Critical Justice

On 'The Central Park Five'

I am a white woman who jogs. Sometimes I jog after dark. I was active in the ’60s Civil Rights movement. I went to jail in order to integrate schools and lunch counters. I testified against New York transit officers who participated in the fatal beating of an African-American art student in 1983. I have spent most of my life opposing racism in its many insidious forms. My daughter’s father is African-American. My daughter is bi-racial.

The film The Central Park Five, recently screened at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, tells the story of five young men of color who were wrongfully convicted of brutally attacking a young, white, female investment banker who was jogging after dark in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Fortunately, through some miracle, she survived and eventually recovered. The five happened to be in the park that night. They were arrested and coerced into confessing. Later they recanted. Convicted by the press and the courts, each served between seven and 13 years in jail.

Thirteen years later, the real rapist confessed. The convictions of the five were vacated, but they report being permanently scarred by the experience.

Even with all of the anti-racist work I have done, I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed the press hysteria. I believed the story, created by the press and police, about gangs of teenage boys of color going out on “wilding,” or rampaging, missions. I eyed suspiciously any group of boys of color whom I encountered.

I was not the only one. Most New Yorkers of any race believed it. Protests against the shameless railroading of these five children, ages 14 to 16, were so limited as to be nearly nonexistent. In the film, Craig Wilder, head of MIT’s history faculty, concludes, “We are not very nice people.”

This incident glaringly demonstrates how easily we are manipulated by the media, how quick to mentally judge someone based on a story in the press or on TV—or even on hearsay from another person. We could all benefit from being more discerning about information we cannot verify. Failure to do so could have a devastating effect on the life of an innocent human being.

Judy Walenta is a nurse practitioner living in Sebastopol.

Open Mic is a weekly op/ed feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].