I grew up in New York City. In 1989 I was halfway through high school. The Central Park Five were my contemporaries. I didn't know them, but I knew people who knew some of them. I was sure I knew kids like them.
And I knew they were guilty.
I recently watched the Ken Burns' documentary, The Central Park Five, on PBS. It is still hard to digest the magnitude of this wrongful conviction. This wasn't an obscure case, like so many of the death row inmates in Texas or Georgia who are convicted outside the public glare. This was the biggest trial in the country. All of us were watching. Almost all of us believed the police, the district attorney, the media.
There were skeptics who believed in their innocence. At the time, they were pilloried. And yet, they were right. And we were wrong.
It is not easy to be humble. I'm not even sure if I think it's a virtue to always be humble. But it is good to be humbled. To be reminded that there are things that we simply know to be true, so much so that we don't even question our certitude.
I believed Bill Clinton, not Linda Tripp. I believed Saddam had WMDs. I believed the Central Park Five were guilty.
I'm not gullible. I'm skeptical of authority. But I also can be skeptical of those challenging authority. This makes life more complicated. Ideally, it means evaluating and determining "the truth" on more of a case by case basis.
For my friends at the ACLU, a case like the Central Park Five reinforces their pre-existing cynicism about law enforcement. For true believers who support the police department, no amount of evidence will convince them that these teens were innocent.
Reality is our challenge. Reality tells us that most people who are arrested are guilty, but some are innocent. How do we remain wary of police misconduct, of police fallibility, without presuming it?
My experience as a teenager made me predisposed to believe in the guilt of the Central Park Five. At that time, New York was a violent city. More than 2,000 people were murdered each year. When you went outside your home, you were vigilant at all times. Walking down the street, riding the subway, at the school yard or park. Even in school. You kept your head up. You watched for people you thought might be mentally ill, or violent. You avoided danger.
Above all else, you avoided teenagers. Group of four, five, six or more teenagers were the worst. Mostly they would just hassle people, but hassling could move to robbery or assault in an instant. And once it started, there wasn't much one could do about it. 10 seconds. 20 seconds. 30 at most. Then it was over and they were gone.
The Central Park Five were said to be "wilding" that night. Running through the park, harassing, assaulting, and robbing people. "Wilding" was real. In 1989 it happened frequently. Usually it wasn't reported. Sometimes police would intervene.
I usually travelled with friends. You were safer with your friends. Being alone meant you were vulnerable.
Kids ran in posses, which were like mini-gangs of friends, sometimes thugs and wanna-be thugs. In an earlier era, someone would have called them "juvenile delinquents." Most were relatively harmless. Other were harmless, until they weren't. Others existed largely to cause trouble.
The police harassed teenagers all the time. I wasn't a big kid. I was white. I didn't go out looking for trouble. But even I was harassed by police. Questioned. Threatened. Intimidated. It never went farther than that, but for many kids it did. Police abuse of power was commonplace.
And yet, I still didn't believe the Central Park Five were innocent. I didn't trust the police, but i knew those kids. I had walked blocks out of my way to avoid them. Gotten off subway trains. Walked into stores or hotel lobbies. I was more scared of them than i was of the cops.
Yes, I believed racism was endemic in many of our institutions. But I knew the Central Park Five were guilty. I was sure of it.