“Wilding”: The Facts and Hysteria

Against the Current, No. 162, January/February 2013

George S. in conversation with Asha

The Central Park Five,
a new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon,
119 minutes

“THE CENTRAL PARK Five” is a new documentary by famed director Ken Burns (of The Civil War and Jazz fame), his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, based on Sarah’s book by the same title. I was able to see the film at one of its premier screenings in late November, at a small independent and loosely radical theater in Harlem. The theater was packed to capacity — as it was during the whole week it was showing — and was followed by a discussion with Sarah Burns and one of the “Five,” Yusef Salaam, who is now an IT worker at a nearby hospital.

The documentary tells the compelling story of how our “criminal justice system” got it so wrong in the case of this brutal April, 1989 assault on a jogger in Central Park, and makes a meaningful contribution to the discussion on the role of media in the white supremacist persecution of people of color — specifically men of color — even when they’re innocent.

The film also opens up a broader discussion on why this case was so politically important to the justification of “law and order” politics both in New York and nationally, but unfortunately doesn’t push past this to explore the political need for these policies in the first place.

Finally, the film virtually ignores the context of violence against women in which this gross miscarriage of justice was unfolding. Much of the film’s content and analysis would have been the same if the crime for which the Central Park Five were falsely convicted had not been sexual violence.

Not dealing with the realities of violence that women face — that in fact, relatively few assaults are committed by strangers, that a majority of survivors never report their experiences or that women of color continue to face more virulent “victim blaming” — this film avoids the more complicated, but essential, intersection of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Coerced Confessions

Other reviews have summarized the details of the case,(1) and the book provides much more extensive detail, but the core of the story is that five innocent African American and Latino adolescent boys from Harlem, aged 14-16 years old, were convicted of viciously assaulting and raping a white woman jogging through the park.

Through extensive interviews with these five men — now roughly in their 40s — the film takes us through the events of the night in question, including the 14-30 hours of interrogation without legal representation that resulted in their videotaped confessions which lead to their conviction. (Although the jogger recovered, she remembered nothing of the event itself.)

The film thoroughly details the factual discrepancies that NYPD investigators were aware of during the investigation, highlighting the inconsistencies in the youths’ stories that should have indicated that they were coerced confessions: they were told again and again by cops that they were “witnesses” and instructed to tell a “convincing story” in order to “go home.”

In a tragic manipulation, the cops were able to get a series of statements in which the boys mutually implicated each other.

There were problems with how the cops explained the crime — including the complete lack of physical evidence linking these youths to the crime and the fact that they all recanted their confessions after the interrogation were over — but the prosecutors pushed ahead, proud that they had caught someone for this crime.

As the film argues, the NYPD and DA Morgenthau were under immense pressure to restore a perception of safety in the city, and were able to accomplish that, despite not having the actual perpetrator.

Ultimately, in 2001 Matias Reyes, who was 17 years old in 1989, confessed to the rape of the Central Park Jogger, explained details of how it occurred that fit the physical evidence and provided DNA, which confirmed that it was his act.(2) Reyes was already serving a sentence for four other rapes and a murder he had committed around the same time in 1989.

Thus, 13 years after their conviction, these five were quietly exonerated, with scarcely an acknowledgement from the police or prosecutors of having been robbed of their youth and unjustly subjected to the violence of incarceration. Despite this, the NYPD continued to claim that “there was no misconduct” during the investigation, and that these innocent youths were “most likely” involved in the crime nonetheless!(3)

Similarly, though DA Morgenthau had recommended the exoneration, the prosecutors on the case have also maintained that they were guilty. The media that did cover their exoneration amazingly remained convinced of their guilt. Since 2008 the “Central Park Five” have been suing the city for their wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The city has ducked and dived the charges, and has now subpoenaed the film’s directors for out-takes, hoping to find something to use to once again avoid justice.(4)

New York of the 1980s

The film does a decent job putting the case in the social context of New York at the time. This was the New York of a burning Bronx, as real estate owners cashed in on unprofitable property through fire insurance, a crisis made worse by drastic cuts to fire departments in these areas; crack cocaine was on the rise since its introduction in 1986; AIDS was quickly killing as people had no treatment; many of the more stable working-class families left the poorer neighborhoods if they could afford to, leaving record numbers of vacant properties in what was still a profitable city for much of capital.

There was increased crime, with homicides reaching a peak in 1989, but the vast majority of the victims and survivors of these crimes were Black and Latino.

There was also an economic context that the film hints at briefly. A decade earlier, Wall Street had bailed out a financially troubled city government after president Ford figuratively told New York to “Drop Dead.”(5) But there was a big catch: The city budget would be overseen by the banks funding the recovery, and their priorities were clearly focused on cuts to what they saw as exorbitant social services.(6)

Keep in mind that the social services expanded and defended by Mayor Lindsay and President Johnson were instituted in large part as concessions to the social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. Now, as a result of neoliberal reforms pursued with a vengeance throughout the ’80s by Mayor Koch, New York was becoming an increasingly polarized city, with a wealthy white corporate class and official poverty rates for African Americans and Latinos in Manhattan over three times that of whites, and fewer and fewer services for those in need.(7)

Finally, the political context: Mayor Ed Koch, in the end of his third term, was a Democrat pushing the same “law and order” policies that we saw nationally during this time under Reagan. As Koch was campaigning for a fourth term in the 1989 Mayoral election he faced numerous corruption scandals within his administration, and his white voter base had declined to only 48% of the city population (despite still holding three-fourths of the City Council).(8)

There was a growing threat from Black Democratic Party politicians, especially then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who was closely associated with Charles Rangel and the party’s Black organizations in Harlem, but was known as much more cool-mannered politician than fiery activist Rev. Sharpton. Koch had also campaigned hard against Jesse Jackson in the national Democratic primaries, further weakening his support among Blacks,(9) who had been the fastest growing group of voters throughout the 1980s.(10)

It was in this context that, as the film suggests, white New York was afraid that it would not be able to maintain control. They clung to the idea that despite all the dangers in communities of color, their New York was still safe: Manhattan, especially the Upper East Side and Central Park, was  “sacred” ground for white New Yorkers.

Several militant protests of the Black community, in response to instances of white supremacist attacks, only heightened white fears that they might lose control of the city. The attack on the Central Park Jogger changed that.The survivor was the idealized innocent victim: smart, wealthy, white, young and healthy. The “perpetrators” as portrayed by Koch, the media and also Donald Trump, quickly became the idealized feared enemy: a hardcore gang of Black men (despite the fact that they weren’t a gang, didn’t have prior offenses, weren’t adults, and obviously not all African American).

The coverage dehumanized the suspects as a “wolf-pack,” as animals, and attacked anyone who attempted to raise a defense for the youths, such as Sharpton and Alton Maddox (Maddox successfully defended a sixth suspect).(11) Trump — more recently notorious for his “birther” challenges to president Obama — even called for the death penalty, despite the defendants being juveniles who were not eligible for it.

It was precisely the fear-inducing story that might justify a “tough on crime” approach to New Yorkers, with Koch holding that banner going into the election season that year.

In addition to his corporate friends, Koch’s old strategy of pandering to white supremacy did get him most of the white liberal votes, but not enough for a fourth term: Dinkins won the Democratic primary, and then narrowly beat Republican Giuliani.

Nonetheless, infamous “Broken Windows” missionary William Bratton became head of Transit Police in 1990, and by the end of Dinkins’ term in 1993 the NYPD had grown by 25% and focused on criminalizing poverty, especially minor “quality of life crimes” like being homeless, pan-handling or jumping a subway turnstile.

Ultimately Dinkins was himself defeated by Giuliani in 1993, who heralded in a further expansion of the criminalization of poor residents and people of color generally.

The Need for Control

While the film demonstrates clearly the racism throughout the investigation, prosecution and media coverage of this case, and hints at political gaming of Koch, it doesn’t undertake a deeper exploration of why the “tough on crime” policies that this famous case helped justify were needed: After the election of a moderate African American Mayor, why did the political establishment need to pursue the criminalization of more and more New Yorkers of color?

From Ida B. Wells’ documentation of lynchings and her campaigns against them, to the murder of young Emmett Till, the characterization of Black men and boys as sexual predators of white women has long held a leading role in the reign of terror consciously intended to maintain the supremacy of whites.

For much of our nation’s history, this violence was of course used to exploit Black labor-power. But over the past 35 years there has been a shift of sorts, as the demonization and criminalization of people of color generally — though still Blacks disproportionately — has created a system of mass incarceration on a scale not seen since slavery itself.(12)

Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow(13) has popularized an awareness of this massive incarceration injustice that many on the Black Left have been writing about for decades, and which has grown from roughly 300,000 in 1972 to more than 2.25 million in 2010. Certainly labor exploitation remains a key part of this system, with widespread and clearly exploitative prison labor programs expanding rapidly,(14) but alone this does not seem to be sufficient explanation for these enormous increases.

By the late 1980s, two central tenets of this neoliberal agenda that Koch embraced — free markets exploiting labor oversees and the dismantling of the social programs — had created a situation in New York’s communities of color ripe for rebellion. Determined to avoid having to concede on their agenda, the remaining option for capital seems clear: discipline and incarcerate, and with that a media campaign to justify the “get tough” policies.

The Central Park Jogger defendants were an opportunity they could not pass up. Fast-forward 20 years: All of our Mayors since have supported the same neoliberal agenda, including Dinkins,(15) building an occupying army of NYPD officers in communities of color around the city performing nearly 700,000 abusive ‘stop and frisks’ each year.(16)

Complicating The Scapegoating

Rather than “rampaging” youths, overall, it’s mostly white men whom they already know who assault white women.(17) The archetype of an idealized white “victim” assaulted by bad men of color has been particularly damaging to women of color, because assaults on them do not fit the archetype and therefore are not taken seriously.

In addition to being targeted by the police state that these media spectacles have helped create, Black women — who are the fastest growing group in prisons,(18) and are often sexually assaulted during “stop and frisks” by officers(19) — are also almost always viewed as having “asked to be raped” in one way or another when they are assaulted.

The reality, of course, is that sexualized violence against women and girls of color, whoever perpetuates it, is entirely bound up in exploitation, power and control, from the rape of slaves to the present, perhaps most obviously in the case of commercially sexually exploited girls, nearly 90% of whom are Black or Latino in NYC.(20)

When women of color attempt to fight back against the violence perpetrated against them by men in their own communities, they typically face the wrath of sexism within the community; and perhaps worse, the dominant media simply ignores that any of this is even happening.

Thankfully there are brave and groundbreaking organizing projects lead by women of color to address exactly these complicated dynamics, like Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ “No! The Rape Documentary,”(21) Black Women’s Blueprint,(22) and Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, and others. And this fall we’ve finally seen a bit of media attention to the fact that the rate of rape among Native women is two-and-a-half times the national average, and it turns out that 86% of these assaults are perpetrated by non-native (mostly white) men.(23)

None of this is to say that white investment bankers don’t get raped by strange men of color — the Central Park Jogger did, though it wasn’t by these five. When it does occur, their experiences are surely no less painful, no less valid, less worth our attention or somehow inherently politically conservative.

But when this case forms a dominant place in our national discussion on rape, it lets white men off the hook, obscures the influence of a broader racist and sexist culture that has created a police state focused on all people of color — including women — and further isolates the vast majority of the survivors of sexual assault, who in all their humanity don’t fit the idealized “victim” and end up getting blamed for their own assault.

For a movie about injustice and also about a rape, it would have done well to include some nuance on that.


  1. Such as New York Times: http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/11/22/movies/the-documentary-the-central-park-five.html.
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  2. See the extended piece in New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/n_7836/.
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  3. New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/28/nyregion/boys-guilt-likely-in-rape-of-jogger-police-panel-says.html.
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  4. New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/nyregion/ny-city-subpoenas-ken-burns-film-on-89-jogger-rape.html?_r=0.
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  5. He apparently never said it, but the classic Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead!” effectively made the point: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/28/nyregion/28veto.html?_r=0.
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  6. Kim Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate (The New Press, 2007), 17.
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  7. 1990 Census: http://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/cph-l-107.pdf.
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  8. Moody, 21.
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  9. For what it’s worth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_I._Koch#1981_election_and_second_term.3B_run_for_Governor.
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  10. Moody, 91.
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  11. Attorney Maddox’s absence from the documentary has also prompted his criticism of it: http://www.thebuffalobullet.com/the-central-park-7-and-air-wars/.
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  12. The penal labor system in the South from the end of Reconstruction to nearly WWII is perhaps the closest precedent: http://www.slaverybyanothername.com/the-book/.
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  13. See “Drugs, Race & the Gulag Industry,” by James Kilgore reviewing Alexander’s book along with two others in ATC 153, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3321.
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  14. Both to close public sector budget gaps, as well as padding corporate profits: see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/us/25inmates.html?pagewanted=all and also http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/06/prison-labor-pads-corporate-profits-taxpayers-expense.
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  15. New York Times: “Dinkins Orders Deep Cuts In an Austere Budget Plan” http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/31/nyregion/dinkins-orders-deep-cuts-in-an-austere-budget-plan.html.
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  16. Stop and Frisk info: http://www.nyclu.org/node/1598.
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  17. According to FBI: http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/violent_crime/forcible_rape.html.
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  18. Caught in the Net: The Impact of Drug Policies on Women and Families (ACLU Report).
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  19. Center For Constitutional Rights: “Stop and Frisk: The Human Impact.”
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  20. New York Prevalence Study of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children: http://www.ocfs.state.ny.us/main/reports/csec-2007.pdf.
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  21. http://notherapedocumentary.org/.
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  22. http://www.blackwomensblueprint.org/sexual-violence/.
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  23. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/08/sexual-violence-native-american-communities.
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January/February 2013, ATC 162