This is the face of a 14-year-old boy in a police station in Manhattan, confessing to a crime he never committed. His name is Raymond Santana. In the new documentary Central Park Five, directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Laura, and her husband David McMahon, claims that the police coerced Santana into confessing that he was among five teenagers between 14 and 16 years old who raped a 28 year old woman who worked as an investment banker and had been jogging in Central Park. In an atmosphere of fear and recrimination, when New York City found itself in the middle of a violent crime crisis and desperately looked to place the blame on these youths, the accused became transformed into the personification of the fear that took hold of the city. The five were found guilty and spent between 7 and 13 years in prison. In 2002 a convict named Matías Reyes confessed to the crime and when the DNA results proved that he had attacked the victim that night, the charges against the innocent were vacated.
The incredible aspect of this story is that since the beginning, the Police Department created a version of the facts that almost everyone believed–including myself, a fledging staffer at the Village Voice. I had also worked in programs for high-school dropouts and was the victim of a couple of robberies in my Loisaida tenement apartment. I was very conscious that there was a growing population of alienated and perhaps desperate youth. My interpretation after seeing the televised footage of the “confessions” that were repeated constantly on the 6 o’clock news, was that this was a terrible crime that could have been avoided if there had been more resources to confront and deal with social problems.
LIke those of us who did not clamor for the death penalty–something the imbecilic Donald Trump loudly did–I accepted the evidence presented by the policeand simply sent sadness about the apparent unraveling of the social fabric of my city. When supporters groups began to protest, I imagined they could be right about the CP 5’s innocence, but would never be able to prove it. But it turns out that the entire case was fabricated from thin air, based on racism and fear. The detectives wanted to arrest someone and it had to be done quickly–they wanted to resolve a problem that white society didn’t want to take responsibility for. The first signal that something was wrong was obvious. In the still frame of the video of Santana’s confession pictured above appears a date: 4-21-88, but the crime occurred in April of 1989. A small detail, perhaps that only indicates that whoever was in charge of the camera failed to set it to the correct date, but that same failure to correct the record reveals the multiple falsehoods that were put together to send these children to jail.
In the documentary we see the testimony of Santana and the others accused–Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam–that paints a portrait of lies that were constructed to fulfill the needs of both sides. The police wanted to announce that they had collared the criminals, and the boys just wanted to go home! Yes, home. The detectives did not allow them to see their parents for large trenches, they were detained for more than 24 hours without eating or sleeping, and when they finally let their parents in, it did not occur to any of them to call a lawyer. This is an indication that a significant part of this sector of society is disconnected from the legal process and possessed little understanding of their rights as citizens.
The police pressed their young subjects, insisting that they were at the scene of the crime, that they participated in it, that they saw how other participated and that there was no doubt about it. This was complicated by the fact that a crowd of youths went into the park that night to mess with passers-by. But none of the accused was in the presence of the victim at any moment. Gradually the exhaustion, hunger and fear took hold and they began to accept the accusations made by the police. Finally, in the video you see Raymond Santana staring blankly into space saying “Yeah, I hit her with a rock, and someone was raping her, and then I grabbed her…”
What was all of this for? Why was it so easy to send these kids to prison? This occurred at the dawn of the era when police were beginning to use video confessions for trials, and when the police insisted that they had DNA proof, no one asked if it was indisputable evidence. But most importantly this was a moment when New York was in the culmination of a long process of creating a permanent underemployed poverty class, and for politicians like Ronald Reagan and the “liberal” mayor Ed Kcoh (who was once a lawyer for the Village Voice) it was a time when the attitude reigned that patience had worn thin, and if there were problems with poverty and crime, it must be the fault of those who find themselves in these problems. Koch appears in the documentary insisting that the more people like these claim to be innocent, the less the public should believe them. Crying crocodile tears.
The centrist media played its part in the creation of this myth. In the May 8th issue of Newsweek, for example, there appeared an article called “Going ‘Wilding’ in the City.” “Wilding” was the term apparently derived from a policeman who overheard teenagers declaring they were going to “do the wild thing,” quoting the popular song by rapper Tone Loc. “Widling” would be an activity engaged in by teens with nothing to do who go out on the street to commit indiscriminate crimes of harassment, intimidation, and petty larceny. The article continues, trying to explain in sociological terms, the phenomenon of “wilding”:
Frenzied attack: Something like that process was evident in the Central Park rape. As the defendants themselves told it later, it was one of the group, a 15-year-old, who first spotted the woman and said, “Go get her.” Another, 14, helped knock her down, then punched and kicked her. Others, in turn, hit her with a rock, a brick and a length of lead pipe, pinioned her legs and arms, ripped off her shirt and sweat pants, and committed the actual rape and sodomy.
All of this was presented as facts, extracted from the “confessions.” But perhaps the biggest media role was protagonized by The New York Post, recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch before he started Fox News. What the post did was add this incident to a litany of racial violence that had wracked the city for many years. Victims of deaths at the hands of the police like Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, the Bernhard Goetz incident, in which Goetz shot at African American teenagers on the subway because he claimed they were shaking him down for cash. The beatings of various blacks and Latinos who wandered mistakenly into all-white neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. I had even got involved when as a young reporter at the Village Voice, I found myself covering the trial of a Puerto Rican professor, painter Rafael Rivera García, who shot an Italian American man who wanted to throw him out of the condo they were living in because he was Puerto Rican. The Post converted all this into practically the Third World War, and sold papers like hotcakes while establishing a scapegoat-driven consciousness focused on revenge the persists to this day in every racist remark made by the anti-Obama fringe and the widespread hate speech against Mexican and Central American immigrants.
At any rate, its important to celebrate the existence of this documentary–I saw it in a special presentation by the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, which was packed with audiences on each of the four days it was screened there. The night I was there Laura Burns and Yusef Salaam were present, Salaam dressed in a natty suit and tie, remembering fondly the t-shirt his mother wore every day to the trial that said “Yusef Is Innocent.” Laura Burns spoke of the recent legal actions by the city, which tried to subpoena all interviews and other material used to make the documentary as evidence because of the long-delayed lawsuit by the Central Park 5 against them. Burns said the filmmakers were able to defend themselves by claiming the privacy protections afforded to journalists as Salaam sat smiling patiently. Salaam gave the impression of someone who had escaped a living hell but had managed his anger and felt appreciative of the second opportunity he had received. He spoke about having wanted to be a rapper before the case happened, brought up poets like Saul Williams, whose heyday occurred at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Salam offered the possibility that we could overcome all of this.
It was a cool night in Harlem with its brisk autumn winds that announce the cold soon to come. But although I felt happy that there was hope for these still relatively young men to live a normal life, I remembered what had happened on those streets a couple of months ago. As I was leaving a Duane Reade on 125th Street, dressed in jeans and wearing a backward-facing baseball cap, the urban uniform, I was accosted by two policeman (both Latino, by the way) apparently carrying out the controversial policy of “Stop and Frisk,” which is supposed to take guns off the street.
“Where was that knife I saw you carrying when you went into that store?” one asked me. “Don’t lie to me, if I find it on you we’re going to take you in,” said the other one. “You know you have it, where is it?” they insisted. “Show it to me!”
My favorite jeans are so worn they have holes in both pockets so when I carry my keys sometimes you can see something plastic protruding from the change pocket. It seems these officers thought that it was a knife. So we stood there for about 15 minutes discussing this with a back and forth that consisted of more insistence that I was hiding a weapon, some furtive frisking attempts and me saying incredulously, “How could you imagine that I would be carrying a knife?” But they continued to harangue and probe me like automatons, repeating the script they had been given to deliver. Finally, five minutes after I’d shown them my Columbia University ID, which shows that I am a faculty member there, one of them said, “let him go,” and they left. Without offering an apology.
And I remembered when they killed Amadou Diallo because they thought his wallet was a gun. I felt like Raymond Santana might have felt, and thought that if I were 14 or 15, I would have been arrested, beginning my career as the Boricua they wanted me to be, as far back as my childhood.