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Review: ‘The Central Park Five’

 

 An imperfect film reminds Americans of chilling crime and those wrongfully convicted

It’s often said that the more you know about something, the less you are apt to like a film about it. So let me state up front that I was living in New York City (in a single room occupancy hotel not far from Central Park, in fact — I went running in the park almost every day), in 1989, so I remember the Central Park jogger case quite well.

In fact, if you lived in the city at the time, it was almost impossible not to hear about the case, including the controversy over the treatment of the young men arrested and later convicted of this crime. The case also received nationwide coverage, as did the fact that someone else later confessed to the crime, and that the Five’s convictions were overturned in 2002.

Apparently most Americans don’t know much about this case, however, and they may be better served than I was by The Central Park Five, a new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The film begins with the taped confession of the actual assailant, Matias Reyes, so that there’s never a moment’s doubt that the Five were falsely convicted. The focus of the film is on how it happened — how five young men were arrested, interrogated, confessed, convicted and (much later) exonerated.

It’s a chilling story that points to one conclusion: after this horrific crime (a young woman was raped, severely beaten, and left for dead in the park), the police picked up some young men who were in the vicinity (and, in fact, were part of a large group of young men who had committed several assaults earlier that evening, although this is downplayed in the film), and interrogated and intimidated them until they confessed to the rape and beating of the Central Park jogger.

It’s no secret that police may use various interrogation techniques when they want to get a confession, that the person being questioned may not know his or her rights, and that under pressure, people may confess to all sorts of things they haven’t done. That’s what happened in this case, and when the invented confessions didn’t match, that didn’t cause anyone in authority to question whether something had gone amiss. It also didn’t matter that there was no physical evidence linking the Five to the attack — the confessions were enough to convince a jury.

The Central Park Five is a straightforward documentary consisting primarily of archival footage and talking heads (New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer appears so frequently that he serves as the de facto narrator). It creates a portrait of a city (white and African American alike) terrified of violent teenagers — “wilding” and “wolf pack” are terms particularly associated with 1980s New York — and who focused that fear on the case. The fact that the assault took place in Central Park, as close as you can get to sacred ground for New Yorkers, certainly brought more attention to the case, as did the fact that the victim was white and the accused African American and Hispanic. Those dynamics are not specific to New York, of course, and I’m not sure they’ve changed all that much over the years, but they are part of the story.

The Central Park Five has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, which I find somewhat mystifying — to me it’s a respectable but often tedious film that adds little to what is already well known about this episode. On the other hand, given Americans’ notoriously poor sense of history, maybe they need a refresher course in the facts of this case, and for that purpose The Central Park Five will fill the bill.

Prisoners Are Human Beings Too

John Last 1Sometimes I forget I was in prison, even though I spent nearly a quarter century there. Maybe, I just get caught up in the day-to-day concerns of my life out here in the “free world.”

I am a student in a fast-paced master’s program, so I am studying, reading, writing and attending 13 hours of class every other weekend. I write for two websites. I have an internship. When I can fit it in, I have the rest of my life to focus on, with a girlfriend, a house, pets, cooking and the other details of living an ordinary life.

Maybe it’s not these things that cause me to forget my past though. A lot of my school and work revolves around juvenile justice issues, conflict management, violence reduction and restorative processes. All of these interests, and a lot of my expertise, were born during my time on the inside. Sometimes my past is the reason people listen to what I have to say at all. I am not downplaying it or hiding it. In fact, I speak and write about it often.

Last week, I wrote an article about the culture of violence in prison, and I mentioned my own time at Alto, a now-shuttered prison in north Georgia. Like some of my other pieces, it garnered a few comments.

I like this, of course, because it is nice to know my work is being read. When I do get one of these, I get an email alerting me. A few days ago, I was sitting in my car when one came in. I pulled my phone out and opened the email. I started to read it while I was sitting at a traffic light.

It began: “My son was also at Alto. He was attacked by a group of inmates that a guard let into his cell…” I stopped reading as the light changed, and I didn’t look at the email again for several hours. I was reluctant to read on for some reason, but I finally did. The writer, a woman, went on to tell me that a group of inmates slit her son’s throat, and that if not for another inmate calling her she wouldn’t have known that her child was in intensive care. The guard, who had a hand in this event, was only fired. A subsequent comment revealed that the boy was incarcerated at the age of 15, with a life sentence, and has now been in for 14 years. He was a juvenile when this attack happened.

A few days later, I was talking with my girlfriend after work and she told me that she had been catching up on my weekly articles. Sometimes she reads them before they are submitted, but often she doesn’t have time. Awhile back, I wrote one about sexual assault, and told a story about a young man who was a victim of sexual violence.

After I wrote it, I told her she might prefer not to read it, since it was an upsetting topic, and she hadn’t, until now. The boy I wrote about ended up trying to slash his own throat. She was asking me some factual questions about what had happened, and then she said, “Did you try to stop him?” I paused, thinking how strange her words sounded. The idea that I would have done anything to help him seemed alien to me, even though today I know that I would have a different response.

The truth is, I did nothing to help him. None of us did, not when he was being bullied, not when he was being assaulted, not when he began to cut himself. Even worse, we blamed him for what had happened. We laughed at him after he left, making a joke about the look on his face, an expression of horror that chills me today to remember. We thought of him as weak and told ourselves he deserved what happened to him.

Today I realize this kind of reaction is a common defense to incredible stress. Humans have the ability to survive horrors because of this adaptation. It allows us to distance ourselves from what is happening, to cover up our real selves and just get through. I am not saying that some people in prison aren’t cruel. Most are not though. I realize that today my own forgetting is a defense as well. The mental distancing I find within myself is a way to move on with my life, which is a fine goal, but I try to fight it sometimes, to remember what the truth is.

Many years after witnessing that suicide attempt, I sat up one night trading stories with my dad, who is a Vietnam veteran. He told me about some civilians who lived near his base. Because of constant shelling they had piled sandbags around their home, and added a few more every day. One morning the men at the base heard a loud crash. The home had collapsed under the weight of the sandbags, killing everyone inside. “We laughed our asses off,” he said. Then he paused and said somberly, “What the hell were we laughing at?” He didn’t have to explain to me. I understood perfectly.

Someone told me recently that prisoners are the most hated people in America. It certainly seemed true when I was in. How else to explain what happened to us? There is a callous attitude towards those in prison, even kids. People make jokes about prison rape. It is accepted in our society that cruelty and horror are the lot of those who break the law. Some people even imagine that it is just.

There is something in us that tells us that people deserve what they get, but I don’t believe that is true. Accountability is important, as is taking responsibility. The current system, with its cruelty and neglect, does nothing to foster these. I guarantee you that when those men attacked that boy and slit his throat, he did not feel more connected to the people he had harmed. He was not moved to feel remorse or develop a desire to right the wrongs he committed. If he has done those things it is in spite of the system. We have to ask ourselves what we want from incarceration. If we want change in people it has to be developed within themselves, and a safe environment makes that a lot more likely to happen.

Why is this difficult to see? I am not sure. Maybe, like me so many years ago, people just don’t know what to do when confronted by evil. Maybe it is the way society protects itself, by imagining that the people on the other side of the fence are different, that they deserve what happens to them, that they are not quite human beings. This is not true. They are sons, brothers, fathers and friends. They will be back with us in society. By all means, justice must be served. I only wish to add, let it be a justice that holds people accountable, while at the same time giving them a place where they can heal themselves and connect to their own humanity.

Those in prisons and jails are, and will always be, human beings, despite what they have done, or what they are told, or what we believe. That wasn’t always easy to hold on to when I was on the inside. The message that we were animals, or worse, was constant. Our whole world seemed to scream it at us. I saw many men who forgot their humanity. Somehow I was able to remember it, and now I remember those still on the inside. I invite you to join me.

VIDEO: Equal Justice Initiative Founder: ‘We Need to Talk About an Injustice’ TED Talk

Bryan Stevenson speaking at TED

TED2012 helped Bryan Stevenson raise more than $1 million following his impassioned plea for justice at the California conference last week. Stevenson, a human rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke about the role of race in today's justice system, including juvenile justice. You can watch his talk below.

TED2012 Helps Equal Justice Initiative Founder Raise $1 Million

Bryan Stevenson at TED2012: Full Spectrum, February 27 – March 2, 2012. Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” said Bryan Stevenson Thursday at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach California. Stevenson is an attorney and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders and others whose trials are marked by racism and misconduct.

Stevenson spoke passionately about how the American justice system is distorted around race and poverty. Our prisons are overflowing and the U.S. is still the only industrialized nation in the world that will sentence juveniles to life in prison.

Following his talk, $1 million was raised for a campaign run by Stevenson that ends excessive sentencing of children and stops the practice of putting kids in adult jails and prisons.

TED posted a wonderful blog post describing Stevenson’s talk in detail. You can read it below.

From the TED Blog, written by guest blogger Ben Lillie:

Bryan Stevenson spends most of his time in jails and prisons and on death row. He’s a lawyer, and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

So he’s found it very energizing at TED, and wanted to start by pointing out that there is a distinct identity here. Things said here have a power that maybe they don’t elsewhere.

The point, he says, is that, “Identity is important.”

Identity in his life

He illustrates this with a story. He grew up in a matriachal house, where the undisputed matriarch was his grandmother: “She was the end of every argument in the family.” The daughter of people who were enslaved, she was tough but loving. She would often squeeze him so tight he could barely breathe.

When he was 8 or 9, he went into the living room, and his grandmother was staring at him. After 15 or 20 minutes, she took him aside and said, “We’re going to have a talk.” She said, “I want you to know I’ve been watching you. I think you’re special. I think you can do anything you want to do. Just promise me 3 things. 1) Love your mom. 2) Always do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. 3) Never drink alcohol.”

Later, when he was 14 or 15, his siblings offered him a beer, which made him uncomfortable, and he refused. His brother stared at him and said, “I hope you’re not still hung up on that conversation. Mama tells everyone they’re special.”

The point though, is this: He is 52, and he has never had a drop of alcohol. He says that, not because he thinks it is virtuous, but because there is an extraordinary power in identity. “We can say things to the world around us that they don’t yet believe, and get them to do things that they don’t think they can do.”

The criminal justice system

Stevenson works in the criminal justice system, and ours here in the United States is in a terrible state. In 1972, there were 300,000 people incarcerated. Today, there are 2.3 million. That’s the highest rate in the world. Mass incarceration is at an extraordinary level: 50-60% of young men of color are in jail, prison, or on parole. And that is fundamentally changing how we live.

Our justice system is distorted around race and also around poverty. It’s a system that “treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” It feels like a problem that we should all want to solve, but the politics have made us feel that these are not our problems. We are extremely uncomfortable talking about race and poverty. For example, Alabama permanently disenfranchises convicted felons. As a result, 34% of African American men in Alabama have permanently lost right to vote.

And yet, there is a stunning silence.

The United States is the only country that will sentence 13-year-old children to die in prison. And yet we largely don’t talk about it. The death penalty is, of course, a fantastically important issue, but the way we frame the question is important. One way of asking is, “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?” But another way is, “Do we deserve to kill?” For every nine people on death row executed, there is one found to be innocent and released. That is a statistic that would never be allowed in any other industry.

We live in a country that embraced slavery, where after reconstruction and through Jim Crow a huge part of the population was subject to terrorism, to constant threats of being lynched and fire-bombed. But we don’t like to talk about it: “We don’t understand what it is to have done what we’ve done.” In South Africa, after apartheid ended, there was an extended process of truth and reconciliation, but here in America, neither at the end of slavery nor after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: nothing.

Stevenson gave a lecture in Germany and someone said to him, “We can never have the death penalty in Germany….There is no way with our history we could engage in the systematic execution of human beings. It would be unconscionable.” Imagine if in Germany today there was a death row, and that Jewish people were systematically more likely to be convicted. And yet here in this country, in the states of the Old South, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white, and 22 times more likely if the defendant is black.

Our future identity

Our whole identity is at risk. “If we don’t care about these things, then the positive things are implicated.. Our hopeful, forward-looking realities are always shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. Don’t always just be attentive to the bright and dazzling things but also to the dark and depressing things.”

We need to integrate the light and the dark. TED’s communities have to be engaged in this. There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we also pay attention to suffering.

This identity is a much more challenging identity.

Rosa Parks onced asked him to describe his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, which he did. She said, “Oh, that’s going to make you tired , tired, tired.” And then, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” The TED community, Stevenson exhorts, needs to be more courageous. Because who we are, and the extent to which we are human, depends on how human everyone around us is. “At the base is a basic human dignity that needs to be respected.”

Stevenson believes our country, along with others, has a fundamental problem with humanity: “In many parts of this country the opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places the opposite of poverty is justice. We will ultimately not be judged by our technology and design, we will judge the character of our society, by how they treat the poor. That is when we’ll understand truly profound things about who we are.”

Anger, and hope for the futre

In the middle of a case where a Judge ruled that a 14-year-old was fit to stand trial as an adult, Stevenson wondered, “How can a judge turn a child into an adult? The judge must have magic powers.” So, late at night and very tired, he worked on a motion to treat his 14-year-old poor black male client to be tried as a wealthy privileged 70-year-old white male. He wrote a searing critique and went to bed. Woke up and realized: He’d hit Send.

Months later, he went to court, wondering what the judge would say. On the way there he met a janitor, who found out he was a lawyer. The janitor hugged him and said he was proud of him. Then Stevenson went into court, and the judge was furious. Inside the court, people were angry. “Angry that we were talking about race, and poverty, and inequality.”

The janitor had come in and sat behind him, and at recess a deputy demanded to know what a janitor was doing there. The janitor replied, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.’”

Today, Stevenson wants to tell us, “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.

But most of all, “I’ve come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on!”

TED is known as a place where standing ovations happen. But the response of the audience was beyond overwhelming. To a one they stood, and refused to sit down. An ovation that strong has simply never happend at TED before.

Truth Telling: Civil Rights Era to JJIE.org

Our Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, JJIE.org, has its roots in part in The Race Beat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book co-written by Hank Klibanoff, former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was taken by how important it was for the press to shine a spotlight on the injustices taking place in the South before and during the Civil Rights era. Today that same kind of spotlight must be shone on the juvenile justice system, which, with its share of injustices, remains in the shadows of the collective American consciousness.

When John Fleming came our way as the prospective editor of the JJIE.org, I knew he was a kindred spirit who cares deeply about high quality, ethically sound journalism and equal justice for all. That dual commitment is illustrated in his just published essay in the Nieman Reports entitled: Compelled to Remember What Others Want to Forget.

John Fleming

Klibanoff, Fleming and a small cadre of other reporters explain what has driven them, often for no pay, to report on the long ago crimes against blacks during the Civil Rights era. Of that time, Fleming writes:

I think, believe and hope that through knowing, by accepting the truth of it all, we'd be better. In my dreaming times, I yearn for it. When I awaken, I realize that the way forward is through doing what we do best. We tell stories. We are journalists. And if we, as journalists, don't tell these forgotten stories, who will?

We all must read those Nieman Report essays and reflect on that time, but also concentrate on our time when the work begun during the Civil Rights era is nowhere near complete. We don’t want to have to wait 50 years to tell the stories that reveal the truth of our times – and thus we have the JJIE.org and our small team of writers under Fleming’s guidance, who are here to tell the stories of the kids who are often pushed to the far margins of society and to the far reaches of our collective consciousness.

Traumatic Stress Grant

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services announces a one-year grant to continue and expand grant activities funded under the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative, Treatment and Service Adaption Centers, Category II and Community Treatment and Services Centers – Category III. This grant is to increase activity and services of the nation's child welfare system, juvenile justice/dependency court systems as well as to fund child mental health systems. The goal is to create a national network of grantees known as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) that works to develop and promote effective trauma treatment, services and other resources, such as child-serving community service systems, for kids exposed to trauma. The deadline for this is June 3, 2011.

 

Grant To Support Kids Wanting to go to College

The Lumina Foundation supports programs that benefit access to and help prepare kids for college. The goal is to focus on underserved populations, such as low-income students.  Lumina’s goal is to increase the rate of those in higher education rate in the United States to 60 percent. While the mission of the Lumina foundation is for access and success, the emphasis is on attainment of a degree.

 

Grant Aims to Keep Kids Out of Trouble Through the Arts

Target is offering a grant to bring the arts into the schools.  Music, art, dance, drama and visual arts are all part of the well-rounded education for kids.  This helps expand creativity and horizons and could even help keep kids out of trouble. The grants are worth $2,000 and are accepted between March 1 and April 30, 2011.