Victims of a Racist Witch Hunt
The Central Park Five, a documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon.
Lee Wengraf reviews a new documentary about the Central Park Jogger case—and talks to one of the Five, Yusef Salaam, about the innocent men’s struggle for justice.
Twenty-four years ago this April, the so-called Central Park Jogger case thrust five young men into the national spotlight amid the racist media hysteria that was fueling a law-and-order policing agenda then and in the years after.
On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili was raped in New York City’s Central Park. The police unleashed a manhunt, sweeping up 30 young men and interrogating a number of whom were allegedly in the park that night. Fanning the flames was a media frenzy about “wilding” by “wolf packs”1 of Black and Latino youth.
Within several days, five African American and Latino teenagers had been arrested in the case—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise.
A just-released film tells the long-overdue story of the five young men charged and wrongfully convicted in the jogger’s rape. The Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, is a powerful narrative of an historic miscarriage of justice. Burns’ 2011 book The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding forms the basis for the movie.
Relying heavily on the words of the defendants themselves, the film takes viewers through the events of April 19 and what followed—the excruciating interrogation of the five at the hands of the police, their coerced confessions and ultimately their convictions.
As the film makes painfully clear, against a backdrop of a city supposedly overrun with crime and with the media baying for blood, the police and the district attorneys pushed for confessions and convictions at all costs, ignoring cries for justice from the defendants’ parents and supporters.
The racism behind their treatment at the hands of police and the media is the heart of this movie. Or as one reviewer, calling the film a “lesson in injustice,” puts it2, “The filmmakers—along with the reporters, sociologists and community leaders who sit before the filmmakers’ cameras—explain the city at the end of the 1980s and how that specific urban climate evokes, say, the Jim Crow South.”
District Attorneys literally turned a blind eye to fundamental evidence that could have cleared the five. There were no witnesses to the crime and, due to her injuries, the victim could not recall what happened or identify her attackers. No physical evidence—such as blood, fingerprints, hair or any DNA—implicated the suspects, and the prosecution relied on confessions extracted from the teenagers under duress.
According to the Innocence Project, a quarter of all cases later exonerated by DNA involve coerced confessions3. As the film documents, in 2002, after four of the five defendants had completed their sentences, the Central Park Five were finally exonerated when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence confirmed his role as the lone assailant.
Convicted at ages ranging from 14 to 16, the Five spent a collective total of 41 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
The lynch-mob atmosphere of the Central Park case left an indelible mark on police policy and criminal justice in New York City and beyond, reverberations still felt today. After their arrest, billionaire Donald Trump took out newspaper ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty4. Several years later, capital punishment was back in the state’s law books.
The case also helped legitimize a new era of heavy-handed, tough-on-crime policing: by the mid-1990s, the size of the police force in the city had jumped massively. The Central Park Jogger prosecution also opened a new era of criminalization of youth, especially for young people of color, with an explosion of policing in schools and “stop-and-frisk” on the streets.
In painting a picture of the case’s swirling hysteria and drive for conviction, the filmmakers have given us invaluable insights into the era’s system of criminal injustice, and the terrible toll it took on those snared in its net.
Despite their exonerations, to date, the Central Park Five have received no apology from the city, let alone any compensation for their years of victimization at the hands of the courts and the prison system.
In 2003, the Five filed claims against the city for malicious prosecution and civil rights violations, seeking damages of $50 million each. The case has yet to go to trial. In fact, the city continues to vigorously defend its actions5, insisting in a recent statement, “There is no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claim that police and prosecutors conspired to falsely arrest them and coerce their confessions.”
The release of the film, however, has not escaped city officials’ notice. In September of this year, city attorneys announced their intent to subpoena the movie’s outtakes in a disgraceful attempt to manufacture some “evidence” to undermine the lawsuit.
To date, Ken Burns has refused to turn over any footage to the city6, saying, “I find the city’s position on this issue to be deeply disturbing for documentarians and reporters—and the public at large.”
“After 13 years of justice denied,” Burns said in an interview on the “Charlie Rose Show”7, “which everyone agrees on—there’s suddenly now justice delayed, which we know is just justice denied. We don’t want to be part of the city’s fishing expedition.”
Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise have been touring the country with the film, speaking to audiences about their experiences and the wider lessons of the injustices of the case and wrongful convictions. Yusef Salaam is a longtime activist8 and national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty9. He talked about the film and the next phase in the fight for justice for the Five.
Lee Wengraf: The Central Park Five is drawing well-deserved attention and finally shining a public light on the tragedy of this case. What for you is the most important message of the film?
Yusef Salaam: For me, one of the most important things to understand is the fact that whenever you deal with a case that has such negative media, the reality that the guys who were prosecuted are innocent gets lost. The film clearly shows a huge miscarriage of justice on the part of city, the justice system and the media.
The newspapers played a very big role in seeing that we were characterized in a very negative light. They carried on that false narrative. For those of us who experienced this, we want young people especially to know their rights. It is no longer feasible for youth, let alone our own kids, to feel like it’s okay for society to be this way.
People also need to know that activists are trying to rally the masses about the fact that great injustices are happening every day. People need to be mindful that people are fighting every single day.
Lee Wengraf: The movie has drawn large audiences. What impact do you think the film has had?
Yusef Salaam: For myself, the greatest impact is that there’s been so much healing. We’ve finally had a chance to heal from this. People have been coming up to me and apologizing for what happened to us, saying that they see we’re not the animals the media made us out to be. The film has done a great service—it’s the best thing that’s been done for us collectively.
Viewers are realizing you can’t hear stories in the newspaper and just believe them. You have to look elsewhere. For example, the fact that the Campaign to End the Death Penalty has a newsletter10, these are valuable places to learn the truth. It’s unfortunate that the mainstream media is so pegged against these stories of injustice.
A lot of times with situations like this, it’s attractive to them to continue the lies. A continuation of this fact is that over a decade since we were found to be innocent, people still don’t know we’ve been exonerated. I got that question on Facebook just today.
We want a slice of the justice pie. There’s no awareness of how devastating this travesty was for us, how believable it could seem at the time. And that’s because people have assumptions about society that they impose, that what we supposedly did was due to bad parents, that we were from crack families and so on. The reality is that the film shows that people of color are human as well.
Lee Wengraf: The voices of the parents and the defendants are very prominent in the film, as well as the precinct footage of the interrogations and how you and the other teenagers were treated.
Yusef Salaam: Back then, the co-defendants and their parents were made to believe the lies the cops were telling them. They were told they could go home if they said what the cops wanted to hear, but that’s not what happened at all. Now, we’re all wise behind this. We know we have to stay strong in the face of intolerable injustice just to make sure we’re safe. But it’s the hardest thing to do.
Lee Wengraf: Today you’re back in court, with your next appearance on December 17. What has happened with your case over the past decade? What does it go from here?
Yusef Salaam: The case hasn’t progressed in the same fashion as a criminal case would have done. We’ve been fighting and all the city has done is take depositions. The city has done its best to drag it out as far as they possibly can. We want them to begin to give back the justice they took from us. No one can go through what they did and not know they were wrong. They knew the false confessions were wrong.
The city has this premise that we’re still guilty of something. But we’re staying firm: we’re not guilty of anything. It’s difficult to look at the situation and say that we’re guilty. The evidence pointed otherwise, and we maintained our innocence.
Besides the five of us, there were others who were prosecuted and served time for other crimes they supposedly committed in the park that night. The five of us, we were the ones convicted for the assault on Trisha Meili. But for all of us, the pressure to cop out was immense.
It’s funny the way the city moves about. They’re claiming now that the film is poisoning the jury pool [in the lawsuit against the city]. But they were the ones who poisoned the jury pool in 1989. Now the truth is coming out, and so now they’re claiming we’re responsible for poisoning the public. Since the film, people are apologizing for believing the lies of the city. Now they have a different picture.
I’m greatly relieved that the film is giving us our lives back. Back in 1989, with the media hysteria, with Donald Trump and what he did, with calls for the eldest of us [Kharey Wise] to be hung from a tree, for the rest of us to be horse-whipped, this stuff was put out so that we obviously wouldn’t survive prison. We weren’t supposed to survive, let alone have our normal lives back. The film has given us our lives back.
Lee Wengraf: The campaign for justice for the Five is picking up steam. How can people support your case and get involved in the struggle?
Yusef Salaam: Go to Facebook: each of us has individual pages, and now there’s a new Central Park 5 page11. And come out to the court dates. The last court appearances have been packed, which is really important.
We need to talk about broader changes too, like reforms to the appeals process and access to DNA evidence to fight wrongful convictions. We also need to build ourselves stronger: we need an avenue to make this happen on a large scale and on a deeper level. We need to widen our reach to achieve justice.
—SocialistWorker.org, December 17, 2012