While riding the 1 train uptown yesterday morning I stared at the cover of the New York Daily News. Someone had abandoned the paper on the seat directly across from me. I felt this thing, the newspaper, suck me into a portal. I traveled back to those moments in time when the five Black and Latino kids pictured on the cover, aged 14-16, were shafted by our judicial system.
Diasporic people, all of us who are products of the New World grinder, carry the memory and post-traumatic stress of the Transatlantic slavery experience.
The black-and-white photo of these teenagers dressed like pallbearers and looking confused brought me back to that time and what it was like being a non-white teenager in New York City. In 1989, these young men, now known as the Central Park Five, were arrested for the assault and brutal rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park. They had to endure a botched abortion of a trial and were found guilty of a crime they did not commit. This week it was announced that they are poised to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit for $40 million.
I remember the original incident as if it happened just a hiccup ago. I was two months shy of turning 16. In school, we were reading books written mostly by dead white men and learning about how the earliest European immigrants were freedom-loving, and how these same folks, against all odds, built America. We learned systematically, over the years, to disdain the parts of ourselves that weren’t phenotypically European.
In 1989, many young people in New York City—mostly Black and Latino, but also poor and working class whites, and everything in between—were venting our anger, our feeling of invisibility, through hip-hop. Mayor Ed Koch was wasting millions waging a war against graffiti writers rather than, say, using that money to support art programs in schools. Like many of my peers, I became a disengaged high school student, that is, until I was jolted awake by Public Enemy, KRS-One, and the Native Tongue collective. Then I began to question everything around me, including what was going on with the Central Park Five.
Why are these guys being railroaded? Why are the adults around me accepting this? Why isn’t someone sucker-punching Donald “Duck” Trump for calling for a return of the death penalty all over the news? I sat on the edge of my dad’s bed, watching clips of testimony, and couldn’t believe that the grownups around me didn’t see what I did, what many of us young folks did: It was crazy obvious that the teenagers were being coerced and scared shitless into making false confessions and incriminating statements.
True, it was a well-known fact that groups of young street toughs were “wilding” out in Central Park, stealing, beating people up, and whatnot. One of the young men on trial, Raymond Santana, Jr., admitted as much. However, there was something else, an undercurrent driving the proverbial ship to the port of public opinion: Race. Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Atron McCray, Raymond Santana, Jr., and Yusef Salaam became the embodiment of our society’s hatred of people of color, and a painful reminder of our lack social capital.
Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Atron McCray, Raymond Santana, Jr., and Yusef Salaam became the embodiment of our society’s hatred of people of color, and a painful reminder of our lack social capital.
The situation was just so savage that it's difficult, 25 years later, to process it. The Central Park Five case is an example of how the vestiges of slavery and racism shackling our hearts and minds in the Americas were never broken. Today, they continue to take on different forms, to shape-shift, with tragic results. It doesn't matter how many times you tell yourself that race doesn't matter anymore. It does. Diasporic people, all of us who are products of the New World grinder, carry the memory and post-traumatic stress of the Transatlantic slavery experience. And we haven’t even begun to dig deep enough to arrive at the heart of the matter.
"$40M JUSTICE," read the caption on the cover of the Daily News, "City settles with teens wrongfully convicted in 1989 jogger rape case." In 2002, the five men had their convictions vacated after an investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, found that DNA and other evidence showed that one man was solely responsible for raping the 28-year-old investment banker.
Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime. This after Wise spent 13 years in prison and the other four served about seven. That’s approximately $1 million for every year stolen away from them. As I rode the train back uptown I wondered if the Central Park Five think it was worth it. I wondered if their mothers and loved ones think it was worth it. Can one even put a price tag on the life experiences these teenagers, now middle-aged men, were jacked of when our judicial system wilded out on them? While these reparations, set in motion by our current mayor Bill De Blasio, are a good start, it's more important than ever for us to consider what's at the root of our society's thirst for the blood of our Black and Latino sons.