The Central Park Five Frameup

Malik Miah

When They See Us
four-part mini-series
created, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, premiered on Netflix, May 31, 2019.

WHEN THEY SEE Us is a powerful film by Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and 13th). It brilliantly dramatizes outrageous events that began 30 years ago in New York City.

The miniseries was hard to watch because the frameup victims’ suffering and humanity, and the disrespect and manipulation by the police and prosecutor, were vividly shown. This was not just a reflection of “normal” racism in New York City at the time but structural racial injustice that is common across the country.

DuVernay’s dramatization of the frameup made sure the viewer was not simply seeing an injustice in a clinical manner, as many documentaries tend to do.

The Rape and Frameup

On April 19, 1989 a white woman jogger (then 28) was brutally raped in Central Park. Her name, Trisha Melli, was not revealed until she wrote a memoir (I am the Central Park Jogger) in 2003. She never remembered anything about her attack.

The city was on edge as 911 calls came in reporting that some 30-40 teenagers were roaming Central Park harassing people —white, Black and Latino. The cops started a roundup of Black and Latino youth. The body of the unconscious white jogger was found much later.

The five (initially six) became known as the “Central Park Five.” The teenagers — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana — were dragged into the police station and interrogated without their parents or legal counsel.

“This is about the criminal justice system,” DuVernay told Democracy Now!“Each part of the series, or the four-part film, as I call it, is designed to take you deeper and deeper, to make you further acquainted with different aspects of the system as it stands today.”

The film effectively depicts how the cops and prosecutor framed the Black and Brown teenagers from working-class families. The intimidation and fear are intense. The description of these five youths could have been that of minority teenagers from Oakland, Houston or Cleveland.

New York was and is a city run by the Democratic party establishment, including then mayor Ed Koch, who began his career with a crusading liberal image, then reinvented himself as a law-and-order hawk.

As is typical of cops everywhere, the youth were pressured to admit to crimes they did not commit. Only those who think the cops and prosecutors are “public servants” and don’t lie could believe otherwise.

The film shows the police and prosecutor did not look for others. They had the “criminals,” even though they knew of a serial assaulter in the area. DNA was excluded that would have shown that the five did not rape or assault the jogger.

Public hysteria was whipped up by the politicians and media who demanded quick arrests and prosecution. Not surprisingly, four were prosecuted as juveniles and received 5-15 years (serving seven years). Korsey, who was 16 years old, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years at the notorious Rikers Island prison, serving 13 years.

The Truth Comes Out

The actual rapist was a serial assaulter, Matias Reyes. He was a convicted murderer and confessed in 2001 after the state’s statute of limitations for sexual crimes had expired. His DNA matched the evidence collected in 1989.

In 2002 the New York County District Attorney vacated the charges and convictions of the Central Park Five. The next year the exonerated victims, now adults, sued the city of New York for malicious prosecution.

The city refused to settle the civil suit for a decade, believing it could win. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, settled the case in 2014 for $41 million. The Five also sued New York State and settled for $3.9 million in 2016.

Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who was chief of the sex crimes unit of Manhattan’s District Attorney’s office — and became famous as the role model of the long running television show “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” — wrote of the series in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (June 10) that the film was “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”

Further, “DuVernay’s miniseries wrongly portrays them as totally innocent — and defames me in the process.” She continued:

“Mr. Reyes’s confession, DNA match and claim that he acted alone required that the rape charges against the five be vacated. I agreed with that decision, and still do. But the other charges, for crimes against other victims, should not have been vacated. Nothing Mr. Reyes said exonerated these five of those attacks. And there was certainly more than enough evidence to support those convictions of first-degree assault, robbery, riot and other charges.”

That was Fairstream’s aim: blame the Five for every crime committed in Central Park that night. In her and the cops’ view, “these are bad people.”

Fairstein came under intense pressure after the Netflix series was streamed. Her mystery book publisher dropped her, and protests forced Fairstein to resign from the board of trustees at Vassar College and a philanthropic organization.

Donald Trump, then a real estate developer, paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four newspapers calling for their executions even before they were tried.

When the actual person responsible for the rape eventually confessed, Trump never apologized. Instead he attacked the city for reaching a financial settlement. He said, after the series was shown, that they are not innocent, echoing Fairstein.

Black and Brown Lives Don’t Matter

The four Black and one Latino youth were seen the same way by the cops, Fairstein, Trump and most conservatives, and more than a few liberals. Every little error in in a Black or Brown person’s life is amplified to justify arrest, conviction and death.

The same smear campaign continues today. Trump, for example, always goes after people of color (like the four minority Congresswomen — Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA) and Rashida Tlaib (MI) — whom he calls “un-American”).

The “other” is a frequent target of bigots. After the white supremacist terror attacks in Gilroy, California, and El Paso, Texas (a city more than 85% Latino), the language of the terrorist was straight out of the white nationalists playbook echoed by Donald Trump. Ironically enough, both states were carved from Mexican territory.

The Texas shooter drove 600 miles from Dallas to carry out his killings against Hispanic so-called “invaders.”

The brutal truth in this system is that Black and Brown lives don’t matter. Brown people are an “infestation” and not human. Black people are killed, then demonized to justify their death.

Eric Garner was choked to death on Staten Island in 2014 by New York City cop Daniel Pantaleo, who never was convicted. After five years on a desk job, he was fired only this August! The only person sent to prison was the Black man who videoed the murder.

Garner’s life as a Black man did not matter. On the street selling “loosie” single cigarettes illegally, he was considered less than human. Sandra Bland was stopped for not putting on her turn signal, then died under suspicious circumstances in the Walker County, Texas jail because she didn’t make bail.

The Key Lesson

The central lesson from the 30 year-long battle of the Central Park Five is that only maximum fightback by the people can bring some justice. The role of supportive lawyers like the Innocence Project and progressive Public Defenders is also important.

Many hundreds of other detained people still rot in Rikers Island because they can’t afford bonds. The bail system puts the poor and minority people behind bars. Few are ever convicted of alleged crimes.

The fact that the rich can hire expensive lawyers shows the hypocrisy and double standards of criminal justice.

When They See Us is so powerful because of DuVernay’s profound direction and writing. The viewer sees the brutality of the system from the ground up and then the impact on the five in prison. It shows how strong and determined they were and are. Today most of them continue the fight for prison reform.

Previously, in 2012, the acclaimed director Ken Burns along with Sarah Burns and David McMahon released a documentary, Central Park Five (shown on PBS). It included interviews with the Five telling how they felt and reacted to their arrest.

A key point the documentary revealed is that the cops were ready to release them — until the homicide division decided with the prosecutor, after the raped jogger was found, to charge them without firm evidence.

While the Burns’ documentary did a good job of showing the frameup, it is less powerful than Duvernay’s film because it does not focus on the cruelty of the prosecutors and police toward these youth.

Fairstein, for instance, continued her crime-book writing career and serving on boards. There was no backlash after the Burns documentary that exposed the prosecution and cops’ role in the false charges.

The public’s heroes became those who were responsible for the frameups. The brutally raped jogger, an investment banker who could not remember what happened, became a tool of the prosecution.

The documentary did a good job of following the Central Park Five victims in jail, on parole, and eventually when the actual rapist confesses.

When They See Us gives the side of the frameup victims and of Black and Brown everyday people, who suffer racism that few whites experience or understand. DuVernay made the important point when she said her film is really about the structural racism that permeates American society. The white nationalist presidency of Donald Trump proves her point.

The dramatization and documentary should be seen together. Both need to be shown in high schools and colleges to stimulate discussion about racism as it exists.

[For those interested in what the Five are doing today, there are interesting summaries in the New York Times (May 30, 2019) and Good Housekeeping (June 27, 2019)].

September-October 2019, ATC 202