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Central Park Five rips open the high-profile rape case — and the railroading that followed

Broken City

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The rampant gentrification of New York City has been pretty thorough — Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” initiative, the “Disney-fication” of Times Square, and the near-complete transformation of Brooklyn into a high-end hipster suburb are just a few of its “highlights.” In light of this intensive capitalist makeover, it’s easy to forget that as recently as the late 1980s New Yorkers were living in a crime-ridden cesspool, a place where getting mugged was as much a part of the ambiance as psychotic cabbies or $2 cups of coffee.

Granted, local and especially national media played up the sensational aspects of NYC crime, taking a certain delight in depicting the five boroughs as a kind of urban Thunderdome. But the effects of the “greed is good” era were palpable. Crack and AIDS certainly didn’t help. It was against this backdrop of anxiety that on April 19, 1989, a young woman was brutally beaten and raped while jogging in the northernmost pocket of Central Park.

The Central Park Jogger Case became a media cause célèbre, due in part to the viciousness of the crime. However, several other factors came into play.

One was the location. As then-Mayor Ed Koch said in regards to Central Park, it was “sacred,” a space where New Yorkers of all races and economic circumstances were ideally supposed to be able to come together safely. Even if the very fabric of Urban America were crumbling beneath New Yorkers’ feet, somehow Frederick Law Olmsted’s dream of a “common green” had to remain as a flicker of hope.

What’s more, the specific manner in which the jogger was attacked spoke to roiling racial and class animosities that, while worsening throughout the U.S. during the Reagan era, had hit a crescendo in New York. The jogger (whose anonymity was maintained through the trial and subsequent furor, but later identified herself as investment banker Trisha Meili) was allegedly gang-raped by a sub-segment of group of up to 30 young African-American men, said to have been roaming the Park in a “wolf pack” assaulting anyone who got in their way. The media couldn’t resist the image of young black men behaving like animals, and the “practice” (which it really wasn’t – possibly an impromptu flash mob) was labeled “wilding” due to detectives misunderstanding hip-hop slang. (One detainee apparently said they were “doing the wild thing,” and a proto-meme was born.)

This is some of the background that may help contextualize the importance of The Central Park Five, the new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. Burns pere, taking a break from his signature PBS style, works with his daughter and her partner to provide a record of one of the saddest chapters in the recent history of U.S. law enforcement and jurisprudence. CP5 details how, in the rush to bring the Central Park Rapist(s) to justice, NYPD detectives and attorneys general rounded up, browbeat, and railroaded five innocent kids from Harlem. Each was coerced into providing a patently false confession (none of their corresponding stories matched), after which they were essentially tried by an angry media and a city that had learned to live on the brink of race war.

CP5 speaks with each of the five convicts, each of whom was fully exonerated. (One of the men, Antron McCray, declines to appear, providing only his voice.) Slowly, patiently, the film allows them to tell their tales; perhaps just as important, it lets them present themselves as the normal, average men they are, not the savages this ordeal made them out to be. Over time, one thing that becomes clear from The Central Park Five is that class identities were in many respects the hidden engine that allowed the whole Central Park Jogger tragedy to unfold in the first place.

The obvious characterization of the event, at the time and ever since, was in terms of race and sex, power and oppression. But the scenario was far more complicated. We all firmly believe that anyone should have the right to go where he or she pleases, provided they harm no one else. But we know that, in a dangerous and unequal world, not everyone is equally free. Meili’s upper-class sense of security allowed her to feel comfortable jogging in the park after dark; she felt at home in the city. Similarly, the Central Park Five were all good students, solidly middle-class, and thought nothing of taking the subway to Central Park to play basketball instead of staying put in Harlem. They, too, felt a sense of ownership, the right to claim the park as theirs, and they never thought they’d lose their freedom in the bargain.

Now, of course, New York is a much different place. But as this probing and essential documentary points out, the question still remains: Who does the city belong to?

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