Sunday, December 9, 2012

Out of the (recent) past

Civil War guy Ken Burns has co-directed with his daughter a documentary on the Central Park Five. The case popularized the word "wilding" in American English, although perhaps mercifully it has not remained popular. Burns talked about the CP5 in a recent interview


Q. What I found most affecting was, from the point of view of a parent, inevitably thinking, what if my son had been one of these kids? Maybe the most powerful moment, for me, was when Raymond [Santana]’s father says —

A. “I sent him into the park that evening.” This has been very moving for me to work with my daughter. Also very moving to get to know these five —

Q. Who are such impressive men.

A. Incredibly impressive. With a noticeable lack of overwhelming bitterness. With a kind of weariness, but also wisdom. We’ve been out on the road with them appearing before audiences, and it suddenly felt as though we were merging families.

It almost goes without saying, and yet still needs to be said, that no one was talking in 1989 about how impressive these men were. The assault on the Central Park jogger was one of a series of highly publicized racial incidents - most of them occurring in New York City - during the late 1980s and early 90s. The publicization of these incidents seems to have been aimed expressly at raising moral panic against black and Hispanic urbanites and creating an us-v-them mentality

An admittedly quick web search failed to turn up any stories contemporary to their arrest and trial. Whether this is by accident or design I don't know. It would be morbidly interesting to see again how it was covered in, say, The New York Post. My memories align with this.

The Central Park Five are the five men who were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Central Park Five for the Guardian. It’s a heartbreaking case — the jogger barely survived the attack, and suffered enormous physical trauma. The city was enraged and hungry for a conviction. Donald Trump put out a “bring back the death penalty” ad in response to the crime. Five black and Latino boys were interrogated for hours and deprived of sleep until they confessed; once actually arrested and charged with the crime, they recanted. Racial tensions boiled, with racist caricatures of of-color youth going “wilding,” prowling the streets in a “wolf pack” for innocent white victims proliferating in the white-dominated media. While the woman was generally treated as an innocent victim, even she didn’t totally escape victim-blaming — writing about this case even 20 years later inevitably leads to many people asking, “Why was she jogging in Central Park late at night? What did she think was going to happen?”

The point to remember is that these youths weren't just unjustly convicted, although that is an abomination unto itself. They were also unjustly condemned, and held up as the worst of humanity. And all because there was a culprit-shaped hole that the law couldn't fill with the right guy

The other thing that needs to be remembered is that this isn't ancient history. It's not even distant history. If you were to compile a list of people who made gravy on this, who profited in politics or the media, you'd almost certainly find some who still have high positions. The eddies are still rippling out.


susan said...

I remember being stunned by the crime only to learn years afterwards that all five confessions had been obtained essentially by torture and the boys convicted had been exonerated. All the years of their youth and freedom had been lost. It was a horrible injustice and I'm very glad that even though there can be no recompense that Ken Burns, his daughter, and son-in-law have brought the true story into the light. Culprit shaped holes should never be filled by the imposition of a convenient narrative.

Ben said...

It's a sad fact that torture works. It doesn't work as far as getting the truth is concerned, but it does work for making pieces fit when they shouldn't. But yes, I'm glad the Burnses are helping to bring this to light too.