IT’S BEEN thirty years since the Central Park jogger case that upended the nation.
Five teenagers—four black, one Latino—were wrongfully convicted of the assault and rape of a white woman in Central Park. They spent time in jail and had their charges dropped only after another man was correctly identified as the rapist in 2002.
The case has regained attention thanks to Ava DuVernay’s series on Netflix, “When They See Us,” but legendary documentarian Ken Burns also made a film on the five young men.
“The Central Park Five” came out in 2012, and the Beach Institute will show it this Thursday as part of their film and discussion series.
Ron Christopher, the chairman of the board of the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, shared a little more about the screening last week.
Tell me about this documentary.
It’s under the auspices of PBS, and we told them we wanted to use the film under the fair use doctrine. They were really enthusiastic about it because of what we’ve seen with the “When They See Us” documentary. Ken Burns is a famed documentarian, and he decided to take this one on. At the time, it was far enough away from the event so people could actually look at and reflect on what happened when it happened in 1989.
Not to age myself, but I wasn’t alive in 1989, so to hear about the Central Park Five years later was jarring.
It may not even feel real, right? The thing is, the event as it’s come to be seen was not the first time we had experienced that as a country. Phenomena like that go back, as least as far as people remember, to the Scottsboro boys in 1931, and in the 1960s there was a similar incident called the Harlem Six, which was eerily similar in details as well. [They’re] all cases in which young African-American males were wrongfully convicted and ultimately exonerated.
That’s why I think these documentaries are important, because for those of us who either weren’t around when it happened or were around but too young to really take it in, the documentaries really give us an opportunity to expose ourselves to a factual event when we have the benefit of retrospect, whereas people living at the time didn’t have it.
I’m looking forward to the discussion after this documentary because I know a lot of the people would have seen Ava DuVernay’s version, so I expect there to be a good amount of comparison and contrast and people talking about what was included here versus what was included there.
As of press time, you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ documentary yet, but how do you think these two adaptations will interact with each other?
As near as I can tell, they touch on a lot of the same themes in terms of what it says about our system and what it says generally about people when they’re in a heightened state of awareness and attitudes. They both shine a spotlight on what can happen when you’re almost in a mob-type environment. When you’re in that environment, anything can happen. Principles of justice get trampled. Penalties become exacerbated.
With Central Park Five, one interesting fact is they were all teenagers. One was tried as an adult—he was 16, which, again, is another issue we have today, which is the prosecution of minors as adults. It says a lot about society. It’s a cautionary tale, and it tells us from where we come so we can compare to where we are and how much work we have to do.
It looks like we have a lot of work to do with the criminal justice system.
One of the things we hope comes out of showing this film and films like it is that in addition to what we people take away from the discussion, we hope they also take away a commitment to educating themselves. This is just related to the whole issue of criminal justice reform that’s been in the news. We had the Innocence Project and all these things focused on improving administration of criminal justice in the country. My view is that we don’t necessarily need reform as much as we need a complete overhaul.
The other thing, too, is that as the general public, most of us don’t have close regular contact with the criminal justice system, and that’s a good thing, of course, for the individuals involved. But for society as a whole, it’s not the greatest thing because it’s a closed door. We have no interest in opening the door, no idea what’s going on behind it, until we’re personally impacted and we start to become aware. For the most part, people are appalled. But films like this open the door and allow people to put a toe in and then see if they want to go further.
The United States has the most incarcerated persons of any nation on Earth. We’re on par with China in terms of proportion. It’s just not a good look. It’s about awareness—people need to know.
One of the interesting statistics that came out of the Innocence Project is, they state that 88 percent of DNA-exonerated minors who were tried as adults were black. 88 percent! We should all be concerned about that.
That’s an unacceptable statistic.
Here’s the thing. The system is obviously not perfect, and perhaps no system is. You’re probably always going to get some innocent people. Looking at the entire system and saying, “We’re starting from scratch,” how would you design it? The whole notion of locking people up and putting them into cages for massive amounts of time and the idea that some of those people by the time they’re in their 50s and have been in jail for 10 years and have another 20 years, the odds of them being a danger to somebody is just ridiculously low. We need to step back and say, “Okay, what’s the logic of just locking people up?” What are we really trying to protect? Is it even financially sensible?
Here’s another interesting thing. African-Americans, in a sense, are often like the canary in the mineshaft. You look at a situation and see it’s not working and it’s particularly harsh or damaging to African-American people. A lot of times, that becomes the impetus for reform and changes that actually benefit the entire society.
You can go through everything in terms of civil rights, in terms of public education—all those were initiatives that people perceived as, “Okay, these people are particularly suffering because of our current setup, we need to change it.” And as a result of that, things get better. I suspect this will be one of the situations.