The Central Park Five: Justice Gone Wrong

One night, late in April 1989, I sat in an apartment in Jersey City, discussing the Central Park jogger rape case with two friends. One of them, a black Haitian-American, expressed unease over the press and television coverage of the case, the use of the language of ‘wolf packs,’ ‘savages,’ ‘wilding,’ and all of the rest; it all seemed a little too similar to calls for lynching in the past. The other, a white Cuban-American, dismissed such concerns, saying that the five boys arrested for the rape were indeed savages for the brutal rape and beating they had committed, and deserved to be described and treated thus–perhaps even strung up. My Haitian friend shook his head; he was concerned this language was reserved only for black Americans, that it would serve to demonize the black community; he wondered if the press would have reacted the same way if a black woman had been raped, if the perpetrators had been white instead.

I mostly listened. I had only been in the US for two years then; I was still coming to terms with the racial politics of a country which I had thought I understood well from afar, but which had turned out to be bewilderingly different. I was ambivalent. Even though I felt some of the same unease that my Haitian friend did, I was also stunned by the ferocity and viciousness of the attack on the Central Park jogger; I had spent two years experiencing the inner-city blight of Newark, and had become susceptible to the claims that all of its pathologies could be blamed on hyper-aggressive, criminal, young black men.

Our argument finally ran out of steam; we returned to drinking forties of malt liquor, smoking cigarettes, and watching with some amusement, the the drug dealers plying their trade on the street below.

The prosecution of the five boys arrested for the rape did not so spend itself; it went all the way and sent innocent juveniles to jail; one of them spent a dozen years behind bars. That horrifying story of a miscarriage of justice–one only redeemed by a jailhouse confession made by the actual culprit–is captured well in Ken BurnsThe Central Park Five;  so painful is the record of police and prosecutorial misconduct, forced confessions, willful blindness to the lack of evidence, and the damage done to families and lives, that my wife walked out of our living room in tears, unable to watch any more. She returned a little later after composing herself, and we resumed watched this searing record of truth thrown under the bus wind down to its sorry conclusion, right down to the postscript that notes the civil lawsuit filed by the five against New York City. (That case was finally settled on 5 September, with a $41 million payout.)

The Central Park Five should enrage you; it should especially do so because many, if not all the ills noted in it–especially the racist criminal justice system, so brutally indicted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow–are still depressingly resilient features of the American landscape.

You know that line, ‘If you see something, say something’? Well, go see The Central Park Five, and then do something. Get angry. Volunteer at The Innocence Project for instance. (A full quarter of the cases it has successfully resolved false confessions–just like those in the case of the Central Park Five.)

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