Monday, April 29, 2013

Apologizing to the Central Park Five

Did the cops commit theft themselves?

New York's finest responded swiftly and decisively upon learning that a white woman had been brutally raped and left for dead in a notoriously dangerous region of Central Park.  A ragtag group of teenaged scofflaws had earlier been brought in to the department's precinct house, a dilapidated outpost within Manhattan's legendary green space.  Might there be a connection between this savage crime and these teens' self-professed "wilding" that evening?

A homeless vagrant had been assaulted, as well as several joggers and bicyclists.  All of the incidents had taken place in the northern reaches of the long park, far from the relatively safe and more heavily used recreational spaces clustered in Central Park's southern "white" zone, near all of the exclusive hotels and luxury apartment buildings.  Whereas few New Yorkers with common sense ventured into any part of the park after dark, those who did had less to fear if they stayed close to its outside borders.  But a lone, young, white, female jogger took the risk of going deeper and further north.  She was a privileged stock broker from Pennsylvania who perhaps didn't truly appreciate the grim realities of 1980's New York City.

Not that what happened to her was her fault.  But plenty of idealistic young people coming to the big city to make money underestimate how some people without it live.

Darkness Deeper Than the Night

It was after 9:00 pm on April 20, 1989.  A darkness more pervasive than the nighttime sky had swallowed the socioeconomically distressed slums teeming in uncomfortable and paradoxical proximity to Manhattan's impressively elite neighborhoods.  For better or worse, stretching more than 50 blocks, Central Park can't help but link Manhattan's have's and have-not's.  And it does so with a seductive canopy of marvelous trees, romantic winding pathways, and a pervasive - if misleading - atmosphere of tranquility.

Entering this realm was not only the successful Wall Street broker, jogging through for just another night of exercise, but five bored and restless teenagers from a world completely opposite that of the accomplished Pennsylvanian.  Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise were kids, a mix of blacks and Hispanics, mostly from the projects, and of somewhat disreputable conduct, who decided to go out for a bit of adventure.  Neither hard-core criminals nor choir boys, they tagged along with a larger group of more hardened punks who caroused along and into Central Park looking for trouble.

And they found it.  McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise would soon become known to New Yorkers as the "Central Park Five," but they were not the hooligans cops assumed them to be.  Their group's pouncing on a disoriented homeless man disturbed the Central Park Five, and they began to have second thoughts about those with whom they were associating.  As some of the others began targeting additional victims who had ventured too far north into Harlem's domain, these five kids started backing away.  But it was too late.  Before they knew it, cops were swarming over them, and the Central Park Five was formed as the boys were rounded up and dumped at the precinct house.

New York then wasn't the same New York most tourists know today.  New York then was a city of incessant muggings, murders, rapes, Crack cocaine, and a pervasive fear among residents and visitors alike.  And everyone wanted the cops to do something about it.  At first, when the five hapless teens were brought in, police were simply interested in getting a handle on that evening's crime spree.  Just another night of mild mayhem - by Big Apple standards, anyway.  However, when the rape report came in, everything changed.

Before long, cops who were either overzealous, or indifferent to justice - or both - had gotten the Central Park Five to individually confess to a crime they didn't know anything about.  Their videotaped confessions were not consistent, nor did they align with pertinent facts, but they were enough to help police officials convince New York's voracious media machine that the Central Park Jogger's rapists had been caught.  That the enraged city could relax.  Everything was under control.

Any rape is a heinous crime, of course.  But the rape of the Central Park Jogger came to represent an apex of the city's anger towards its criminal element.  The case also became a sort of rallying point for not only recognizing the depravity of its collective conscience, but a determination that New Yorkers could not allow things to get any worse.  Its symbolism and the arrest of the Central Park Five resonated throughout New York's spectrum of people groups:  rich whites were relieved by it, poor blacks were resigned to it, and everyone hoped it was a turning point in the right direction.

Blinded By Racism's Power

I wasn't living in New York in 1989, but I was by 1990, and I remember the brou-ha-ha in the media over the Central Park Jogger case and the much-hyped trials of the Central Park Five.  Not that I followed the trials very closely, however.  For one reason, I was preoccupied with the mechanics of working and living in one of America's most stressful environments.  But for another thing, I was young, naive, and apparently, more of a racist than I am today.

Late this past Friday evening, I was surfing television channels before going to bed, and I stumbled upon a Ken Burns documentary on our local PBS station here in north Texas.  It was about the Central Park Five, a case that this past Friday, I barely remembered.  But I quickly caught on, and recalled how the five punks had been found guilty and sent to prison.

"Ken Burns is doing a documentary on these guys?" I thought to myself.  "I wonder what his angle is?"

The show started with personal interviews of the Central Park Five, and they were admitting to being in the park, and to being a part of the pack of teens that beat up some innocent visitors to the park.  So I assumed that Burns wanted to explore how these thugs have been able to turn their lives around after serving their time for such wilding.

But Burns caught me completely by surprise.  As each of the boys - now, thirty-something-year-old men - kept insisting they didn't rape the Central Park Jogger, I was reliving the same "I'm not buying your sob story" mentality I had back when the trials for these five boys were taking place.  Burns lined up the videotaped evidence each boy gave prosecutors so we viewers could see how they didn't match, but still, I was sold on their guilt.  It wasn't until Burns' show was more than half-way finished that he introduced Matias Reyes, a serial rapist in the city back then, and then the shocker:  Reyes did it.

Several years after the trials, Reyes not only confessed to raping the Central Park Jogger, but DNA evidence proved it.  No DNA evidence from any of the Central Park Five was found at the rape crime scene.  Reyes was able to corroborate details about his crime that cops had never released to the media, and which none of the Central Park Five could confirm.  Reyes' infamy was also already known to the cops before the infamous rape in Central Park.  However, as Burns tells it, New York's district attorney's office and police department appear to have intentionally stolen the youth of these five boys.

In order to avoid an embarrassing, public-confidence-busting, and legal-Pandora's-box backtrack from that fateful night in the Central Park precinct house, city officials pressed forward with their original yet utterly contrived version of what happened to the Central Park Jogger.  Officials did not want to publicly second-guess the cops.  The district attorney's office refused to admit that, aside from those videotaped confessions, extracted through duress and outright lies told by cops to the teens, they had a flimsy case. Instead, city officials placed their trust in the public's reliable racism and the jury's likelihood of rendering a verdict based solely on whatever videotaped evidence is presented to them.  Apparently, it's well-known in legal circles that juries will place greater weight on anything they see and hear on a videotape, even if it contradicts hard facts in a case.

Compounding matters, remember, was the city's boiling-point anger against roving gangs of minority boys and men, and the impunity with which people with threatening demeanors could terrorize neighborhoods.

Granted, it didn't help anything that activists like Al Sharpton were organizing protests against the trial, the district attorney's office, and the police.  Parents of the Central Park Five had appealed to anybody who would listen to them - and that consisted only of people like Sharpton - because of how the evidence had been so egregiously compiled against their sons.  For all the rest of us, even other impoverished minorities in the city, it proved far easier to assume the cop's case against these teenagers was as true as it seemed.  And we were content to let them be found guilty and go to prison.

For something for which, I learned Friday night, however, they weren't guilty.

Oh. No.

I'm So Sorry

The Central Park Five today:  From left, Antron McCray,
Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise
Of course, I'm leaving out a lot of details from this story, and for those, you'll have to watch Burns' special.  After all, I'm not here to steal Burns' storytelling thunder.  My purpose in this essay is to do something that is uncomfortable, and sad, but something that is also rather freeing.  Freeing, at least, for me.  Ironic, since it's the Central Park Five who should have gone free on the rape charges.

For what it's worth, to Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise, I respectfully apologize for being one of those people who automatically assumed you were guilty because of your race, your family's economic situation, and the stereotypes I held - and still hold - about how kids like you behave.  You were not innocent until proven guilty.  I figured that since the cops said you did it, and since you seemed to be the type of kids who would do it, you had done it.  I am so very sorry, and ashamed.

I don't pretend to be the most righteous person out there, and like most of us, I struggle with varying degrees of racism.  But it was too easy for me to let the pieces of this case fall together against you based more on my own racism than the facts - or lack of them.  Granted, I was not on your jury, and I didn't hear all of the evidence, nor did I know then what I know now about what the police knew - but didn't tell the public.  And there's nothing I can do now - or could have done then - that would have made any difference in how your case turned out.

Yet I was a member of the New York City community during those years when your parents wanted somebody to listen, and hardly any of us did.  One of the reasons why New York's media did not stop and listen to your families was because people like me thought putting people like you in prison would help the city's crushing crime problem go away.

Instead, you were put away, along with your youth, and whatever potential you might have been able to build upon without the psychological stigma both you and society hold about prison time.

You'll probably never hear me make this confession, and offer this apology, but hopefully, as Burns' film lends credence and publicity to you, your ordeal can stand as a testament to the ugly power of racism.

Indeed, there were five more victims than cops realized in Central Park that night.  Six, if you count justice as one of racism's casualties.

Update 6/19/14:  The exonerated Central Park Five settled their claim of false imprisonment by the City of New York for approximately $40 million, to be split amongst them.

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