Over the last two weeks, after days of sorting, discarding, and packing for our move, I would watch the Netflix docudrama about the Central Park Five, When They See Us. Before that, however, after about ten minutes of the first episode of the Netflix presentation, I turned to Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Central Park Five to educate myself on the story that was being dramatized.
Of the four episodes in Ava Duvernay’s telling of the story, I found the first and the fourth the hardest to watch and spaced each of them out over a few days. The first because it showed how the confessions, which were the ONLY evidence the prosecution ever had, were coerced out of these young teenagers. Having listened to the Undisclosed podcast for years, I am all too familiar with how false confessions are elicited and how people generally do not understand how or why someone would confess to something they didn’t do. The fourth because more than an hour was devoted to the horrible years of beatings, rapes, and solitary confinement inflicted on Kharey Wise, who had been put in adult prison because he was 16 at the time of the events.
I must admit that I needed to watch Burns’ documentary to catch up on the facts of the case because I had not really paid much attention to the initial incident nor to the final exoneration of the five accused. In 1989 I was living in San Antonio, Texas, and involved in a year-long drama leading to our move to Philadelphia. The Central Park Case did not get the media attention in San Antonio that it got in New York. In the local media that year, I was in the middle of a huge controversy over the true costs of a city contract with the police union, caught between the low numbers my bosses were giving the public and the much higher numbers calculated by my budget analysts. During the years 2001 and 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to the attack on Trisha Meili and started the process leading to the vacation of the sentences of the five accused, I heard the news but did not have a sense of the significance of this case.
I really didn’t until earlier this month when I reposted a news story on Facebook about an ACLU event honoring the five accused men. This post got two nasty comments from a Trump supporter. The first comment made a scurrilous allegation about what the man featured in the news story was doing during the rape. The second said that the Hollywood venue for the ACLU event was appropriate because all five were such good actors. I did not see any value in allowing such shit to circulate so I deleted both comments.
Because of my emotional distance from the controversies of the Central Park rape, my second reaction to these comments was to look for an historical context for this refusal to accept the innocence of these five men, specifically for the attack on Trisha Meili. I wondered if people were still denying the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer at the center of a similar anti-semitic brouhaha in late 19th century France, the occasion for Émile Zola’s famous cry J’accuse. Sure enough.
Publications close to the NF still regularly proclaim the guilt of Dreyfus. His statue at the Place Pierre-Lafue in the sixth arrondissement in Paris, erected three years ago, is frequently daubed with anti-Semitic slogans. As recently as 1994 the head of the French army history department was dismissed for allowing the military’s magazine to publish an article which described the innocence of Dreyfus, unenthusiastically, as a “thesis generally held by historians”. France still haunted by the spectre of Dreyfus
Some people object to the term “white privilege.” As far as white privilege applies to me, I think of the educational, professional, and economic advantages I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy because I’m white. Until this month it never occurred to me that I also have the privilege of not having to pay attention to controversies like the Central Park Five. Equally, I have the privilege of not fearing what might happen to me or my Irish relatives if the police come knocking.
Over the last twenty years, being married to a Jewish woman and father to a Chinese daughter, I have learned to hear what my fellow whites are saying, implicitly and explicitly, when they talk about “Jewish lightning” and “Chinese fire drills.” But until family members came out as gay, I never felt fear when I heard about violence against gays. Outrage, yes. But not fear. Now I’m learning also the fear that non-whites experience for their loved ones when the media goes hysterical over incidents such as the Trisha Meili rape. The recent news stories of attacks on lesbian couples send chills up my spine.
Anton McCray’s father is played in the Netflix series by the actor Michael K. Williams. When the police arrive to take his son in the first episode, he conveys such paralyzing fear in his face and whole demeanor that it is unnerving. This fear appears again when not only he doesn’t stop police coercion of his son, he tells Anton to say whatever the police want him to say. DuVernay provides some explanation through a police officer’s direct threat to make the father lose his job by revealing his record to his employer. Anyone who’s seen Williams’ portrayal of the stone killer Omar on The Wire can’t help but be struck by the fear on his face in When They See Us.
Towards the end of Ken Burns’ documentary, the historian Craig Steven Wilder captures the emotional intelligence to be gained by watching the documentary and the docudrama.
I felt ashamed, actually, for New York. And I also felt extremely angry because their innocence never got the attention that their guilt did. The furor around prosecuting them still drowns out the good news of their innocence.
These were five kids who we tormented, we falsely accused, we pilloried in the press, we attacked. We invented phrases for the imagined crimes that we’re accusing them of.
And then we put them in jail. We falsely convicted them. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent and they were released, we gave a modest nod to fairness, and we walked away from our crime…
I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there was something that we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we’re not very good people. And we’re often not.
Wilder is African-American, but he speaks of what “we” did to these five men. He embodies the same open-hearted spirit of the closing lines in Zola’s J’accuse.
As for the people I accuse, I do not know them, I never saw them, I have against them neither resentment nor hatred. To me, they are only entities, spirits of social evil. And the act I am hereby accomplishing is only a revolutionary means to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.
I have only one passion, that of the light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My ignited protest is nothing more than the cry of my heart.