*I finally got a chance to see a documentary this weekend that I actually had a chance to host (but it was weekend before the election and we had a forum scheduled already).
It is one of the most powerful untold stories of the 20th Century. There are things that happen to us in society that have nothing to do with us, nor does it happen of our own volition. It just happens and the world spins out of control from there. This is what happened to five black and Latino teenagers in New York, in 1989, when female jogger was assaulted and raped in the world’s most famous park, Central Park. Five young men lives, who were ages 13 to 16 at the time, changed forever.
The documentary is entitled, The Central Park Five. I’m not going to give the story away, but the (now) men’s convictions were vacated when another man came forward and admitted to the crime, proved to be a DNA match (which none of the five were) and the five are left with trying to put their lives back together amidst continuing efforts to sue the City of New York for prosecutorial misconduct. The media has never tried to recant, or get it right. It took Ken Burns to take up his daughter’s college research project to get the story out there. So the injustice continues to be perpetuated in the face of false realities in this miscarriage of justice.
The case, and stories like this case, has happened in every city in America for the past two decades. Race intersects sex and gender, inspired xenophobia and safety fears and politicians trying to respond to public outcry made for a leap to judgment that these young men couldn’t even fathom at their young ages. Only in the aftermath, can they even remotely rationalize what occurred and its still doesn’t justify how or why they became pawns in the game of race reality in America, in the city with the most intense and, at times, most unscrupulous media. They were feed to the sharks and the prosecutors capitulated to the pressure. We’ve seen this all before with high profile cases—the Scottsboro Boys, the Wilmington Ten. And we’ve seen it since. The question is, how many people have been wrongly prosecuted and convicted for alleged crimes they didn’t commit? This is lesson of the Central Park Five. It is an opportunity to discuss how we fix the system that somehow becomes captive to media manipulation—especially when race, gender and sex is involved. The Central Park Five were just as much of a victim as the Central Park jogger. The only difference was one emitted compassion while the other emitted distain.
What the documentary reinforces, in hindsight, was how susceptible we are to wrongheaded thinking as the many actors in this tragic play were the so-called “responsible” elected officials and civil servants who contrived the wrong story where there was one, rounded up some innocent victims who happened to be in the vicinity, fabricated a case to fit the crime (the only evidence were these boys forced, taped confessions), and fed it to the media. This was a time period that has moved us into an era away from the presumption of innocence to “guilty until proven innocent.” That’s the way society thinks now. But even in their innocence, the Central Park Five have spend the last decade trying to remove the stain of perceived guilt.
The reality is that many of America’s prosecutorial systems are set up to railroad certain segments of the population, black men and Latino men being two of them. In fact, from the time the Central Park Five were convicted in 1990 to the time they were released in 2002, America’s prison population went from under a million to over two million. A million of them, black men, and another 300,000, Latino men. The prison industrial complex was built on the prosecutorial ease to convict black men and the cozy relationship it had with media to frame the story in a way that was affirming and comfortable for the nation to live with. This problem isn’t fixed. It’s an alarm that is set to go off at any time, in any place in America. Each time it happens, we know it when we see it—but we get drawn into it by what we know to be wrongheaded thinking. Sensationalism sells papers. Convictions restores order. Victimization (blame) doesn’t matter and the truth gets lost in false realities. This is where our nation lands when toxic components of race, violence, gender and sex come into play. No one could have saved the Central Park Five. The only thing that could have (and did) save them was the truth, a truth nobody wanted to hear because it didn’t fit the circumstance, nor did it arrest the hysteria. And these men are still paying for a crime they didn’t commit. That’s the lesson of the Central Park Five.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.