Central Park Five, and Me

Aghast as the movie finished, I sat in the dark watching the six other people in the theatre gathering their stuff.  I think I was the only one with beige skin.   If you still think that maybe we live in a just world, please try to witness the wreckage of The Central Park Five.  Like most White people, I had forgotten or never much thought about what happened to the brown-skinned teenage boys who were wrongly accused of raping the White woman known as the Central Park Jogger. Photo by Maysles Institute, CC license

I went to see the documentary for a bunch of reasons.  One, I have a teenager.  Two, I recently became aware of the extent of psychology's participation in interrogation and torture, and this story involved coerced confessions.  Three, it fit into my schedule.  Four, I have a teenager whose demands can be overwhelming.  Four (a), because of a client cancellation, I could sneak it into my schedule and pretend that work was more important than today's important teen need.  Five, clearly I needed to get some perspective if I believed that I had to sneak around just to see a movie.  

During the movie, I received multiple texts and voicemails from and about my own White teenager while I watched five Black teenagers being scapegoated by most of the White City of New York.  Based on almost nothing but their frightened confessions these kids were locked up for about a decade.  Because they recanted these coerced confessions and therefore would not express 'remorse,' they were not paroled.  During the trial and while they were in prison, their parents, in an agony I can barely imagine, campaigned for their innocence.  When the actual rapist stepped up, out of compassion for one of the accused, DNA evidence cleared the Central Park Five.  The White City apologized, more or less, but is still resisting compensating these kids, now men, for their lost time or for the brutality they experienced in prison. 

There is absolutely no way that these events could have transpired without the power of racial stereotypes.   The kids were described by multiple media as "packs" and their activities as "wilding."  There is absolutely no way that groups of White children would be described this way.  And these words have the power to shape lives.

Sitting through the film while thinking I should leave to take care of my teen was sharply painful, and yet I felt that there was something I needed to learn there in order to help her.   Jim Dwyer, interviewed for the film, points out that it is almost unbearable for us to face the injustice.   I actually held my legs to stop them from jumping up and running out of the theatre, and I only stayed because I believed that I had to look, had to bear witness.  At least bear witness.  I needed to choose the world over my daughter for these two hours, even if the only consequence was just that. 

Leaving the theatre after a chat with the young Black man cleaning the theatre (of course!), I re-entered the world of privilege.  Tourists meandered and shopped in expensive stores, deciding between This and That.  It's a funny thing about New York.  People share physical space but not perspectives.  Last month, riding the bus after Hurricane Sandy, I watched several Latino humans help an old woman fold up her chair-walker-thing while a White woman complained loudly to the bus driver about the delay.

Waiting is a cultural divide.  If you are White, you don't have to wait.  You think your time is so important that you expedite all of your activities.  You shop online or maybe you have a personal shopper.  You hire people to clean your home.  You buy your stuff pre-cut or already made, or maybe you go out to dinner.  This is all considered normal.  

In New York, just a few blocks can make a huge difference in normal.  My post office is three blocks from my gentrified enclave, and in that neighborhood, people expect to wait, unless of course they have beige skin.   Waiting for a package the other day, I watched several Whites leave in a huff while People of Color stood good-naturedly (seemingly), not expecting much.  I stayed, joined the group of waiters, even if they did not see me as one of them.  I liked it so much that I stopped at the sporting goods store and waited some more.

If you think you can have everything that you want right away, then you'll just keep wanting.  You will be miserable and people will call you entitled.   The teenager, the lady in the bus, the caucasian in line, all would benefit from not getting what they want so that they can feel the spaciousness, the freedom in lack.  I can say no to my teen.  Can we as a culture say no to the rich?  For their sake, let's take their money.   Let's take their money and strip them of conveniences so that they can learn to feel true happiness.  They have been deprived too long.   We have been deprived too long.  Bring on the taxes!

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Reader Comments (5)

This is important stuff at any time of year - but a little bit of consciousness about wanting and waiting is especially appropriate at this season, In fact, we privileged folks should need a regular reality check.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarta Renzi

I was struck by this. How often is it when we read about a pack of brown skinned people, there is a strong reaction that they are like "animals", and they are then jailed and treated like animals. A group of white youth act in the same way, ad it is a mistake or youthful transgression.

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteveTajo

I stood in line at the post office this afternoon and thought about this article. It made all the difference to my attitude, and even to my interactions with others sharing the line with me.

December 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarina Romani

(by John Edwards, on Facebook) I commend you on your brave steps. I know it is not easy especially when the hard steps that you take are not necessarily supported by either side in this debate/process.

December 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterElena Taurke

thanks for your very relevant comments re the different realities based on skin color we inhabit in this country,

how the justice system seems rigged to perpetuate this divide,

and how our own mindset of entitlement contributes to normalizing such a state of affairs.

bearing witness to this suffering can only foster an awakening of concern and compassion:

a companion piece to this movie is 'inside my story' in which one narrator describes the prison industry

as the ongoing holocaust of black people in our time.

December 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoshin

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