business being. Now just imagine if a pretty, White, female had been found near where you were. You were arrested. And then imagine if your mom or dad wanted to be with you as you were questioned but had to go to work and would have lost their job if they didn’t. Now imagine the immense pressure to confess with the false promise of being able to go home. These thoughts at least had me tearing up like when Ricky refused to run left or right in “Boyz n the Hood” and got shot all over some cornmeal.
I often write about legal topics here on the blog. That’s because I am a law student. On the verge of graduation, incidentally. I want to practice criminal defense and I often get asked outright “You mean you want to defend murderers, rapists, etc.” Well, the story of the Central Park Five will have you rethinking our nation’s commitment to real Justice and the presumption of innocence to which all citizens are entitled. Sometimes, the defense attorney’s job is to make the system work. To challenge the concentrated efforts of the prosecutor. And still other times, the defense attorney’s biggest job is to be the only friend in the world to a young, Black teen who is taken in the middle of the night from his friends and family, and accused of a terribly heinous crime.
Continue to Question the World Around You. And Know Your Rights.
The entire documentary is available here: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/