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February 2003 • Vol 3, No. 2 •

Who’s ‘Wildin’ Who?

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

For over a decade, five Black and Brown boys, caught in the crosshairs of the cops and the press, suffered in virtual silence in the prisons and hell-holes of New York.

Although they have recently been exonerated, it is useful to review what happened to them, and by so doing to learn how it happened, if we are to learn if it may have happened to others, and may be happening today, still.

Integral to this process is the role of the press, a role that is often underestimated, or at least understated, in any real recounting of the now-infamous Central Park Jogger’s Case in mid-town New York.

How did the local medial fuel the furor that captured the dark imaginations of the city in the Spring of 1989?

When one recalls the covers of the New York dailies, and recaptures the visceral spirit of the time, the official, media-sanctioned rage and hatred directed at the five, and by extension, their families and their communities, is palpable: “Central Park Jogger: Wolf Pack’s Prey,” blared the cover of the Daily News. In a subtitle: “Female Jogger near death after savage attack by roving gang.”

“A Savage Disease Called New York” was the message streaming across the expanse of two pages of the New York Post. There, two of their prominent columnists wrote separate pieces under the same thickened banner headline. The Post’s celebrated Pete Hamill would pen a piece of opinion that seemed to be a declaration of war against the poor of the city, and served to reduce the five boys from youngsters theoretically armed with the heralded “presumption of innocence,” to the dark mob who were living exemplars of pathology:

They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land of no fathers.... They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.

The incendiary Post would give its readers a lesson in interpreting this new urban underground, by tossing the word “wilding” into the lexicon, meaning, “... packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.”

Gotham’s Mayor Edward I. Koch would pronounce the young suspects “monsters.”

In this maddening maelstrom of rank fear, printed, verbal (via radio and TV) violence, the youths were blown into dark, threatening icons of perpetual menace, and removed from the realm of boys. They were animalized, monsterized, demonized into nonhumans, and as such, every official, semiofficial, and worthy hand of influence was turned against them. They were, in the deadening universe of legalism, in the province of the law, utterly, terrifyingly alone. Indeed, those who one would think, would be most responsive to their humanity, and most resistant to the swelling chorus of chaos coming from the media, black journalists, for career reasons, or for fear of alienation from the herd, offered little different from the majority narrative. One journalist for the now-defunct Newsday, Sheryl McCarthy, recently recounted her surprise at a salient fact that she didn’t notice when covering the case, “I was really surprised, in reading recent accounts, to learn that the defendants were only fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen at the time.” —Columbia Journalism Review, Jan-Feb 2003.

An African-American journalist, who covered the story for her paper, “never really noticed” the actual ages of the accused. She never noticed.

And neither did anyone else.

Hamill’s phobic rant on the poor of the city did not reflect the backgrounds of the boys or their families. Most had hard-working mothers and fathers, and went to good or decent city schools. Salaam went to Catholic school, and was well-regarded by his classmates, who called him “very easy-going.”

But stereotypes made them vulnerable, more alien, and more distant than the writers who were crafting their treks to the gulags.

They were presumed to be guilty, and it is interesting that all of the problems with the so-called “confessions” that have emerged were present before they were formerly indicted 13 years ago. And no Supreme Court (trial court in New York), no Appellate Court, no justice of the Court of Appeals found any of it problematic. These weren’t “citizens,” or even “juveniles”—they were “monsters,” and the law is no protector of monsters.

They had every institution of white, corporate power arrayed against them, a “savage,” venal press; the cynical police, and a complacent judiciary, who were (to quote Hamill) “driven by a collective fury.” These boys, and too many boys like them, never had, nor have, a chance.

They were but the forerunners of the war against the poor, and the young that has come to typify the American prison industrial complex.

Over 40 years before their legal lynching in New York’s Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote:

A 15-year old lad, questioned through the dead of night by relays of police, is a ready victim of the inquisition... We cannot believe that a lad of tender years is a match for the police in such a contest. He needs counsel and support if he is not to become the victim first of fear, then of panic. He needs someone on whom to lean lest the overpowering presence of the law, as he knows it, crush him. — “Haley v. Ohio,” 332 U.S. 596 (1948).

(Amazingly, the Haley case dealt with a 15-year old Black boy, who falsely confessed—to murder.)

It is also ironic that the very case that so stigmatized the families and communities of those five youths, revealed that there was an inherent, deep, undeniable imbalance in the allocations of power in the U.S. For the man who confessed to the crime, who raped the jogger, also raped a nonwhite woman, nearby, in that same park, scant hours before.

And we do not know, nor really care to know, her name.

The “fury” unleashed on these dark boys was occasioned by the toxin of race; the race of the accused; the race of the victim, and the bone knowledge that a barrier had been breached. They were ‘wildin’, in the eyes of the white press, not because they were allegedly rapists—but because they were Black and Brown rapists of a white woman.

Who was “wildin” who?

Copyright 2003, Mumia Abu-Jamal





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