Voices: The US, New York City, And The Central Park Five–Then And Now


Antron McCray climbed on stage in a Manhattan theater one night last week and stepped into the kind of spotlight that, until now, has almost always meant trouble for him.

Exiled from New York, his hometown, Mr. McCray was last seen in public two decades ago as a skinny 16-year-old, practically drowning in a suit that he wore to the Manhattan courthouse where he was tried on charges that he was part of a mob that raped a jogger in Central Park and beat her nearly to death in April 1989. In the television news footage, he often held his mother’s hand as he walked past screaming demonstrators.

The audience that had just seen him as a boy — in a baseball uniform, in a police precinct station house being interrogated, in the too-big suit going to court — and had listened to his voice throughout the film could now see him as a man. At 39, his shoulders were broader, and his waist a bit thicker.

There was something he wanted to tell the audience about his anonymity.

“Here’s the reason why I escaped New York: I just had to get away,” Mr. McCray said. “Start a new life.”

That logic took him to a shocking place.

“Actually, uh,” he said, “I don’t even go by Antron McCray no more.”

Saying that out loud seemed to take even Mr. McCray by surprise, a sudden tolling of what he lost. Words thickened in his mouth. On either side of him, two of the other men, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam, squeezed his shoulders and patted his back.

 The Central Park Five is a story about how the wrong story got told. Five black and Hispanic teenagers recount how they were unfairly collared and jailed for years in the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white investment banker known ever after as “the Central Park Jogger.” We learn that a confession by serial rapist Matias Reyes led to the Five’s exoneration in 2002. But by then, most of the movie—like their lives—has been taken up by the ordeal.

The Central Park saga was seemingly conjured by collective urban nightmares steeped in crime, class bias, and racial tumult. Outraged media coverage, abetted by politicians, police, and prosecution, hyped the brutal incident as a new low in degeneracy. During a night of so-called “wilding,” “packs” of teens terrorized their way through the sanctified Manhattan park like latter-day droogs. “Central Park Jogger” entered a racial litany alongside Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, the place names all like urban battlefields.

What’s certain is that the Central Park Jogger story is at once a subject and an ongoing symptom: Talking about it and making a documentary about it adds another story, another bias, to the palimpsest. In focusing on the Five, the victim necessarily falls to one side; in retelling a received narrative of 1980s New York as “under siege,” the documentary reinforces old divisions and Manhattan-centric assumptions about which New Yorkers are New Yorkers. (Cf. Hurricane Sandy coverage and aid treatment of many in the “outer boroughs.”) One detail in the film demonstrates the somewhat privileged attention this horrible incident received: That same year, a woman was raped and tossed off a roof in the Bronx, but without garnering anywhere near the same attention.

Even within the exoneration project of the Central Park Five, you can discern differences across racial lines in the apparent consensus. Koch harbors little regret about feeding the frenzy over the assault; Wilder comes to the stunningly grim conclusion that “what we really need to realize is we’re not really good people. And we’re often not.”

–Nicholas Rapold, “The Central Park Five Reminds Us There’s No Singular New York,” The Village Voice

[T]hink about all that stuff. Its just coded words for race. It’s there. It’s in this case. The language of a liberal, progressive city in the late twentieth century, the language of the ‘wolfpack’ and the ‘wilding’ is the language of Jim Crow South. Ecclesiastes said what has been, will be again. What has been done, will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun. That basically says that human nature never changes. So you can expect the present to resonate with the past and the past to resonate with the present […] You can take a headline as we do in the film, a Jim Crow newspaper headline about negro brutes, and it doesn’t look very different from the marauding band of wolfpack, separated by almost a century and by a thousand miles between the liberal Northeast and the supposedly conservative South.

Things have changed. We have an African American president, we have made more progress than any other country but part of that progress is the movement of groups that gets exploited by other groups in whose interest it is to keep people apart and so we play on fears that are religious, we play on fears that are racial, we play on fears that are sexual, we play on lots of fears just to keep people apart when most of us share the same self interest. Progress has been made, not enough progress has been made. Could this happen again? Yes, it’s happening every day in America. Someone, usually because of color, is charged for the crime they did not do, confessions are coerced all the time because of the techniques and pressures that the cops are able to do, should we record things from the very beginning when they walk into the [police] station house? You bet.  There’s a lot of things we can do. The media was hugely complicit in this story, they took this hook, line and sinker and it now seems like it’s the media’s turn to amplify what we’ve said and go in and look. There’s a lot of great stories embedded in this that need the light of day.

Ken Burns, “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: The Central Park Five Interviews,” Crave Online

If you’re in the New York City area, friends of the R Shadow and Act are giving away *free* tickets–four tickets to two lucky winners–to a screening sponsored by the Maysles Cinema on Sunday, November 25, at 4PM at the Oberia D. Dempsey Center Auditorium. The deadline is *midnight tonight* to enter the contest. Check for details here!

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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