The Central Park Five (Participation)

The Central Park Five: Still Fighting for Justice

Times moves quickly but the scars of the past linger. I realized this as I stood in front of my college class and made a plea for my students to see the new Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five. Many of them were born around the time of the notorious case on which the film is based; thus, the release of the documentary barely aroused a reaction from the young students.

Twenty three years ago, the nation was gripped by the case surrounding Trisha Meili, a White female jogger who was brutally beaten and raped in New York City’s most famous park. The crime was horrific and the New York Police Department and the City quickly moved to pursue a group of young Black and Latino males who were in the park that night.

On that fateful night of April 19th 1989, a group of teenaged boys entered Central Park and traveled around causing mischief: harassing other park guests, scrapping…things that are not atypical of adolescents, but nonetheless things that Black and Brown youth are often singled out for. The late eighties and early 1990s were times of intense paranoia in New York City because of an increasingly high crime rate. After Meili was found brutally beaten and near death, the NYPD arrested a number of boys for their misdeeds in the park that night. Through coercive interrogation strategies, they manufactured false confessions. In the end, they convicted and imprisoned five boys—despite no DNA linking the boys and the jogger as well as the grossly inconsistent facts in the “confessions” the five teenagers provided.

The problem is, the boys were were innocent.

The stiff penalties the Central Park Five received were due in part to the fact that their trial was seen as “a test case” for the judicial system on crime, particularly interracial crime. Long before Donald Trump was asking for President Obama’s birth certificate and academic transcripts he was raising clamor about the case of the Central Park Five. He took out a full-page ad asking New York to bring back the Death Penalty and to increase police presence.  The ad further stirred hatred toward the boys and made their trial more public fiasco than a public pursuit of justice.  News article after news article called for “justice for the jogger,” but shared little concern for the boys receiving justice and outright ignored the presumption of innocence; Black outlets, such as the Amsterdam News, were the only notable exceptions.

The Central Park Fives case is a one in a long line of “public trials” of Black males accused of sexual assaults like the Scottsboro Boys. The true rapist would not be known until 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and his DNA was matched to that found on Meili’s body.

Though the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated, the scars on their life remain. From having their names erroneously linked to one of the most heinous and public crimes of the 20th century, to having their lives change course due to unjust incarcerations, the Central Park Five have not seen justice. After having their convictions vacated in 2003, they sued the city for damages behind the ordeal. This October, the City subpoenaed all interviews and notes from the documentary, which is currently screening throughout the nation and later coming to PBS, likely with hopes of invalidating the suit that the five have brought against the city.

For many, ‘the Central Park Jogger case’ lives in infamy, yet the case of the five men falsely accused lives in obscurity. The public fascination with the case faded soon after conviction; the vacation of the conviction and the real rapist being found hardly made waves. While the media spotlight is often about rushed judgment, as a caring community concerned with social justice, we must keep the focus on justice for all. We should support the Central Park Five’s case against the City for having their lives irreparably altered. We must connect old and new patterns of police and criminal justice mistreatment our communities face by pushing for initiatives like the creation of an Inspector General, work to end the death penalty and support other policies that give communities greater ability to protect themselves.  And critically, we must talk to our young people about their rights, our responsibilities, and make sure that injustices of the past and present do not fall into the dustbin of history.

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.


8 thoughts on “The Central Park Five (Participation)

  1. In a way this story does not really surprise me. I feel like all around our country Black people are constantly being blamed for crimes that they did not commit just because they are Black. I remember learning in one of my classes last year how a police officer shot a teenager who was African American for reaching into his pocket to take out a candy bar or something that was completely harmless, but the police officer thought that it was a gun. Would that have happened if the boy were white? In my opinion, probably not. It just has to do with all of these stereotypes that have been socially constructed over the years, and it really is not fair at all.

  2. This is kind of an explanation of the human condition as a whole. As human beings we are quick to lay blame on an easy target and refuse any kind of alternate evidence, while if we are proven wrong we sweep it all under the rug as thought nothing ever happened. This is made evident in not just individuals but in entire governments. For example the governments of Germany and Japan refuse to teach their students about the Second World War, because it is just easier to pretend it never happened. It is a sad truth in the human condition, and this such condition can not be “grown out of” but must be faced head on in admitting that we were wrong and are willing to make up for our shortcomings.

  3. As sad as this is to say, i can’t say that i am even the slightest bit surprised that something like this happened. All too often in our society, people are accused of doing things that they didn’t actually do all because fo the color of their skin. My heart aches for these five boys. Although now they are free, all that they have been through will forever affect them. Race needs to be completely taken out of criminal cases. Instead, all the people that are arrested for a crime should be arrested because they were linked to the crime, not because of their race. I feel that this story, like many others, represents an all time low in our quest for equality for everyone.

  4. It’s very unfortunate that this happened but sadly not surprising. The fact that they were able to get away with convicting the boys of this crime when there was no DNA evidence is upsetting. It basically says that they were convicted because of other attributes like their skin color. Then being able to just dismiss the case like it never happened when they were proven wrong is also very upsetting because their actions will forever affect the lives of those boys. Hopefully this will set a precedent for future crimes that jumping the gun or making unfair/any assumptions is not the fair way to go.

  5. The biggest thing about this situation is the fact that the boys gave confessions to a crime they didn’t commit. The question is why? I bet they were scared. If they didn’t confess, the police had no way to prove the boys were guilty. Why didn’t the boys think that part through before confessing? When they started hearing things like the cops found their fingerprints or whatever the “evidence” may have been, institutional racism began to play its role. Maybe the boys knew they were innocent but there was simply no way out of their situtation because they were black.

  6. After reading this article and seeing everyone’s responses so far, the thing that saddens me the most is how everyone accepts that fact of what happen like it’s the norm. This sadly is our norm concerning race and crime today as well as in the past. No one has the slightest amount of surprise to what happened to these boys. Personally neither do I, these boys just happened to be in the same area of the crime doing miniscule things compared to horrific crime that happened. But just because of their race and that they were there; they were arrested for the crime. Knowing they were innocent the whole time yet they were still convicted through the process. Giving false confessions, people ask why they would give false confessions. If you were a Black or Latino teen male who was arrested, there was no hope of you getting out of that situation. Innocent or not, the racism within the system overruled that hope being there. This is sad because it’s still there today in the system, the severity compared to then is in the air but we know it’s still there to point.

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