I went to a movie screening of The Central Park Five Tuesday, March 5, 2013 and I'm still thinking about it. After watching this documentary and although covered heavily since 1989, I realized a much-needed young black male's perspective has been missing from this ongoing case. The documentary, originally released on Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, gives these five innocent black and Latino men (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise), the voices they were wrongly denied since falsely confessing to the horrific rape of the Central Park Jogger, Trisha Meili the night of April 19, 1989. As New York City continues to deny the Central Park Five compensation for six to 13 years each served in prison, denial of any wrongdoing and the racist injustice of the criminal justice system within this case is actually a continued disservice to all black and Latino men.
Although I could never feel exactly what these five men have felt for nearly 24 years, many black and Latino men can relate. And my skin color, age and sex connects me to them, puts me in that lonely corner with them, puts in that box of "the feared black man" with them and hence, puts me in their seats that night of interrogation. But like many black and Latino men, the five youths were seen as criminals from the very beginning without any chance of having real voices. Accused of a night of "wilding" or gangs of youths terrorizing innocent people through violent rampages, the youths were brought in for questioning related to other crimes that night in Central Park. After Meili was found hours later in Central Park, the five youths were viciously interrogated over the long course of a day until they falsely confessed -- each saying they assaulted the victim, but didn't rape her. After many hours of no sleep, no food, constant manipulation and interrogation from police, the youths gave their video confessions to get out of a bad situation, but instead helped in already-police-made convictions of each other. The five youths claimed their confessions were coerced by the police. In fact, the semen found at the scene of the crime didn't match any of the youths, there were discrepancies in the youths' confessions and the actual crime. But due to the videotaped confessions, all the rest of the evidence didn't matter.
From the footage of the videotaped confessions captured in the documentary, I have enough common sense to realize the youths were lying about the confessions and noticeable inconsistencies with the youths stories and the majority of the youths not even knowing each other should've been a red flag. Wise's body language in his videotaped confessions screamed help me... screamed I want out of this, that the words he was saying were in fact lies. Common sense told me when taken to the crime scene separately and both Wise, and Richardson pointed in different directions as to where the crime specifically took place that something was fishy about the accusations. Common sense told me, although in Central Park, the youths location close to the other crimes were nowhere near where the Central Park Jogger was savagely raped and were near impossible to be.
But New York City (let alone the world) was outraged about the brutal rape and assault of Meili. In return, a media frenzy painted the young men in a horrific light no different from the days of Jim Crow references of Negro brutes and lynchings to modern day teenage mutants and Donald Trump demanding the death penalty of the five youths. All that matter were the confessions and that was enough to NOT dive into the possibility that NYPD's pressure to quickly solve this case led them on a path of harassment and racial profiling of the five youths without any logic outside of "wilding," which the five youths also claimed to not partake in.
I'm outraged at New York City. As a young black man recounting this case from the Central Park Five's perspective, trying to not be outraged wasn't even an option. I had the details to this story as I did Emmett Till, The Scottsboro Boys, Trayvon Martin and countless other cases of young black men being victimized by false claims of victimizing white people (specifically white women) -- staying indebted to a historical and institutionalized hatred and fear of the black man. But beforehand, I didn't have the details on this level, and I was mind-blown from start to finish of this documentary. So much it's been a process to articulate it and put it in these words.
NYC owes the Central Park Five an apology (and their money -- a $250 million civil suit filed in 2003), which really in itself won't make up for the many years lost among the five men. But NYC refuses to give it -- will not even acknowledge any wrongdoing in the case -- some claiming that the actual serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, was just the sixth missing person involved in the rape. NYC also asked for a subpoena of the documentary's footage -- claiming the filmmakers aren't journalists and the documentary is one-sided. But the subpoena was denied being that the filmmakers are protected under freedom of speech. According to the documentary's well-known filmmaker, Ken Burns, asked for the city of New York's voice in the documentary, but prosecutors and police refused to give it.
Reyes' connection to the Central Park Jogger case wasn't made. It took 13 years for a confession from Reyes serving a 33 year to life sentence for raping four women and murdering one of them, a pregnant woman in 1989. In prison with Wise, Reyes claimed he felt remorseful because Wise (and others) were paying for his crime. After his DNA was matched and he filled in the pieces to evidence of what happened that night, all five men were vacated of the charges in December 2002.
But more than a decade of damage had already been done. Enough damage to cause post-traumatic stress disorder among the five men as if they were war veterans, labels as criminals and sex offenders, trying to play catch up to a decade of youth and life they can never get back, tarnished reputations and an ongoing debate on whether or not they took part in the rape (hence, some people are too stubborn to use common sense). After his first release, Santana felt the only way to contribute to his family's household was to sell drugs -- sending him back to prison for a longer term until his original charges were vacated. According to Burns at the movie screening, McCray's life and relationship with his father was like a Shakespearean tragedy. McCray's father was his hero; then during the interrogation his father told him to tell the police what they wanted to hear. He falsely confessed. His father left him and his mother during the trials. He was convicted of the rape. He was released from prison. His father returned home. His father repeatedly apologized. He refused to speak to his father. His mother tried to get the two to talk. His father became sick. His father died.
Although, I grew up in the Midwest -- a completely different environment -- the Central Park Five's story could've been mine or any black or Latino man's story. That bothers me, that in any daily situation the black male can be criminalized, but in return become the victim. It's many parents of color's fear for their sons -- even in a modern-day world that historically has feared the black male and in return institutionally has overly-criminalized (and profiled) him at the cost of his already limited freedom and even life. Parents of color make their children aware of racial inequalities from a very young age and some feel they have to teach their sons to act and dress a certain way in hopes of avoidance of racially profiling, and appearing as a threat.
This is still clearly happening today and as in 24 years ago, the same historical racism against the black male: rapists, savages, criminals, artist portrayals of these young men with gorilla-like features and teenage mutants were used to describe these young, innocent men. NYC was faceted on one horrific rape and rape victim out of more than 3,000 that year. And in return wrongfully convicted five youths -- creating a total of not just one, but six victims that were in Central Park the night of April 19. NYC, we need closure; they (the Central Park Five) need closure. Let's give it to them. But unfortunately, it's a continued criminalization of the Central Park Five and being it could've been any of us as black and Latino men. We should all feel the injustice. In the meantime, all young black and Latino brothers (and sisters too) should be fighting for justice, peace and exoneration from injustice. We should be fighting for our rights in 2013 because still we are historically and institutionally victimized through being criminalized.
It pains me to call the Central Park Five victims, but they were and are, but the only difference from 1989 is in 2013 they have voices they're sharing and a call for justice they're fighting.
The Central Park Five will air on PBS Tuesday, April 16, 2013. To find where and when the documentary is showing at a theater near you, visit the Facebook page.