Revised (4:35 pm).
Last week, I attended a screening of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Central Park 5, which is based on a book by the same name, written by his daughter, Sarah, a former lawyer. It is a remarkable piece of investigative story-telling. It illuminates the banal—and horrifying–ways that five black teens were railroaded into falsely confessing to having participated in the rape of a Central Park jogger on April 19, 1989. I draw upon Sarah Burns’ book to compensate for my faulty memory regarding some names and other details from the documentary. Janell Ross has a marvelous, detailed article which overlaps with this piece in several ways; I should note that I found Ross’ article as I finished the penultimate draft of this essay.
Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, and Antron McCray were 5 among the 15-25 teens who gathered in Central Park on that fateful night. Most of them did not know each other until well after their police interrogations. Two of the teens had gone home; Korey Wise was not on the list of suspects that the police were looking for that night. Yet, when the police searching for Yusuf Salaam encountered him, they urged Wise to go to the station anyway (sadly, he cooperated, and consequently served the most time in prison).
From there, their night unraveled. These young black and Puerto Rican teens were railroaded into spoken, written, and even videotaped confessions of a crime they knew nothing about. But how could the five of them confess—individually and not knowing each other—to such a crime? That is the question that occurs to all who watch the documentary. It is also a question that will occur to anyone who has considered the relation of torture to confessions over the last decade.
That is one of the many brilliant insights of this documentary: to illustrate vividly how such obviously counter-intuitive and ultimately self-destructive actions could be undertaken by 5 youth. At the point of their videotaped confessions, many of them had been in custody for 24, 27 hours—without sleep, without food, but under plenty of duress and fear. They were all minors—under 16, and some as young as 14. Some were under the watchful presence of parents who urged them to say what the police wanted, so that they could finally “go home” as they had been promised by numerous policemen. Ross offers an illuminating recounting of how such confessions were extracted. An important point to note here: if these—false–confessions were obtained in circumstances considerably less forceful than the overt torture that was initially conducted under the direction of the highest echelons of the Bush Administration, imagine the excrement that passes for “valuable information” garnered under torture—um–“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” As Marcy Wheeler points out, the same information gathered under EIT has been deployed to involve the U.S. in a war in Iraq under false pretenses, resulting in the “unnecessary deaths of 4,000 Americans and to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.”
Someone at the screening referred to the tragedy that destroyed the lives of these five young men as the result of “a perfect storm.” On this understanding, these young men spent 7 to 13 years in prison due to the unique confluence of public anger; the pressure on law enforcement to find and arrest someone; the pressure placed on the 5 black male teens to confess to a crime that occurred before they had entered the park; and the need to convict someone in order to assuage the public’s fears, fears that were fanned and amplified by local and national newspapers reportage–if we can call it that.
To describe the situation as ‘a perfect storm’ is to point to that moment as a singular or idiosyncratic event. It is a refusal to see the glaringly obvious: this was not all that unusual or unique. It was a profoundly racist response to a single event that snowballed in response to public racial anxiety and safety fears about a city that was then thought to be one of the most dangerous in the country. It occurred because newspapers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys refused to do their jobs with integrity, conscience, or diligence. These same reporters, cops, and lawyers may have been obstinate, indifferent, or indolent due to the racial character and the class of the suspects—and the contrasting attributes of the victim (a white female investment banker, who exemplified the aspirations of women and their families around the US in the world before bank fraud became a household phrase). Or they have just been continually rewarded with excessive discretion that allowed for an unctuous indifference—something along the following lines of thought: “They’re poor black teens. Who’s going to give a rat’s ass whether they get locked up or not? And hey, in the meantime, we get to be heroes for finding them!”
It is difficult to remember that these events happened over a decade before September 11, 2001. Well before “terrorism” and “torture” became household phrases. Well before “national security” laws allowed prosecutors to withhold evidence from defendants and their lawyers. Well before torture was used to cruelly and systematically dehumanize Muslim men. Before Omar Khadr—who was only 16 years old—was locked up in Guantanamo. Before 16 year old Muslim men found in proximity to “terrorist cells” in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, as “military age males” were deemed military combatants and hence, legitimate targets of drone strikes. Before Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi was droned to death as he ate dinner with friends in the open air—for the crime of having an irresponsible father. Before Mohamed Mohamud and many other young men were entrapped into plotting “terrorist” actions.
The resonances, the similarities, between the events related to the “Central Park 5,” and those related to the War on Terror are striking.
As Jim Dwyer, a long-time NYT reporter whose comments frame Burns’ documentary, pointed out: reporters, police enforcement, defense lawyers and prosecutors did not do their jobs. There were inconsistencies throughout the case—between the evidence found and not found (like the absence of these young men’s DNA on any of the victim’s clothing; the 18-inch wide path through which the victim’s body was dragged—too narrow for 6, let alone 26 people to have walked; the implausibly long distance between where the group of men were known to be from the location when the rape actually occurred, etc.).
We could apply Dwyer’s words to the numerous cases being aggressively tried by the Department of Justice: from Adnan Latif’s wrongful imprisonment to those of Omar Khadr, Tarek Mehanna, Syed Fahad Hashmi, Jose Padilla, Rezwan Ferdaus. In each instance we see the determined lack of interest on the part of federal courts in making evidence public, in allowing defense attorneys to press prosecutors about inconsistencies (hell—to press about access to evidence); we see the zealous interest in federal prosecutors like Preet Bharara, Carmen Ortiz, or others who fight on behalf Attorney General Eric Holder’s office, to insist that more scrupulous evidence need not be made available—not to the public, not to journalists who actually want to investigate, not to defense lawyers. We see successful entrapments—like that of Korey Wise (who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was packed off to prison for over a decade) — of Mohamed Mohamud, and numerous others.
After the Central Park 5 mens’ verdicts were overturned after the actual rapist confessed and his confession was affirmed by DNA testing, these five falsely framed, convinted and imprisoned men sued the NYPD in 2003. The NYPD has spent the last decade fighting the lawsuit, and has gone after Burns and his team in order to stop the film and confiscate the unused outtakes, claiming that Burns is not a journalist and therefore is not entitled to keep his research and sources confidential. The federal court has agreed—on the grounds that Burns advocated for the families.
In a parallel gesture, the federal courts today side with the Obama Administration in prosecuting whistleblowers to the hilt—an attempt to shield the US government from accountability for its extensive and documented wrongdoing. Similarly, the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges and other journalists against provisions giving unprecedented authority to POTUS to detain and intercept anyone anywhere for engaging or associating with ‘terrorists,’ has a chilling effect on journalistic work, as Naomi Wolf argues. Jailed Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haydr Shaye knows all too well the power of POTUS to punish those who embarrass his drone program by revealed horrific murders.
Another parallel: The young black men in the Central Park 5 were put in extreme and dangerous prisons like Riker’s Island; whereas Mehanna, Hashmi, Padilla and others have been sentenced to anywhere from 15 or more years in supermax prisons, known for their solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. As Jeff Kaye notes, some, like Fahad Hashmi
…accepted a plea bargain on the single charge of conspiracy to provide “material support” to “a foreign terrorist organization. (Three other charges were dropped.) But lacking any actual links to terrorism, or any history of violence whatsoever, evidence points to governmental animus against Hashmi for his outspoken public criticism of denial of Muslim civil rights and constitutional protections in the post-9/11 period. which are known for their lack of due process, weak charges, and and even weaker evidence.
Others like Omar Khadr, as Andy Worthington notes, was picked up and interrogated at Guantanamo when he was 16. Below, Kevin Gosztola draws on Worthington’s detailed examination of Khadr, who “was put on trial for the “war crime” of allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier.” His lawyer said, “There is no evidence that he violated the law of war,” if he threw the grenade. Whoever threw the grenade was “attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon,” Worthington added. Khadr was sentenced to forty years in prison but could only serve eight because of a pre-trial plea deal for fighting back.”
Khadr was a child shamelessly exploited, pressured, tortured, and confined by various political authorities for shameless political gain, much like the 5 teenagers discussed here.
The evidence against the NYPD and the DA’s office is damning: The NYPD tricked—lied to–these young men and pressured them to confess. Elizabeth Lederer, one of the Assistant District Attorneys on the case, seems to have known even before the trial that the evidence could not convict these young men. As Burns’ documentary showed, Lederer seems to have known of the inconsistencies; the haunted look on her face after having convicted these men appears to confirm her bad faith.
Speaking of bad faith, late last night, a white paper was leaked by the Department of Justice, in which they insist that the United States doesn’t need proof of Americans as Senior Al-Qaeda members in order to put a hit on them. Contrary to Attorney Eric Holder’s insistence that no U.S. citizens would ever be targeted by the U.S. government, in fact, a mere suspicion without evidence is sufficient to target someone for the Obama Administration’s kill list.
Then, as now, newspapers knew that they could sell, sell, sell by playing to the centuries-old public anxiety and fears. In 1989, the fears focused on the sexuality of black men, of black crime.
As Sarah Burns puts it, “News outlets competed to see who could be most outraged by the attack and who could make the boys look most guilty. The Daily News and Post headlines screamed the loudest. In the week following the attack, each paper conspicuously displayed the story on its front page six out of seven days. Never did those articles question whether the suspects had committed the crime, or use the word alleged in reference to them” (69).
Sound familiar? Today, the fear focuses on the ‘Muslim threat,’ the “culture of terrorism,” the practice of “suicide bombing,” the tendency of young men to initiate terrorist plots. It wasn’t a perfect storm. Then, as now, it is a perfect scapegoating. A perfect targeting. A perfect witchhunt. Perfect. Perfect in that it repeats and anticipates the racial targeting of men (and women), while intimating that ‘no one is to blame,’ and that while race is a factor, it is not the primary factor in this event. What Burns’ documentary illustrates is the way that a confluence of actors participated in assuaging the public pressure on themselves to “solve” the rape case—not by injecting some common sense into the discussion, or by challenging the hoopla, or by appealing to the norms or rules of due process or appealing to the notion of “innocence until proven guilty.”
S. Burns writes: “Beyond the fact that these mainstream outlets assumed the guilt of the Central Park suspects without any sense of journalistic skepticism, the media coverage also employed blatantly racist language and imagery. Animal references abounded. When referring to the suspects, the words wolfpack and wilding were used hundreds of times and came to be emblems of the case, a shorthand that nearly everyone used and that still elicits memories of the Central Park Jogger’s rape in many minds.” (69)
For the last decade, mainstream media, including the New York Times, have happily, profitably demonized young Muslim men under the guise of providing “public information.”
Then, as S. Burns points out, Donald Trump—without ever mentioning the Central Park case–went so far as paying $85,000 for full-page ads in multiple New York daily papers calling for the return of the death penalty and demanding the executions of the “roving bands of wild criminals.” (73)
Today, Pamela Gellar and her ilk advertise throughout metro and subway stations across NYC and Washington, DC about “War on Civilized Man.”
This, then, is why I refuse to accept the idea of a “perfect storm,” namely that what happened to these young teens is 1) random; 2) racially neutral; 3) an isolated event; 4) the confluence of unfortunate circumstances that exacerbated a terrible situation. We are seeing a replay of the same confluence again. Does any of this sound familiar?