Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Do you remember the Central Park Five?

By Adwoa Masozi
In 1989 I was six; too young to know that in New York City, a half hour from my New Jersey home, a political lynching of five African-American boys was taking place in full view of the American public by the justice system and national media. These young men-- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam—have come to be known as the Central Park Five. Each of these young boys were falsely accused and wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape and brutalization of a white woman jogger in Central Park. 

I asked my dad, who now is 60 years old, what he remembers about that case when it first hit the news. He recounts the story well. 

“Well, at first I believed what they said. Five young black kids attacked a white woman in the park. Donald Trump was out there making statements about it. No one knew who the woman was—it was kept quiet, but they were parading the kids around on the TV.” 

Before I could get my next question in he added,
“They were being interviewed without the parents being there, which was illegal. You can easily scare young children into saying what you want.”

Q: How do you think the media helped to influence public opinion on the case?
“The media reported what the police said. At the time there was no solid evidence. The media was going to be biased because it was a white woman and they always want to promote stories of when black males rape a white female. It’s a quintessential case of stereotyping.”

Q: When did you stop believing they were guilty?
“The prosecutors and the detectives kept denying the guilt of the confessor. The guy who did it admitted he did it and the prosecutors and the detectives insisted he was lying.”

Q: What was the role of the white woman?
“She wasn’t interviewed too much; if I remember right her memory was messed up.  You never heard her story, they kept it quiet. I believe she had memory loss.”

Thanks daddy.
His name is Keith J. Burnam Sr.

The film produced by documentarian Ken Burns based on this case, and named after it, The Central Park Five, will debut this evening at 9 PM on PBS. And I look forward to watching it. I want to know all their stories, because there were six victims--not just one--in this case. Was the outcome of their trials because of a biased jury or did it also have something to do with the quality of their representation—who represented them? Was it the cops involved or the media? Why didn’t it matter that they were children? Where were their parents? How does the nation make amends to the wrongfully convicted?

Perhaps, the greater tragedy here is that this case is not isolated—far from it. This story has played out again and again in the cases of the Scottsboro Boys, Susan Smith, Emmett Till, and a host of others that don’t always get national recognition. 

While racism is less conspicuous these days, it remains an effective agent suffuse throughout all systems servicing or penalizing the American public. Whether we’re talking education, healthcare, employment, housing or justice—disparities in who has the most and least access cuts clear across the board.

Sarah Burns, author of The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, puts it best, “These young men were convicted long before the trial, by a city blinded by fear and, equally, freighted by race. They were convicted because it was all too easy for people to see them as violent criminals simply because of the color of their skin."

Adwoa Masozi is the Communications Associate at JPI.

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