Flawed Perceptions and the Central Park Five

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A White Man Ponders the Rush to Judgement

The Ava DuVernay series on Netflix, When They See Us, is difficult to watch. Telling the story of the Central Park Five case in which five black and Latino teens were charged and convicted of the rape of an affluent white jogger and, ultimately, freed after someone else came forward and admitted (with supporting DNA evidence) to the rape, it lays bare the power imbalances that rig the justice system in favor of the state and against young minorities.

Broken into four hour-long episodes, When They See Us, examines the human impact of the criminal justice system on the teens. Four — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray — were sentenced to juvenile detention, struggling to make sense of their fates as they continued to proclaim their innocence, and, ultimately, to rebuild their lives when initially released on parole. The fifth and oldest, Kharey Wise, landed in adult prison, falling prey to its violence and being forced to escape into the brutal and damaging system of solitary confinement as a protective measure.

We watch as both the police and prosecutors narrow their targets in he case to the five, linking them to a spree of violence and vandalism that took place in the park the night of he rape. No one disputes that the five were in the park on April 19, 1989, or that the so-called “wilding” incidents occurred. At issue was the rape of then 28-year-old Trisha Meili, a white woman jogging in park.

Police quickly focused their attention on the five, and then subjected them to hours of interrogation, ultimately eliciting confessions proved enough to win conviction — even though there was no DNA or other physical evidence linking them to the rape. It wasn’t until 2001, when the actual rapist steps forward. Matias Reyes confesses to the crime — one of numerous rapes he admits to that had the same M.O. His confession is supported by DNA evidence, though he ultimately could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired. The original convictions were vacated, McCrary, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise are exonerated and they ultimately win a large settlement from the city.

My own memory of the case is hazy at best, but I do remember the hysteria over urban space and still find myself succumbing to the ingrained assumptions of danger that city streets raise for some. I love walking in New York. I will stop to drop a $5 bill in the cup of a homeless man, then stay to talk with him, get his story. And yet, even with the reality being that New York is softer than it has ever been, my antenna are always up, always in tune to the signals being sent.

It’s not just me, of course. Many of us — most of us, perhaps — continue to operate as if these worn tropes remain valid. The evidence is in the language we use and the small actions we take, the way we reflexively lock doors as we drive through “bad neighborhoods” or describe the ramshackle as ghetto.

DuVernay gets this. It is why, I think, she keeps the lens narrowly focused on the injustices to which the five teens are subjected, why she only allows the outside to slip through in snippets. The abject, racist hysteria of the moment is kept at arms distance, and we, the viewers, are asked to respond with sympathy and, maybe, to act to change a system that could do this.

Brent Staples’ 1986 essay, “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders,” which first ran in Ms. magazine, takes a different approach, implicating the reader in the outrage, unmasking the reader’s underlying racism.

“My first victim was a woman — white, well-dressed probably in her early twenties,” he opens, playing against the fears of his readers, feeding them the kind of imagery they would have seen nightly on the news in the 1980s. His “first victim.” A woman walking alone at night. A sense of danger. A large, black man with billowing hair is walking behind her. She flees.

With a dozen words or so, Staples leaves the reader in a quandary, leaves the liberal reader — the kind who would be reading Ms. in 1986, who would be reading his editorials and comments in The New York Times, who lent credence to the punitive assault on people of color that was the American wars on crime and drugs that have swelled the population of the nation’s prisons and left so many broken families behind — leaves us feeling squeamish, unmoored, and guilt-ridden.

“Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders” is an essay not so much about race as it is about the way the white majority culture sees African Americans and how that vision constrains blacks’ ability to move and live and breath because of the racist associations many whites carried (and still carry). Staples, who has been an editorial writer for The New York Times for more than three decades, discovered that he had the ability to “alter public space in ugly ways,” even if he is a “softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken.” The woman’s flight made him understand that, to many, he “was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto” and, therefore, from picture in the public’s mind of the young black thug.

I thought of this essay often as I watched DuVernay’s exploration of the Central Park jogger case. As Staples pointed out in 2012, the case seemed to underscore “the civic turmoil of the period,” leaving the five young men to take on a “symbolic role” in the contemporary narratives. “Back then,” he writes,

New York was still reeling from its brush with bankruptcy, the deadly crack wars were raging, and one could drive for blocks and blocks through terrifying landscapes of bombed out buildings in poor neighborhoods.

In the public mind, a large group of teenagers who had roamed the park the evening of the jogger attack, chucking rocks at a cab and assaulting runners, embodied the decline of civilized society itself. The five who were charged with the jogger case were depicted as “animals,” “savages” and especially “wolves” as they headed to convictions that were almost assured before the first juror was called.

Staples was writing with the benefit of hindsight in 2012 — along with the exoneration of the five original defendants and the release of the documentary The Central Park Five. Three years before the rape occurred, however, Staples raises the specter of tragedy, of mistaken identity, of racism running ahead of and obscuring the facts, as they did in the Central Park case. People see his race and size and assume him a dangerous man. “The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor,” he writes, being mistaken for a burglar as he rushed into a magazine office with a “deadline story in hand,” only to be “pursued … through the labyrinthine halls,” or being accosted by an attack dogs in a jewelry store because of his appearance. “Black men trade tales like this all the time,” he writes.

White men, however, dismiss them — the poll numbers on police used of force and brutality are indicative of this disparity in point of view.

The rape and the prosecution take place amid a backlash against civil rights. Reagan had repeatedly signaled his antipathy to the expansion of rights for blacks — when, as governor of California, he attacked the Fair Housing Act, and then during his 1980 presidential campaign by making a states’ rights speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been killed during the 1960s. The Reagan coalition was exceedingly white, as was the coalition that led George H.W. Bush to win the presidency in 1988, after a campaign in which race was used as a cudgel against the Democrats.

The “high pitch” of early coverage, Joan Didion pointed out in a 1990 essay, suggested “a city overtaken by animals” (Didion 278), and this context is important here. DuVernay speaking with Jelani Cobb on “The New Yorker Radio Hour” podcast, describes the New York of the late 1980s — based on her research — as “rough.”

Just high, high crime. When you look at the crime rates, the rates of murder and assault and rape, I mean the city was a — it was a city in chaos. In the midst of that there was an attempt to create some order, create this kind of framing device, I believe, for all of the chaos for the police, for law enforcement, for the district attorneys, for the prosecutors, for all of them to be able to get a win on the board because there was just so much going on.

There was crime, but there also was a hardened racial divide, a failing economy, and two-plus decades of a city fighting to reclaim its past glory.

Didion casts the rape victim (and the rape itself) as, “unwilling and unwitting, a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life” (Didion 255). The victim and the accused assumed roles, which were codified in the indictments and the press coverage. Once the narrative took hold, the denouement was clear — they had to be convicted because, by virtue of their race and where they lived, they represented the everything that was wrong with the city and the nation.

Jason Flom, a criminal justice activist who hosts the “Wrongful Conviction” podcast, summed up the moment in New York history this way during an interview with Santana:

This case hit all the trigger points Because what happened was, there was a wealthy woman from that upper east side, a white woman, who was jogging in the park at night and was attacked, dragged into he bushes, and raped and beaten almost to death. This became a huge flashpoint. A lot of pressure on the cops to figure this out real quick.

This comes through clearly in the mini-series. As portrayed in When They See Us, the pressure to act merged with the deeper biases of the criminal justice system in a rush to judgment. The criminal justice system often relies on flawed “perceptual mechanisms” that “can mislead us by delivering misleading information, resulting in systematically flawed perceptual belief,” to use Jason Stanley’s description from How Propaganda Works (211). From the moment a crime is reported, an underlying set of assumptions kicks in, affects how the narrative is constructed and literally colors the collection and interpretation of evidence.

This is because, as Stanley writes,

Our perceptual faculties are now, as is widely agreed, affected by background beliefs. There is a relatively uncontroversial sense in which there is “cognitive penetration” of background belief on perception. As a result, perception itself can be a source of flawed ideological belief (211).

My point is that the investigative process — whether it is conducted by police or by journalists — involves more than just the impartial collection of data. This collection is done by human beings with identities and beliefs, many of which are deeply internalized. The collection of data is often viewed as unbiased, portrayed in most television police shows as sacrosanct — just the facts, ma’am, Joe Friday would say, or its just the science, someone on one of the CSI shows might offer. But it is affected by our biases.

We do think of perception as providing us with the “facts” upon which we build our theories. But if our perceptual mechanisms are themselves affected by bias, then we are at risk of appealing to biased mechanisms to build our theories of the word, yet naturally assume that these mechanisms are not biased. What results form such a situation are biased beliefs that are assumed to be objective (211).

Stanley quotes Walter Lippmann on stereotyping, saying the act “stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence” (212). These stereotypes, this underlying perceptual bias “direct(s) visual attention.”

Stanley’s book was on my mind as I watched the Linda Fairstein character, played by Felicity Huffman, connect the dots, developing a theory of the case that relied on her visceral reaction to the rape and the kind of unconscious racism that was fairly common among policy makers and law enforcement. Huffman’s Fairstein is pure disgust, craven and angry and what I’ll call pragmatically racist. Her arguments about the case “appeal to biased mechanisms,” which forecloses her ability — and the ability of police, the press and the public to judge the evidence fairly.

Didion points this out in “Sentimental Journeys,” writing that there had been “certain aspects of this case that seemed not well handled by the police and prosecutors, and others that seemed not well handled by the press” (Didion 266). Police relied on a “peculiar and self-defeating” approach — tainted by “flawed perceptual belief”? — that led to a “less than meticulous attitude toward the gathering and dissemination of information” (268).

The public’s demand for justice only reinforced this thinking, Didion writes, as

the attack on the jogger had by then passed into narrative, and the narrative was about confrontation, about what Governor (Mario) Cuomo had called “the ultimate shriek of alarm,” about what was wrong with the city and about its solution. What was wrong with the city had been identified, and its names were Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, and Steve Lopez (270).

Didion quotes Bob Herbert, then writing for The Daily News, to demonstrate how deeply the narrative had taken hold. Herbert, who would go on to write for The New York Times, was one of the most important progressive voices in the city over his multi-decade career, and yet he seemed to buy into the larger story and the roles assigned to the teens (“their vicious minds,” “running with the pack”), the unnamed jogger, the “petite, soft-spoken, curly-haired prosecutor” recast as savior.

Herbert later — in 2002, after Matias Reyes was located and admitted to the rap — attempted to place the case in context. He says he thought the kids guilty at the time, but admits that “the environment we were in and the ‘facts’ as they were presented at the time,” meant “there was virtually no chance that the five youths accused of attacking the jogger could have been acquitted.”

New York in 1989 was a city soaked in the blood of crime victims. Rapists, muggers and other violent criminals seemed to roam the city at will. Gunfire and the horrifying screams of the mortally wounded were common. Someone was murdered every four or five hours.

The jogger case fused the worst of the city’s fears with the worst of its stereotypes. The jogger was white, female, attractive and blameless. The accused were black, male, predatory and obligingly sullen.

Herbert is right that the defense was badly flawed. The lawyers were outgunned and out of their element, even as they flew into the teeth of an angry city.

Most New Yorkers believed the defendants were guilty. But more important, most New Yorkers in that period — for reasons that spanned a continuum from out and out racism to a deeply felt desire to see criminals brought to justice for a terrible crime — wanted them to be guilty.

And when a desire is strong enough it can overwhelm such flimsy stuff as facts and truth. Reality is a funny thing. It is what we say it is.

The question is why? Didion deconstructs the coverage, pointing to its emphasis on difference — the dichotomy between the jogger, “rendered … in details stressing her ‘difference,’ or superior class” (271), and the teens who were painted as animals.

This emphasis on perceived refinements of character and of manner and of taste,” she writes, “tended to distort and to flatten, and ultimately to suggest not the actual victim of an actual crime but a fictional character of a slightly earlier period, the well-brought-up virgin who briefly graces the city with her presence and receives in turn a taste of “real life” (272)

This was consistent with the end of the Reagan era, which fetishized acquisition, romanticized accumulation and its outward accoutrements. And it allowed for a contrast with the teens who “were seen as incapable of appreciating these marginal distinctions, ignorant of both he norms and accoutrements of middle-class life” (272).

Didion was not immune to some of the narrative-making, reaching for broad strokes painted by others and attempting to fit them into her own over-arching story-arc. Her broad strokes are not incorrect — the lack of racial consensus, the anger of the powerless at how the case progressed and was presented, the growth of conspiracy theories among those disenfranchised groups, were real, as were the white power structure’s racialization of the political and economic dysfunction and conflation of the growing crime rate with collapse.

Didion does not question the broader decay narrative — she is writing during the first Bush administration and in the wake of the “Reagan Revolution,” which turbo-charged the financialization of the city’s economy, leaving it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the stock market. The Central Park rape, she reminds us, occurs just 18 months after Black Monday, the 1987 stock market crash which drained billions from the city’s economy, and at the height of the rising crime rate.

New York, then, was a “city rapidly vanishing into the chasm between its actual life and its preferred narratives,” she writes (299). The stories, Didion says, “came to seem a kind of poetry, a way of expressing, without directly stating, different but equally and similarly occult visions of the same disaster.”

One vision, shared by those who had seized upon the attack on the jogger as an exact representation of what was wrong with the city, was of a city systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass. The opposing vision, shared by those who had seized upon the arrest of the defendants as an exact representation of their own victimization, was of a city in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.

What Didion was describing was a debate between two theorists talking past each other — and to the general environment in which such a miscarriage of justice could occur.

DuVernay, in her interview with Cobb, recognizes this — and also recognizes that the jogger, Trisha Meile, “who was so brutally assaulted,” served as an emblem of the moment, a “cipher of this kind of pristine white woman” who was made to stand in for the city itself.

Her victimization really fell into certain tropes, certain racial stereotypes and tropes in terms of her rape and black men and the rape of white women and there was this kind of protector stance that was taken, and not just by the police, but by journalists. There was a study done — 89 percent of the press coverage at that time from the major New York papers did not use the word alleged. And so it was a rush to judgment.

Race, of course, was a central player. The rapes of black women rarely won significant coverage, and there was a notional difference in the way blacks and whites were treated when accused of similar crimes.

A month earlier, in the high-income, mostly white suburb of Glen Ridge, N.J. a girl with developmental disabilities was savagely raped by members of the high school football team. The response to the rape, which became public a month after the jogger attack, was one of shock — but also of support for the boys. They were “our guys,” Bernard Lefkowitz would write in his fine book on the case, white, popular, privileged — different in every way from the Central Park defendants, especially in the ways that matter most in the United States.

The initial coverage of Glen Ridge “conveyed a sense of shock that these atrocious acts could occur in such a prosperous and tranquil town,” Lefkowitz writes. And it conveyed a similar shock at the idea that these affluent and successful kids who “were secure in the knowledge that they would be protected as they made their passage into adulthood” and the “luxury of easing into independence.”

The rape was a tragedy for the boys, the coverage implied — the polar opposite of how the Central Park rape was presented. This contrast is made clear as the third installment of When They See Us comes to a close and we hear Raymond Santana, speak in voice over atop scenes in which the teens (now men) struggle with life outside of prison. “They say boys will be boys,” he says. “When they say boys, they not talking about us. They talking about boys from other places. When did we ever get to be boys.”

When They See Us, ultimately, is both a human story and a dissection of the American criminal justice system, a “story of what it means to be criminalized in this country and how that happens.” DuVernay tells Cobb her goal was to take the viewer through the criminal justice system, from police and law enforcement interactions through the trial and into juvenile detention, prison, and what happens once offenders — or, in this case, the falsely accused — are released. In that way, she says, it is a companion piece to 13th, her documentary on the 13th Amendment’s fine print and the history of incarceration and criminalization in the United States. It is a story of a broken justice system, a double tragedy of the jogger and the five kids who’s later-teen years are robbed from them by a system that saw them as disposable and, worse, as predators.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. “Sentimental Journeys.” After Henry. Simon & Schuster. New York. 1992. Pp. 233–319.

DuVernay, Ava, interviewed by Jelani Cobb. “Ava Duvernayon ‘When They See Us,’ About the Boys Who Became the Central Park Five.” The New Yorker Radio Hour. 4 June 2019. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/ava-duvernay-when-they-see-us-about-boys-who-became-central-park-five-pod

DuVernay, Ava, Director. When They See Us. Harpo Films and Tribeca Productions, 2019. Available on Netflix.

Flom, Jason. “Raymond Santana: The Central Park Jogger Case.” Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom. 3 October 2016. https://www.revolverpodcasts.com/shows/wrongful-conviction-with-jason-flom/

Herbert, Bob. “That Terrible Time.” The New York Times. 9 December 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/09/opinion/that-terrible-time.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share Accessed 10 June 2019.

Lefkowitz, Bernard. Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape Case and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb. 1997. University of California Press. Kindle edition.

Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press. 2015.

Staples, Brent. “Just Walk on by: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space.” Literary Cavalcade, vol. 50, no. 5, Feb. 1998, p. 38. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.middlesexcc.edu/login?url=http: //search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=959581&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Staples, Brent. “When Mass Hysteria Convicted 5 Teenagers.” The New York Times. 27 Oct. 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/opinion/sunday/when-mass-hysteria-convicted-5-teenagers.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share Accessed 13 June 2018.