The danger of knowing one thing about the Central Park Five
How Ava DuVernay's When They See Us gets beyond guilty or innocent
If you know one thing about the "Central Park Five" — and most people know precisely one thing — it's that Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana were either innocent or they were guilty. In 1989, then-Mayor Ed Koch predicted that "everybody here — maybe across the nation — will look at this case to see how the justice system works," and this prediction has largely come true: on the left, it has demonstrated that the criminal justice is racist and broken; on the right, it demonstrated that the criminal justice system is lenient and soft (and broken).
On the one hand, the "fact" of their guilt in the violent rape of Patricia Meili was firmly established in the year and a half leading up to their trial, in 1990, when they were being widely described and pathologized as a "wolf-pack," marauding across the park (and reported to have confessed to their crimes); when they were convicted, an unskeptical news consumer could be forgiven for assuming that the matter had been settled.
Today, on the other hand, it's possible to know much more about the case, and to know a very different story: after their convictions were vacated in 2002 — and especially after the city of New York settled million-dollar lawsuits for wrongful conviction, in 2014 — their testimonies have formed the foundation of an exonerating counternarrative. First, there was Sarah Burns' 2011 book The Central Park Five — still the best single account of the trial and aftermath — and then the documentary she made with Ken Burns and David McMahon (also called The Central Park Five), on which Ava DuVernay's new four-part Netflix miniseries When They See Us builds. (While the police and prosecution have declined to participate in any of these efforts, DuVernay said in an interview that she had just seen Burns' documentary when she received a tweet from Raymond Santana suggesting she make her next film about the Central Park Five, which she subsequently did.)
Since almost everyone knows exactly one thing about the case, aspects of the story that don't match tend to fall out of it. Right-wing media, for example, is uninterested in the startling flimsiness of the case against the boys. Though it was widely reported that they had confessed to raping Meili — and arguing that the confessions were "coerced" would seem to grant they did, in fact, confess — all five boys specifically denied having raped her. What they testified to — after being questioned for hours without food, water, sleep, or counsel, and after having initially insisted on their total innocence — was that others raped her. Kevin Richardson only admitted to having touched her while others raped her (to "stop" it, he said); Raymond Santana confessed to having groped her, but insisted he left before the rape occurred; Antron McCray claimed to have pretended to have raped her, while others actually did; and Korey Wise first claimed to have watched the rape from behind a tree, and only later (confusingly) put himself closer. (Yusef Salaam never signed the statement that police prepared — his mother interrupted the interrogation — but it similarly confessed to being present at a rape he insisted he did not participate in).
If each case is taken individually, in other words, it's clear that the boys were trying not to "confess" but to testify against each other, having been led to believe that if they acted as witnesses to the crime, they would be allowed to go home. They hadn't understood — because the police were specifically misleading them on this point — that any "participation" in a rape would be legal complicity in it; their testimony against each other, in court, became an admission of guilt.
Still, because these "confessions" were the only real evidence against the boys, the case against any one individual boy was, in isolation, almost nonexistent: each denied having raped her and there was no physical evidence linking any of them to the crime; what's more, their testimonies were inconsistent with each other and with the facts on a multitude of crucial details, everything from what the victim was wearing and how she was injured to where the rape took place and who was involved. As a result, the prosecution could only argue that the "Central Park Five" had raped Patricia Meili by merging the five "confessions" together, producing a collective story that was incriminating because all the details that didn't match had been quietly edited out. They were, all five, collectively guilty of a rape that had been committed in multiple places, at different times, and by a varying cast of characters.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, defenders tend to elide or overlook the fact that Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Wise, and Santana had, in fact, been among a group of two or three dozen boys who had been hassling bicyclists and throwing rocks at cars: Antonio Diaz, a man they took to be homeless, was beaten unconscious and robbed; and a series of male joggers — David Lewis, David Good, Robert Garner, and John Loughlin — were assaulted, Loughlin seriously enough to spend two nights in the hospital. The boys who would become the "Central Park Five" have maintained their individual innocence — "The 5 of us did not commit any crimes," Santana insisted in a reddit AMA, for example; "there were people who committed crimes but we did not." But they were there that night, and they were linked to what happened. As Sarah Burns observes in a very carefully passive voice, "at some point, the metal bar from Korey's house that Yusef had carried into the park was used to beat Loughlin."
What is often lost in sympathetic accounts of the Central Park Five, in other words, is that when the police arrested and questioned the boys from that group, their suspicion wasn't exactly baseless. A group of boys had been attacking pedestrians in the park, and Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Wise, and Santana had apparently been in that group; when another jogger was found — beaten and raped, nearby — it was perfectly plausible to make the connection.
Of course, as both Burns and DuVernay make clear, there was a point — or rather, there were many points — where police and prosecutors should have drastically re-evaluated what they were doing. As the investigation became primarily (or exclusively) a rape investigation, the DNA testing and lack of physical evidence should have led them away from these five boys, while the incoherent and contradictory "confessions" they procured should have been treated with extreme skepticism. In the year-and-a-half before the trial began, substantial portions of the prosecution's case simply collapsed, at the same time as the serial rapist who had been responsible — Matias Reyes — continued to rape and kill. One of the more tragic aspect of the case is that the police already had all the information they needed to connect those dots. They didn't, because they already knew what they wanted to know.
What is striking about the case now, as it continues to be litigated in the press, is how unchanged the positions are. Donald Trump, for example, has remained consistent: he called for their execution in 1989 (and was unrepentant in 2002), called the Burns documentary "a one sided piece of garbage" in 2012, protested the settlement in 2014, and, in 2016, reiterated his belief that they were guilty. Just this week when asked if he would ever apologize, he said "They admitted their guilt… we'll leave it at that."
Ava DuVernay has therefore framed When They See Us as a direct retort to Trump, tweeting:
And yet there isn't much new information in When They See Us; it stays close to what Sarah Burns wrote and portrayed, what was discovered in 2002, and also what the Central Park Five have been saying, now, for decades. It has been attacked by the same people who prosecuted them in the 1990s, who have not changed their story: lead detective Eric Reynolds says he was "shocked" by the miniseries and "laughed out loud," defending the police investigation (as he has in the past); prosecutor Linda Fairstein took to the Wall Street Journal to call the miniseries "so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication."
What hasn't changed in decades is that everyone continues to know one thing about the case: either the "Central Park Five" are innocent or they are guilty. This one thing provides clarity, moral certainty, and narrative closure. It gives us a takeaway message, a political position, and a grip on history. And yet, as I've spent the last week being overwhelmed by information about this case, reading books and filings and watching videos and documentaries, I've found myself longing to know only one thing about it. I've wanted to come to the conclusion that they were innocent of everything, or that they were guilty. But the more you try to connect what both sides are saying — and include all of it — the more impossible this kind of clarity becomes; the more you learn about the case, the more you learn what you also don't know. Which is why the case endures: if these five human beings must be judged "guilty" or "innocent" — if their entire existence, humanity, and worth must be summed up in one of two words, based on what happened the night of April 19, 1989 — then neither judgement is ever going to be sufficient, or convincing, or final.
This is why, in the end, Ava DuVernay proves not to be very interested in what happened the night of April 19, 1989. That she believes them is obvious; When They See Us is woven out of their accounts of what happened, so it shows them committing no crimes. Instead, the opening of the first episode shows us a rush of testosterone and adrenaline, mayhem and out-of-control aggression that — as it's channeled into a broiling and unpredictable group — explodes into sudden and startling violence. We see the five boys, individually, get swept up into it, in the ways they've each described; we see the crowd, the mob, and the flow as having a dynamism and attraction of its own — propelled by Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" — and we see the boys join in, like stepping onto a rollercoaster, and we see them flee, as anyone would, when the fun turns sour.
In her portrayal of that "wilding," DuVernay is more interesting in showing this fast-moving confusion. And if you believe in the boys' guilt, you might watch that sequence and decide that you've seen what you already knew to be true. DuVernay's camera doesn't show any one of the five committing any crimes — we see them each joyously roughhousing with each other, or watching from a distance — but you could easily do what the prosecution did to their testimonies at their trial: take anything that isn't directly exculpatory and make it incriminating. When we see Kevin watching Antonio Diaz be assaulted, for example, we only see Kevin watching it happen; it could be any of the other four boys kicking and beating him. We don't see who was trying to pull cyclists off their bikes; because we're seeing from the perspective of only one or two of the boys, it could be any of the others. You could take from the sequence what an unforgiving prosecution might take from the events that it depicts: a generalized conviction that presence is participation is complicity is guilt.
You would only do this, however, if you stop watching at this point. If you continue, what is striking is how Ava DuVernay's camera refuses to dwell on April 19, refuses to fixate on that instant and fix the identity of the Central Park Five to it. Instead, it's over before you really know what you've seen, and the miniseries never really returns to that fateful hour in the park. That's not what DuVernay is interested in. Instead, she is interested in who the boys were before they went to the park, what they dreamed of being and what their communities saw in them; she shows what was taken from them, and how, when the legal system stamped the word "guilty" on their faces and names; and she explores how they've struggled to live as free men in the aftermath.
One of the crowning ironies of the case is that the individuals at the center of it — the five boys forever linked by what they are innocent or guilty of — often express a kind of bemusement about the details of their case. They only became a group long after the event, as they struggled, together, to piece together what their lives had become. For them, too, the event itself went by in a flash; what DuVernay's camera captures, in fact, is the confusion that anyone who's been in that kind of fast-moving, volatile, and diverse group will recognize: no one has the full picture of what is happening. But this is true across the board; until they watched Ava Duvernay's miniseries, Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Wise, and Santana hadn't known the intricate details of each other's lives, or what they each went through; they hadn't discussed it with each other, each wanting, simply, to move on. Indeed, one of the strangest things about the case might be that the five men at its center don't know much more about what happened than we do. As McCray put it, in his interview with Oprah Winfrey, "you all know more about my case than me."
What When They See Us shows best, in other words, is the cruel myopia of a legal system which would look at five boys and only want to know one thing about them. There is always more to the story. Indeed, there isn't even one, single story. The sustaining fiction of the entire case has always been that this group — that the tabloids called a "wolf-pack" and named "The Central Park Five" — were united by a common intention or experience, and that their guilt or innocence was shared. But the more you learn about them, the clearer it becomes that being convicted and defamed was the only thing they ever really had in common; they lived separate lives before, during, and after the events of April 19, 1989. And so, while Ava Duvernay is right to declare that they should be called "The Exonerated Five," it's also worth saying that what they are, at the end of the day, is Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana, five men whose lives are more than that one thing.