‘When They See Us’ is a reminder of the racial hysteria that gripped NYC in the 1990s — and that still lingers

A little over 20 minutes into Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” her new Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five case, the actress Felicity Huffman, who portrays prosecutor Linda Fairstein, captures the racial flash point that defined 1989 New York. “To think we were going to release these animals to family court,” she says matter-of-factly to a group of detectives investigating the horrific rape and beating of a 28-year-old jogger.

As you probably already know, the Central Park Five were exonerated in 2002 because another man, Matias Reyes, whose DNA was matched to the crime scene confessed to the rape and battery. The young men, who served between six and 13 years in prison, eventually won a $40 million settlement from the city. Reyes had already confessed to several rapes over a one-year period in Manhattan, and he had knowledge of precise details about the assault that were not provided in the Five’s confessions. His testimony made it clear the confessions by the teens, ranging in ages 14 to 16, were coerced by a police department bent on convicting some perpetrator in the vicious crime.

It is not clear what sources Duvernay and her co-screenwriter Julian Breece drew on for Fairstein’s lines, but they represented a widely shared attitude among many white city residents, who often referred to young men of color as less than human. The five teenage boys who were rounded up after the attack, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, were immediately portrayed in the New York media as “animals,” “thugs” and a “wolf pack.” Mayor Ed Koch, who was in his last year in office, called them “animals” in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Then there was “wilding,” a term used to describe young men of color who were aggressively acting out, for example, hassling passersby on the street. It was apparently taken by reporters from policemen who overheard other suspects talking about rapper Tone Loc’s hit song at the time, “Wild Thing.”

Even Donald Trump, then a real estate developer, chimed in, buying a full-page ad demanding the restoration of the death penalty for the teenagers, who had not even gone to trial yet. Trump’s synergy with Koch, one of New York’s most liberal mayors, was emblematic of the casual racism of that era. Even more unnerving is how easily that mind-set has connected with Trump’s Bible Belt base, whose Confederate battle flag-waving race-baiting would never fly in Gotham.

In 1989, New York was in the midst of “reinventing” itself from a city that had lots of manufacturing jobs that allowed immigrants and some people of color to work their way into the middle class to a city dominated by financial and real estate kingpins and a job market that would favor a college-educated elite. The collapse of New York’s industrial sector had led to “white flight” in the 1970s, which saw much of that middle class move to the suburbs. They were replaced by poor people of color who would be scapegoated as potential criminals and trapped by disinvestment in public schools and other social services into permanent underclass status.

This transformative trauma played out in a series of violent incidents that had race as their defining element: A graffiti artist named Michael Stewart was killed by New York City Transit Police in a subway station, a computer programmer named Bernhard Goetz opened fire on a subway train when approached by African American boys asking him for money, a 23-year-old man named Michael Griffith was beaten and killed by a mob of white youth for entering Howard Beach, a mostly white enclave near JFK Airport in Queens.

Yet little sympathy came from the white community, which felt aggrieved by relentlessly publicized violent crimes committed by young men of color. In the mid-1980s, I worked in a program for high school dropouts on the Lower East Side and saw how for every student who managed to get their GEDs, there were several others who were part of a growing population of alienated young people who felt New York was rejecting them. I remember the casualness of some whites in disparaging them, such as one woman who at a party told me she was avoiding Central Park during the upcoming Puerto Rican Day Parade because “it gets kind of zoo-ey.” I remembered that when I discovered one of the accused Central Park Five was Raymond Santana, who is of Puerto Rican descent.


Director Ava DuVernay poses for a portrait May 20 with the Central Park Five, from left, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, at the world premiere of “When They See Us” in New York. (Donald Traill/Invision/AP)

When the Central Park jogger attack story broke, the activist community in New York supported the five defendants, whose lawyers claimed the confessions were coerced from the beginning. Yet many people of color were ambivalent, unsure about where the blame lay and unnerved by the instability of their communities. I was an assistant editor at the Village Voice, where there were difficult discussions about how to cover the case. The attack, whoever committed it, was seen as more evidence of a wave of violence against women, but this somehow had to be balanced with the demonization of young men of color.

Another criticism that arose in the months after the Central Park assault was a case in Brooklyn that occurred on May 2, a few weeks later, where two men raped and sodomized an African American woman and threw her from the roof of a four-story building. The local media gave the case little coverage, prompting some to say it was because the victim was black.

It is that conflict of interest, at the root of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, that seems to be playing out again in the war of words between DuVernay and Fairstein. The former assistant district attorney, who was head of the sex crimes unit, still believes the five are somehow not innocent and has accused DuVernay of putting falsehoods in the mouth of her character in the series. DuVernay, for her part, says she offered Fairstein an interview to get her side of the story, but when Fairstein demanded the right to change aspects of the script, DuVernay declined.

One of the strongest narrative threads of “When They See Us” is showing how people of color are often ill-equipped to deal with the criminal justice system, from lack of knowledge about the law, to lack of access to legal representation — and, in the case of Latinx and other groups, a lack of facility with the English language. It was clear in DuVernay’s series as well as Ken and Sarah Burns’s documentary, “The Central Park Five,” that the accused’s parents were overwhelmed by the process, and that Fairstein’s encounters with Salaam’s mother, Sharrone, were particularly harsh.

The Central Park Five is of course not the only case like this. In the case of the 1990 stabbing death of Brian Watkins of Utah, who was allegedly set upon in a subway station by youths of color who, according to police, shouted “It’s killing time” before the attack, another wave of race-based hysteria ensued. But 25 years later, Johnny Hincapie, who was one of the two defendants convicted of that crime, was released from prison because a judge determined his confession was coerced.

After the Central Park Five case, Rudolph W. Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, and with a series of police commissioners, he pursued “broken windows” policies that led to arrests mostly of youth of color for small offenses. That practice morphed into discredited “stop-and-frisk” methods. The United States as a whole had embraced uncritically the way the war on drugs had produced mass incarceration. The demonization of black and Latinx youth reached its climax with the Clinton administration’s obsession with “super predators.”

Even today, as “stop and frisk” was at least nominally abandoned by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, there still seems to be an unsolved problem of overzealous or improper police practices. Just last month, a New York Daily News story revealed a pattern in which police officers who average the highest overtimes over a year from 2015 to 2018 were sued five or more times in federal court for misconduct. The article implied that some officers see a financial motivation — increased overtime pay — in making improper arrests.

Court documents show the Central Park Five were convicted of those minor crimes against other park joggers and bicyclists on the night in question. But in the case of the brutal rape of the female jogger, they were apparently set up to be convicted of a crime they did not commit and were robbed of much of their youth. I’ll never feel quite comfortable knowing the fate of Raymond Santana could have been mine: alone in a precinct in the middle of the night and charged with something I never did, trapped in a nightmare of a justice system warped by racism and fear.

Originally published June 7, 2019 in The Washington Post 

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