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I saw my first film of the new year last night – The Central Park Five, a documentary about the five black and Latino boys who were falsely accused, bullied into confessing, and then served time for the rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger back in 1989. After serving 6-13 years in prison, the boys were exonerated of the crimes when the true rapist confessed and his DNA matched that found on the crime scene.
Certainly this film is a devastating story of racial injustice and the failure of the American criminal system. The film was made by famed PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns based on a book by his daughter Sarah Burns, and it largely focuses on the stories of the surviving boys (who are now men), their families, and archival footage.
The police, lawyers, and District Attorney involved in the case refused to participate. They are included in the documentary via archival footage, including the videotaped confessions which were extorted from the boys, four of whom were fourteen years old at the time of the crime and one who was sixteen.
During their 30 hours plus of interrogation, they had no legal representation, no child advocates, no social services presence, and no contact with their parents and family. They eventually confessed, being fed the details by the cops, simply to “make it stop.” Their confessions were inconsistent, full of errors and mistakes. None of the boys’ DNA was found at the crime scene; likewise, none of the DNA of the victim was found on the boys, though the crime was brutal and bloody. The boys were convicted on the sole evidence of the false confessions that were forced out of them by the brutal interrogation of the Central Park Precinct detectives.
Certainly this is a tragic tale of race in this country. It is particularly resonant after recently seeing Django Unchained. (I’ll be publishing my essay on that film next week). What is most interesting to me is how this incident was used by the media and governing forces as a catalyst event to propagate and reignite racial fear in this country. The terminology used to reference the boys by the so-called liberal media was as dehumanizing as that of the Jim Crow south. The boys were referred to as a “wild pack” who were “wilding” and terrorizing white people. They were spoken and written about as if they were wild animals, something less than human.
I remember the incident well. I was a woman jogger at the time, and I recall how this single incident framed a new Environment of Fear which was based on the threat of the black man against the white woman. It is the same fear that was propagated during Reconstruction (post Civil War America), when it was within the economic interest of white power to keep black men demonized.
It must be noted, that the Central Park Five event occurred in the wake of the ongoing fallout from the economic recession following Reaganomics. During hard economic times, the country likes to find a scapegoat for the economic chaos and despair that permeates the environment. In the case of the Central Park Five, the media, police and government forces created Wilding and the fear of Blacks in Packs. Also, it must be noted that censorship of black music was instituted at this time.
Certainly demonizing “the racial other” is nothing new in this country, but I see the Central Park Five incident as a kind of historical pivotal moment in the Post Civil Rights Era when American governing forces began re-escalating its reign of terror on people of color, immigrants and the disenfranchised (see the institution of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security for evidence). We have to remember that this country and its economic base were largely founded on racial demonization and dehumanization. Slavery was the economic backbone of early America. When the slaves were freed, many of them ended up packed away in housing projects such as those that tower the streets of Harlem. When housing projects didn’t work to contain America’s Big Ugly History, prisons were expanded and race was largely criminalized. This trend has not stopped to this day and certainly played a role in the Central Park Five.
To me, the most tragic part of the film is that when the boys are finally exonerated of their crimes, they greet this news with a kind of quiet and devastating resignation and acceptance. Certainly they are happy to no longer have to be “registered sex offenders” for the crimes they never committed, but there is also a sense that they feel that “this is just how things are in this country.” And the sad truth is that this is how things are in this country.
One boy who is now a man says with tears in his eyes (I paraphrase), “I will never get those years of my life back. No prom. No high school. They have been taken from me, and I will always have this hole or gap in my life where those years were stolen.” Yet, he also seems to accept it as a fact of life in America, a country that was founded on “stolen lives,” the legacy of which still largely lives and breathes up in Harlem where these boys lived.
It is a sobering and sad film. It is also critical to revisit this case to remember what it stood for as emblematic of the paradigm shift that occurred during the Reagan years and continued as we moved into the era of ultra conservatism that continues to dominate our political landscape today. We have not come a long way, baby. Not by a long shot.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.