Jan 17, 2013 - Issue 500

The Central Park 5:
Where were we then and where are we now?

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As someone who has done work for years around the prison industrial complex and particularly with wrongful convictions, I was elated when I heard a documentary about “The Central Park Five” was in the works. When the news came that “The Central Park 5” was in selected movie theaters in my city, I passed the announcement on to my Facebook friends, urging them to check it out in their respective hometowns. A friend who has a movie review website heard that I was going and asked that I do a movie review. No problemo. 

I ended up going to the theater by myself but expected to see many folks that I knew from the social justice scene. I sat in the back of the theater so that I wouldn’t bother people with my note-taking.

As the theater started to darken for previews of upcoming movies, I noticed that no one else had entered the theater. What the hell was going on? I got up from my seat and went to the hallway but saw no one. I was the only person in the 300+ seating theater. I repeat: I was the only person in the theater to view “The Central Park 5.” Before my anger could rise, the documentary was on and I was pulled into the story and quickly became transfixed on the screen.

After the movie, I started to reflect on what I had just experienced. Not only was it surreal to be sitting alone in a big movie theater but it also seemed to be a sad metaphor of how our society, particularly the African American community, has been missing as an unjust system sucks up our children.

“The Central Park Five” chronicles the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully targeted, wrongfully arrested, wrongfully charged, wrongful convicted, wrongfully sentenced and wrongfully imprisoned for the brutal attack and rape a white female jogger in Central Park. The news media swarmed the case and an overzealous prosecution moved in for the kill while the majority of the New York community (and the country) was on mute. The real truth didn’t become clear until after the five had spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. The documentary is about the journey of Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and their families to prove their innocence and to move on with their lives.

This is not to say that there was not support for the teens at the time. There is always some low level of support for these cases but they are often seen as fringe or cuddling thugs. I remember vividly when the jogger case exploded across the national headlines and I expressed my doubts that they boys were guilty. The response was basically here-you-go-again but when you’ve dealt with these kinds of cases for so long, you immediately see the cracks and the contradictions when the cases are presented.

We’ve come a long ways in our awareness of how the criminal justice system works in this country. We’ve seen a wave of exonerations over the last couple of decades and realize that this has to be the tip of the iceberg, that many more are languishing in our prisons who don’t get the lucky break--the interest of organizations or law schools who work on such cases.

Black and brown communities must aggressively fight our internalized oppression that gives way to buckling under the stigma that we are all criminals. We must challenge the negative images of our children in the media with the news shapers as well as with our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. We must confront police tactics of racial profiling and forced confessions. Finally, we ultimately seek restorative justice for victims and must work for a criminal justice system that seeks the truth, not revenge and perpetrators. 

A united and educated community is the firewall to the inherent traps that undermine our children’s development and hence, our own future. This means a sharpened focus on schools and the criminal justice system, a two-headed monster that is eating our kids alive. Our communities cannot afford to stay MIA--Missing In Action.

Note: Jamala’s review on The Central Park 5 can be seen at nickelmustard.com.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Jamala Rogers, is the leader of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black Radical Congress National Organizer. Additionally, she is an Alston-Bannerman Fellow. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle. Click here to contact Ms. Rogers.