Central Park Five

Yesterday my son asked, “Dad, when will the world end?” When a parent is on the receiving end of these questions, what I believe most parents attempt to do is take away the worry and fear. So my response to this question was, “Son, the world is never going to end.” Because he’s five years old, I didn’t get into climate change, or that in many, many years the sun will eventually heat up, expand, and emit energy strong enough to boil the oceans’ waters. I simply alleviated any idea of fear he might be experiencing. It seemed to work because he said something like, “Good, because I still want a lot of toys.”

I actually remember asking similar questions when I was a kid. And my dad would always put my worries to rest.

By the time 1989 rolled around, I was old enough to put my own worries to rest — most of the time. That said, occasionally I would hear something that gave me a jolt. The term wilding was one of them. The press reported that groups of young men in New York were wilding — or terrorizing civilians for fun. I distinctly remember feeling a sense of fear, hoping that this type of activity wouldn’t make its way to California.

It never did…because it wasn’t true. “Wilding” was completely fabricated and sensationalized.

The National Review reported that officers overheard teenagers reciting lyrics to the popular hip-hop song “Wild Thing” and simply misunderstood or misheard. There are other references to wilding — with different connotations — in pop culture. Of course, the term eventually became associated with the Central Park Five, a group of teens wrongly convicted for the brutal rape of 28-year-old investment banker, Trisha Meili, in New York’s sacred Central Park.

While the Central Park saga was on my radar, and on the nightly news, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what was playing out in New York. When the convictions were vacated and the five were exonerated in 2002, I’m sure I noticed, and my guess is that I had some passing thoughts about the injustice. 

Fast forward 12 years or so, a documentary, and a $41 million settlement (in 2014), the events were back on my radar.

During my research for material to include in the juvenile justice unit for my high school seniors, I had a bit of an epiphany: What could be more relevant than The Central Park Five? Subsequently, I included the Ken Burns 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five, into my curriculum. And for the past three years, it has been THE most interesting section for my students. (I also include a replica of the ad, “Bring Back the Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police,” that Trump paid $85,000 to have published in four city newspapers — specifically targeting these young men.)

Late last year one of my students emailed me to let me know that a film was being made about the event. I was thrilled! While I’ve been able to share this miscarriage of justice to 100+ students a year, a film would reach more people, and surely thousands of students.

My hope was that the film would be as good as the documentary. It is. The character development is done well, the facts are portrayed accurately, and the young actors have formidable acting chops.

Thanks to the wonderful work of Ava DuVernay, and her Netflix film series, When They See Us, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise are back in the news. And a new generation of moviegoers will see the injustice that occurred in 1989 regarding these youths.

Also in the news is Linda Fairstein, prosecutor-turned-author, whose egregious work put these three innocent teens behind bars. One of whom, Wise (pictured at the bottom) was sent to New York’s notorious Rikers Island. He was 16.

A sixteen-year-old with men! Society’s worst fucking men! As a man and father to a young boy, I feel a deep sense of anger just thinking about what Wise went through.

The reignited controversy regarding Fairstein has resulted in her resignations from several boards, as well as petitions calling for a boycott of her books. However, she’s not going down without a fight. Fairstein says, “The confessions were not coerced. The questioning was respectful, dignified, carried out according to the letter of the law and with sensitivity to the young age of the men.” Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Moreover, it’s not the only controversial case she’s been associated with, it’s just the biggest.

My thoughts about Fairstein — and several other corrupt officials — is too explicit to post here. Suffice to say, I’ve been angry long before the four-part series hit Netflix.

After watching the documentary over 11 times, reading countless articles from supporters, skeptics, and naysayers, assigning students to analyze, synthesize, and summarize the intricacies of the case, my job is just getting started. In fact, I have already pitched the idea that the events of the case should be officially implemented into the juvenile justice unit of the Expository Reading and Writing Course that I currently teach. In two weeks I’ll have the opportunity to pitch it again at the ERWC summer institute.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on victim, Trisha Meili, the young woman attacked and left for dead by serial rapist Matias Reyes (Meili has no memory of the attack). I’ve read her book, listened to her interviews, and — like everyone — sympathize with her. What saddens me is that she thinks the case should have never been settled, telling ABC News this past January, “I so wish the case hadn’t been settled. I wish that it had gone to court because there’s a lot of information that’s now being released that I’m seeing for the first time. I support the work of law enforcement and prosecutors. They treated me with such dignity and respect.” Apparently, Meili believes that the young men were treated with the same dignity and respect. Statements in her book, and recent comments, still implicate the Central Park Five. Compassion notwithstanding, I am disappointed.

During the hours-long interrogation process, one of the five, Raymond Santana, did what parents usually do. To calm his father’s fear, he told him that “everything was taken care of.” He thought that telling detectives what they wanted to hear would end the nightmare. Unfortunately, for him, McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Wise, it was only beginning.

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