In 2014, the Central Park Five officially stopped being infamous: New York City settled the group’s wrongful conviction lawsuit for $40 million. In some ways, the Central Park Five reached the status of folk legend: their story of wrongful conviction and imprisonment for the 1989 rape of an Upper East Side white woman known as the Central Park jogger stands now as a cautionary tale about what can happen to kids from Black and Latino communities at the hands of the police and other elements of the criminal justice system.
In recounting that story, some people continue to incorporate a pernicious taint, speculating about their possible guilt. “Weren’t they wilding in the park with other kids?” some would ask. Others would comment saying, “I could/would never confess to a something I didn’t do.” Or the theory some prosecutors liked to advance, “Matias Reyes (the serial rapist and convicted killer, who actually raped and beat the jogger and confessed to acting alone), was a part of the group that included the Central Park Five and only he left DNA behind.
People making those comments don’t see the problem with what is now often referred to as “police practices.” They failed to understand how vulnerable low-income, Blacks and Latinos are to being victimized as a result of those practices. “Police practices” include the reading of black skin as less valuable, interpreting violations of the rights of black people as institutionally acceptable, seeing things like intimidation and coercion to illicit statements/confessions as permissible, and accepting a history of police penchant for violating sacred rights of Blacks. The “practices” also included more aggressive behaviors such as viewing the use of excessive force against Blacks as allowable and lethal force against Blacks as more justifiable.
Within that mindset, the “relatively” less aggressive acts like the use of intimidation and coercion to illicit false confessions, as in the case of the Central Park Five in New York City, exists on the same trajectory as the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the callous treatment of his body by the Ferguson police. Those five children who were wrongfully convicted for raping the jogger were supposed to disappear into the position they were expected to occupy in this nation: short on opportunity, short on resources, limited in hope, limited in dreams. They were part of the indistinguishable mass of dark bodies that aren’t supposed to matter.
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